A curious counter-intelligence operation took place in Istanbul last week, as Turkey arrested two men who confessed to spying on behalf of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The spies, whom security sources did not identify by name, are known as SS (born 1979) and ZH (born 1963). They told Turkish authorities that UAE intelligence dispatched them to Turkey to conduct espionage. According to Turkish sources, one of the men arrived in Istanbul on Oct. 2018, shortly after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to spy on his targets. The timing of his arrival is important, since UAE intelligence, which possibly played some role in the Khashoggi murder, seems to have redoubled its efforts on Turkish soil. That Turkish intelligence flagged SS immediately after his arrival shows that all affiliates of the UAE are under surveillance. What's so special about the Emirati intelligence operatives? SS is a Palestinian explosives expert employed by the UAE's intelligence services.
Turkish intelligence identified his links to Mohammed Dahlan, who, SS claimed in private encounters, was getting ready to assume the Palestinian state's presidency soon. ZH, another Palestinian operative who moved to Turkey from Bulgaria last month to help SS with the workload, is a retired intelligence major general. Turkish sources maintain that the two men worked together in the past.
Why did two Emirati spies end up in Turkey? They told Turkish police that their mission was to form a team of intelligence operatives, who worked in third countries and currently live in Turkey, to undermine Turkish interests. The UAE's anti-Turkish attitude is no secret. The small Gulf state uses the power of its petro-dollars to fuel instability across the Middle East. Emirati fingerprints were all over regional flashpoints from the bloody coup d'état in Egypt to violent clashes in Libya. At the same time, the UAE supports Israel's policy of expansionism.
Turkish intelligence had learned that the UAE, in cooperation with Israel, was going to try and destabilize Turkey, Iran and Qatar. They believe that Dahlan, who maintains contact with recently established outlets in Turkey, serves this cause by channeling funds into certain media organizations. The spy ring's mission in Turkey, Turks believe, was in service of this broader effort.
Such ambitious secret operations, due to a lack of institutional experience, tend to be uncovered. Turkish intelligence, which caught Jamal Khashoggi's killers red-handed, ended up blowing the cover of UAE intelligence operatives before they could accomplish their mission. The two men are now behind bars, awaiting sentencing.