Ariane Bonzon • İsmail Hakkı Musa, a well-informed Turkish ambassador

Ismail Hakki Musa Turkish ambassador

Before taking up his duties at the Turkish embassy in 2016, İsmail Hakkı Musa was deputy director of MIT (the Turkish secret service) since 2012.

A late but necessary translation….


Français | English

Portait – Interview by Ariane Bonzon – March 29 2018, Slate.

His Excellency İsmail Hakkı Musa had every reason to be satisfied with this visit, one for which he had been one of the main architects: a top level European Chief of State, Emmanuel Macron, finally agreed to meet with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

At a time when relations between Ankara and Berlin were at their lowest point, Paris had said yes. Postponed a first time by l’Elysée, the visit was set in extremis on January 5 2018.

Embarrassing Question

We’ve succeeded”, İsmail Hakkı Musa could tell himself while listening to the French and Turkish presidents holding a joint press conference. That is, until a spoilsport of a journalist stood up and asked Erdoğan if he regretted furnished “so many weapons, so much ammunition to Islamist fighters” in Syria, then asked him about hidden details of the secret operation led by the National Organization of Turkish Information (MIT: “Yes or no,” questioned Laurent Richard, “did you, as we were told through information reaching us, had some ISIS members liberated in exchange for Turkish personnel of the consulate in Mossul, including some European nationals?”

Sitting in the front row next to ministers and advisors flown in from Ankara, İsmail Hakkı Musa recognizes the journalist: he received him a few weeks earlier for an interview in his office – which offers one of the finest views on the Eiffel Tower.

This assistant, Hakan Fidan’s trusted aid, the one charged with the successful completion of this secret operation is none other than İsmail Hakkı Musa.

While a few meters away, Emmanuel Macron and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan answer the journalist, İsmail Hakkı Musa leans toward his neighbour on the right: Hakan Fidan, MIT’s Number 1. It is under his authority that these weapons were sent in 2014, and he is the one who, a few months later, entrusted his assistant with the task of doing everything possible to recover, safe and sound, the forty or so Turkish hostages held by the Islamist State organization in Mossul.

This assistant, Hakan Fidan’s trusted aid, the one charged with the successful completion of this secret operation is none other than İsmail Hakkı Musa, ex Number 2 man of the MIT, from 2012 to 2016 and Turkish ambassador to France for the past year and a half.

Outside the caste

İsmail Hakkı Musa is not one of the caste of “Mon cher” (in French) the nickname President Erdoğan sticks on Europeanized and Kemalist diplomats that long dominated Turkish Foreign Affairs.

The Musa family is from the very conservative region of Trabzon where İsmail Hakkı was born in 1960. “The Turks of Trabzon are reputed to the Belgians of Turkey: they have a rather peculiar sense of humor, are very warmhearted and smiling, but extremely patriotic” explains Kayhan Karaca, NTV’s Turkish correspondent to the European institutions in Strasbourg. “A small businessman in the construction business”, his father want to move closer to Istanbul and quickly settles his family in Adapazarı, in the province of Sakarya.

In 1979, when the younger Musa arrives in France with the equivalent of a BA, he does not speak a single word of French; his first year is very difficult. With a degree in economic sciences from Strasburg, the Turkish student opts for a licence in political economy and registers in the Faculty of Law and economic sciences in Nacy. One of his student companions of the time, the Frano-Turkish Murat Erpuyan, remembers “he was young, ambitious and determined”.

“The private sector didn’t attract me and my contacts with the consular services led to a leaning toward diplomacy. In a way, my vocation was born in Frence,” Musa says.

After a few years in Ankara, then in Algiers, İsmail Hakkı Musa lands in Lyon from 1994 to 1997, as vice-consult then Turkish consul – a post he will occupy again ten years later from 2007  to 2009.

Targeted by the putsch attempt

Undeniably, the ambassador knows France and the French well. He presents his credentials to François Hollande in November 2016. The photo of this ceremony is one of the three the ambassador has chosen to hang behind his desk, next to a photo of the Turkish President with a gold-lettered inscription.

Not as obvious, and yet a tutelary figure, a third image shows a man with a full beard,  in antique garb. “He is one of the high leaders of the Special Organization”, İsmail Hakkı Musa tells me. The Turkish Information services (MIT) have sometimes considered themselves a continuity of this paramilitary group involved in the 1915 Armenian genocide.

