Khashoggi case sheds light on Turkey’s history of spying and surveillance
ISTANBUL — One mystery surrounding the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is the existence of purported audio recordings of his death. The recordings, reported to include voices of Saudi officials who were present as well as confirmation of a grisly scheme to dispose of the dismembered body, were reported in pro-government newspapers in Turkey but have not been officially confirmed.
Saudi Arabia says Khashoggi was killed by accident in a “fistfight” with rogue officials, although international suspicions that the killing was ordered with the knowledge of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam are mounting.
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Whether or not the recordings exist, or would ever be released if they do, the reports add to tales of intrigue and surveillance in Turkey, a country where wiretapping scandals have erupted from time to time and whose government closely monitors the internet, banning websites and targeting critics deemed a threat to national security.
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Here are prominent examples from the rich history of spying in Turkey, a key geopolitical player because of its strategic location, and the scene of many high-stakes showdowns among internal factions vying for power:
- Since an attempted coup in 2016, Turkish authorities have taken more robust steps to monitor digital and other communications. As part of a crackdown on suspected coup plotters, security forces rounded up many people accused of using ByLock, an encrypted mobile messaging application. ByLock was allegedly used by the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denies Turkish allegations that he was behind the coup attempt. Some Western governments and human rights activists said the crackdown went too far, rounding up opponents of the government who had done nothing wrong or even people with no strong political affiliation.
- In 2014, a recording of then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and top security officials talking about possible military action in Syria during the civil war there was leaked on YouTube, in what appeared to be an attempt to undermine the government ahead of key local elections. Suspicion fell on Gulen supporters alleged to hold key positions in the police, judiciary and other state institutions.
- In 2013, alleged recordings of phone conversations involving Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and has since become president, as well as Cabinet ministers and top officials were posted on the internet amid an investigation of alleged government corruption. Erodgan denounced the recordings as fabrications aimed at discrediting him and said they were part of a “coup attempt” by people loyal to Gulen, who was once allied with the prime minister but later became a critic.
- In 2011, 10 opposition politicians in Turkey quit after the release of grainy, black-and-white videos appearing to show senior members of the Nationalist Action Party, a hard-line nationalist group, in liaisons with women who were not their wives. The smear campaign came just ahead of elections won by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party. Suspicions of who was behind it ranged from disgruntled opposition party insiders, to supporters of the government, to an alleged gang of coup plotters with shadowy links to state agencies.
- In 2010, Deniz Baykal, the longtime leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, was forced to resign after the release of a video purportedly showing him in a hotel bedroom with a woman who was also a member of the Republican People’s Party. Both were married at the time. Baykal later said he was targeted in a conspiracy, although who exactly obtained the alleged sex video was never publicly clarified. Some political commentators argued that the party benefited from Baykal’s exit because it cleared the way for fresh leadership.
- In 2007, Turkey passed a law to regulate the internet, setting the stage for the banning of thousands of websites and periodic blocking of access to Twitter, YouTube and other sites. Social media came under increasing government scrutiny in 2013 after demonstrators used it to organize the Gezi Park protests that turned into a flashpoint for anti-government anger.
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