ANKARA: The Turkish National Intelligence Organization recently carried out a targeted operation against a cell of 56 Mossad operatives believed to be operating within Turkiye.
Seven suspects, including Turkish nationals, were arrested as a result.
They reportedly confessed to their involvement.
The timing of the operation is notable, especially amid bilateral moves to improve relations between Turkiye and Israel.
Turkiye also has a new intelligence chief, Ibrahim Kalin, who previously served as the chief presidential spokesperson for years.
The Mossad operatives were being overseen by nine agents based in Israel, according to authorities.
The “ghost” cell stands accused of engaging in various espionage activities, such as spying on non-Turkish nationals on behalf of the Turkish government.
Their methods reportedly included using online routing techniques, hacking into secured networks, and tracking the movements of targeted individuals.
The majority of their targets were Palestinians and people of Arab descent residing in Turkiye.
As part of an operation supervised by an Israeli of Arab origin — Soliman Agbaria — the operatives also physically followed certain targets spotted by Mossad to photograph one-on-one meetings.
They also used fake Arabic websites to draw targets’ interest by pushing them to click on the articles. Spyware was then planted on their phones.
The Turkish intelligence agency revealed that Mossad sent its operatives of Arab origin based in Istanbul to Lebanon and Syria to gather some critical intelligence and spot locations to be then hit by armed drones.
Turkish operations revealed that Mossad agents in Turkiye and abroad conducted their communication through single-use mobile phone lines owned by fake persons based in Europe, England, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, has commented on the development, noting that the revelation followed previous instances of Mossad-linked operatives being uncovered in Turkiye.
In late May, during an already politically charged period in Turkiye due to ongoing elections, Turkish authorities exposed another Mossad spy ring.
In that Istanbul-based operation, 11 suspects were arrested for allegedly surveilling a company and individuals with commercial ties to Iran.
All of the detained individuals were foreign nationals believed to be working for the Israeli intelligence agency, and they were found to be trained in Europe by Mossad executives.
In December 2022, Turkiye exposed another group of seven operatives tasked with spying on Palestinians for Mossad to launch online defamation campaigns and threats against Palestinians.
Lindenstrauss said that Israel “will likely refrain from issuing an official statement either confirming or denying these allegations, as it has done in previous cases.”
She said that the increasing presence of Palestinians in Turkiye — both for residence and educational purposes — created a favorable environment for both Israel and its adversaries to recruit operatives and conduct spying operations targeting individuals of various nationalities.
This, she believes, is the primary reason behind the surge in revelations of this nature.
Relations between Turkiye and Israel have experienced periods of tension in recent years. However, last year marked a significant development as Israel appointed an ambassador to Turkiye for the first time in four years.
Irit Lillian currently serves as the ambassador, representing Israeli efforts to mend strained ties between the two countries.
In return, Sakir Ozkan Torunlar was appointed as Turkiye’s ambassador to Israel.
Turkiye’s new Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, who previously headed the MIT for years, is known as being one of the transforming forces of Turkish intelligence, putting greater emphasis on preemptive intelligence and operations.
He was also the architect behind political rapprochement with Israel through secret diplomacy.
This latest operation is not believed to have harmed the rapprochement process between the two countries.
Lindenstrauss added: “It is not a new development and hence should not have a major effect, and yet the timing of the very detailed public revelation seems odd, if indeed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting is set to take place this month.”
Netanyahu and Erdogan are scheduled to hold talks in Ankara aimed at addressing a range of issues, including the potential export of natural gas from a field off Gaza to Europe via Turkiye.
Netanyahu, along with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, sent congratulations to Erdogan for his victory in the presidential elections in May, while underscoring the importance of further developing bilateral ties between Israel and Turkiye.
According to Dr. Nimrod Goren, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, recent arrests made by Turkiye are unlikely to leave a lasting impact on bilateral ties.
He told Arab News: “If those that Turkiye arrested are not Israelis, and if it is not a case of Israel spying on Turkiye, then such instances have already happened recently.”
Goren said that reports emerged in late 2022 and May 2023 about Turkiye uncovering alleged Israeli spy networks targeting Iranian and Palestinian interests. These instances had coincided with a warming in Israel-Turkiye relations.
He also highlighted Turkiye’s evident interest in sustaining cooperation with Israel, even with Netanyahu serving as prime minister.
Commenting on reports of a potential meeting between Netanyahu and Erdogan later this month, Goren said the Israeli-Palestinian escalation posed a more substantial threat to Israel-Turkiye relations than the arrests of spies.