“I was among those whose life was threatened on the that night of July 15 2016”
İsmail Hakkı Musa

The new ambassador takes up his duties in Paris four months after the attempted military coup of July 2016, of which he has a vivid memory. I was among those whose life was threatened on the that night of July 15 2016″ he says. “I had reintegrated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tend ays earlier, but my family and I still resided in the MIT’s headquarters. This is where we were when the putschists attacked the main portal and shot at people. They wanted to kidnap Hakan Fidan.”

The authors of this attempted putsch? “No more than 2% of the armed forces. Gulenists from FETÖ (acronym for the purported terrorist organization of those faithful to Imam Gülen, allied to the power until 2012) had infiltrated military security, this is how they could attempt the coup. The police information cell was infested up to the teeth. However, they had not penetrated the MIT and if we were able to hold on to the end, it’s precisely because we had asked ourselves many questions. But that coup attempt could not have happened without outside help,” İsmail Hakkı Musa continues.

Several unanswered questions remain concerning this failed putsch. One thing is certain: other groups that Gulenists in the armed forces were involved, to a greater or lesser extent, at one point or another. The big question remains whether they were unable to impose their views, whether they realized they could not achieve their aim, or if they were dissuaded from participating.

Musa dismisses the question. “The implication of others groups is a question of analysis. Ultimately, FETÖ made  up the hard core”. What then of the one accused of being the leader of the putschists, General Akın Öztürk, Army Chief  of Staff between 2013 and 2015, and an ex-member of the National Security Council – and clearly not a Gulenist?

As a matter of fact, was it not at his side that İsmail Hakkı Musa, while Numero 2 at MIT, conducted in early 2014, the delicate transfer of the Ottoman tomb of Suleyman Shah, threatened by ISIS in Syria?

“Indeed, Akın Öztürk was not educated with the network. He is not a Gulenist by conviction. But the Gulenists needed a hight ranking officer the Colonels respected, in order to give their attempt legitimacy, and so Akın Öztürk played that role,” justifies İsmail Hakkı Musa.

Hunt on Gulenists

The shockwave caused by the attempted coup did not spare the Turkish Embassy in Paris. As revealed by Slate.fr, Hakkı Akil, then ambassador in the summer of 2016, provided to the General Secretary at Quai d’Orsay the names of some thirty French associations in the areas of education, women’s acticities or businesses, gravitating in the galaxy of Imam Fethullah Gülen exiled in the United States.

This list was prepared by one of the advisors at the embassy. The ink was hardly dry when he was recalled to Ankara for belonging to the network the list of which he had just made an inventory in France. Five other colleagues were also fired from the diplomatic functions – including the military attaché.

“I gave strict instructions: let everyone do his job, the teacher and the religious leader (detached to France by Ankara) must limit themselves to Republican legality”
İsmail Hakkı Musa.

In 2017, the German secret services accused Turkish imams detached by Ankara’s Ministry for Religious Affairs of collecting information on the faithful who were followers of imam Gülen in Germany. The files could then be used by Turkish courts – which is totally contrary to normal diplomatic relations. The affair cause an uproar: six imams were sent back to Turkey.

A similar system of spying was set up and denounced in Belgium, in Holland and in Switzerland. According to our information, the same also held true for France, via the local branch of Diyanet (the Presidency for Religious Affairs, connected to the Prime Minister).

The new ambassador does not wish to dwell on the topic: “I gave strict instructions: let everyone do his job, the teacher and the religious leader (detached to France by Ankara) must limit themselves to Republican legality”

This  in itself could confirm that such a system was in place prior to these instructions…

July 2017, the prayer for the dead has just been pronounced in the great hall of the ambassador’s residence. Before his  compatriots, invited to commemorate the 300 victims of the attempted putsch, İsmail Hakkı Musa assails once again “this sectarian movement turned terrorist (…) this enterprise with global ambitions…” before dropping a strange message to this enemy lurking in the shadows – even in France – that of the Gulenist community: “You have to know we are not afraid of you”, he says.

The embarrassing Ömer Güney affair

A second red-hot dossier awaited the new ambassador on his arrival in Paris at the end of 2016: that of Ömer Güney’s trial, the presumed author of the assassination, three years earlier, of three Kurdish activists, – including Sakine Cansız one of the PKK founding members – at 147 rue Lafayette, in the Capital’s tenth arrondissement.

This triple extrajudicial execution carries the signature of the Turkish services (MIT). The definitive indictment of Paris’ antiterrorist office demanded Ömer Güney’s trial in Criminal Court for assassinations related to a terrorist undertaking, in which MIT was involved. Moroever, the man was implicated in an escape attempt: a person with whom the presumed assassin spoke in prison – their conversation was recorded – admitted they used the code name “ma mère” (my mother) when talking about the Turkish secret services and that an escape plan was given to him by Ömer Güney for transmittal to the MIT.

Two MIT leaders in the hands of the PKK in Iraki territory recently made precise declarations concerning the MIT’s role in these assassinations, so the ambassador is really saying any old thing.”
Antoine Comte, lawyer for the families of the three assassinated Kurdish activists

The year 2013,  the year of the triple assassination, is precisely the year İsmail Hakkı Musa takes up his duties as Number 2 at MIT. Questioned, he repeats the official narrative word for word:  a “possible settling of scores within the PKK… Plus, so many people were against the peace process initiated with the Kurds, the Gulenists. Being front and center among them.”

These words anger the families’ lawyer, Antoine Comte: “There has been no storage of political assassinations of foreigners on French soil, and they are always followed by the same denials and impunity! But this time, as a first, an indictment implicates a State’s secret services. Two MIT leaders in the hands of the PKK in Iraki territory recently made specific declarations concerning the MIT’s role in these assassinations, so the ambassador is really saying any old thing!”

The trial that could have brought us closer to the truth did not occur: Ömer Güney died from the sequels of a grave illness in the month preceding the first hearing. This extinguished the public  action – removing one thorn from İsmail Hakkı Musa’s foot. Comte criticizes “French authorities (under the presidency of François Hollande) who allow the designation as ambassador of a leader of services against whom crimes are imputed.”

Tensions grow around the PKK

On October 27 2017, the national holiday is in full swing in the ambassador’s residence. Gathered round the buffet table are Turkish or Franco-Turkish people – businessmen, journalists and artists – and a few French or foreign diplomats. In concluding his speech, İsmail Hakkı Musa raises his voice: “under the pretext of fighting one terrorist organization, France should not legitimize another one.”

The message is for the members of the international coalition led by the United States, and of which France is a member, that has allied itself with the Kurdish militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD, close to the PKK) in order to fight ISIS in Syria.

“Over the past one or two years, we have…handed over more than 200 members of ISIS to our French friends. We expect as strong a cooperation in the fight against PKK.”
İsmail Hakkı Musa

As witnessed in the Turkish military offensive on Afrin, in early 2018, Ankara’s objective is the maximal reduction of the PYD-PKK’s territorial holdings in Northern Syria – and undermining the relays these Kurdish autnomist parties may have in the European Kurdish diasporas.

İsmail Hakkı Musa summarizes: “Over the past one or two years, we have… handed over more than 200 members of ISIS to our French friends. We expect as strong a cooperation in the fight against PKK.”

On March 15 2018, Le Monde revealed nonetheless that European courts of justice were concerned about “roving commandos from the powerful Turkish secret services” were charged with liquidating certain Kurdish PKK cadres on our continent.

The author of the article, Jacque Follorou, goes so far as to report that a meeting took place in Paris last year between several Turkish agents, including a former policeman and a sharpshooter. He evokes “suspicions concerning a coordination role that Belgium attributes to a high level member of Turkish diplomacy in Paris” – without going so far as naming him.

“İsmail Hakkı Musa is neither from the army, nor from the police: he is a pure civilian and his nomination is peculiar. He is not a typical MIT type”, says journalist Kayhan Karaca.

What is certain is that İsmail Hakkı Musa makes no secret of his affection at MIT nor of the primary importance he gives to information gathering : “A great country must have an efficient information system, both internally and abroad, otherwise it moves forward in darkness. Without a good information service, a State can collapse and its foreign policy have no efficiency whatsoever.”

Close to his Fellow Citizens

A pro-active diplomate, İsmail Hakkı Musa does not neglect any event in France related near or far to Turkey. He is seen inaugurating an exhibition of photos at the Anatolian Cultural Center in Paris, glass of alcohol in hand while conversing with two young veiled women. His residence is open to his fellow citizens, be they Turkish or Franco-Turkish, conservative and religious – the same ones who were long ignored by a number of his predecessors.

“He’s very keen on meeting  young French people of Turkish origin who are active in French political parties”,says one of them who is a member of En marche. “Ambassador Musa relies on a series of cultural and religious associations in order to cement the common interests of the Turkish community in France. Some of these associations are subsidized and financed by Ankara”, explains journalist Kayhan Karaca.

We all stood side by side,(…) as if there wasn’t a silent war between us, with violent repercussions all the way to France.”
A participant at the funeral of a Turkish journalist in Paris

However, İsmail Hakkı Musa, who is no admirer of the literary styles of Aslı Erdoğan and Orhan Pamuk – two Turkish writers denouncing Erdoğan’s drift to disctatorship – seems to have barred from the embassy’s lists several left-leaning intellectual and artists living in Paris and express criticisms.

Which does not exclude moments of apparent reconciliation. Thus, at the recent funeral of a Turkish journalist in Paris: “It was crazy, says one of the participants at the ceremony. “Almost all of the diverse Turkish society was there, with Kurds – not PKK of course, ex-journalists of Zaman (the former press organ for the Gulenist network), members of the Nationalist Action Party, social-democrats… We all stood side by side,(…) as if there wasn’t a silent war between us, with violent repercussions all the way to France.”

A regular in TV studios

İsmail Hakkı Musa spares no efforts either when it comes to the media: he is without a doubt the foreign ambassador most often seen on television.

As a lawyer educated in France (he defended his thesis in 2008 in Nancy), he must defend the end of the rule of law in Turkey, in the name of the fight against terrorism – which he does without fail, at least in public. He barely allows himself a slight reservation when Erdoğan’s words cause him embarrassment: “I think we need to nuance our President’s declarations,” he allowed himself to say one day on France 24.

When he doesn’t send one of his advisors, he attends in person one or other of the innumerable debates on Turkey, in order to correct a conference speaker too distant from  or critical of the official line.

“There is no supersized ego. He’s an honest and reasonable man, who knows how to listen. His job isn’t easy with all the Armenian, Kurd lobbies in France, and now with Fetö”, says the ultra secular and Kemalist Demir Onger, a Frenco-Turkish cardiologist who has resided for fifty years in Paris.

Neither the “Kurdish dossier” nor the “Gulenist dossier” will make the Turkish ambassador forget the “Armenian dossier”. İsmail Hakkı Musa likes to offer his visitors a brief essay, Divergences turco-arméniennes (éditions du Panthéon, 2017) by Yves Bénard, which denounces, not the genocide committed by the Turks against the Armenians in 1915 – Turkish authorities still refuse to acknowledge its existence – but, on the contrary the “extermination plan” purportedly orchestrated by “Armenian militias”.

Two hats

His double identity is undoubtedly what defines him best – as is the case with the image of his office in which the diplomat is never far from the MIT leader. The very official photo of his “enthronement” by President Hollande stands, we remind the reader, next to an archival photo of the less-than-recommendable Special Organization; one of his current reading selections, Situation de la France by Catholic philosopher Pierre Manent sits cheek by jowl with an agenda stamped with the logo of the DGSE (French services) the former director of the French services Bernard Bajolet is claimed to have offered him.

These two hats proved more than useful when he had to organize Erdoğan’s visit to Paris in early January. The Turkish President’s visit to France took place under the combined auspices of Foreign Affairs and Secret Services. “It is most unusual to see directors of secret services playing such an overt role”,says former ambassador Michel Duclos who now acts as special advisor on geopolitics at the Montaigne Institute.

“Since 2014 and the introduction of Bernard Cazeneuve’s protocol against ISIS terrorism, our cooperation with France has been extensive and our bilateral relations have been enriched with a strategic dimension, which implies that we cooperate in defense industries,”the ambassador summarizes.

“There is a principle stating that all that is not legal is not necessarily illegitimate”.
İsmail Hakkı Musa

İsmail Hakkı Musa also serves as a relay between Ankara and the DGSE’s new director, Bernard Emié. The latter was ambassador to Turkey when Hakan Fidan, the current director of its services, was responsible for sensitive dossiers – notably that of nuclear power. The two heavyweights understand one another well: “Emié is among the few Frenchmen who know Turkey very well. To which is added a political movement  that should make the difference with the preceding sequence,” according to İsmail Hakkı Musa.

How dos he see his double affiliation? Who wins out in his eyes: the diplomat or the man from the services? Has he set himself some red line he would refuse to cross, in the name of certain principles?

“First and foremost, I am devoted to the Turkish nation”,he answers without hesitation. Then, following a short pause: “There is a principle stating that all that is not legal is not necessarily illegitimate. And that principle finds its source in a French invention, that of Reason of State being superior to all other. This is a principle to which I subscribe.” One could hardly be any clearer.

(Other than those pronounced in public, the ambassador has re-read and confirmed the words attributed to him in this article.)

Ariane Bonzon


Headline image : İsmail Hakkı Musa on TV5 Monde’s set, in March 2017 | Screenshot via YouTube

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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