Turkey trains thousands of imams through ‘spy imam’ project

Turkey, Spy imam, MIT, Inter-Service Intelligence, ISI

Since 2023, Pakistani spy agency Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) began sending imams to “Spy Imam” project run by Turkish authorities with the target of using these covert spies against Hindu and “non-Muslim” Indians living in several western nations, including the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

According to media reports, Turkey, through its main intelligence agency Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT) the foreign ministry’s covert unit, the Intelligence and Research Directorate, known as İstihbarat ve Güvenlik İşleri Genel Müdürlüğü in Turkish and the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) are jointly running program of enlisting imams in this ‘Spy Imam’ project from Turkey as well as few other Muslim nations, including Pakistan, who were deployed to serve abroad as assets to gather information and collect intelligence in host countries.

These candidates are chosen from a pool of individuals with either dual nationality or citizenship of a foreign country. They do not necessarily need to be of Turkish origin, although most have a Turkish background. Candidates must be under 25 years of age, unmarried and proficient in the Turkish language. They undergo training in religious schools in Turkey as part of the International Seminary Program (Uluslararası Ilahiyat Programı – UIP), which is fully funded by the Turkish government.

As of the present day, 1,081 students have graduated from the program, and there are currently 462 students from 13 countries enrolled in it. The breakdown of graduates shows that the majority came from Germany (578 graduates/180 currently enrolled), followed by France (232 graduates/198 enrolled). The Netherlands ranked third (65 graduates/24 enrolled), followed by Belgium, Austria, Australia, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Japan, Canada, the UK and the US.

According to Diyanet President Erbaş, approximately 500 students who graduated from this program were recruited by the Diyanet, and many of them are currently serving abroad. This corresponds to around 50 percent of all graduates who were selected for employment at the Diyanet. Erbaş described the UIP as “a multifaceted initiative aimed at nurturing a diverse human resource pool”, indicating that candidates were recruited not only by the Diyanet but also by other government agencies.

According to counterterrorism expert and senior journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, who is living in exile since Recep Tayyip Erdogan began crackdown on independent media, candidates selected for such missions undergo careful vetting by a government interagency committee after their names are put forward by the Diyanet. They are informed that these missions are in full compliance with Turkey’s national security interests and are part of a strategy to globally defend Islam against its enemies, primarily in the West.

The program, originally targeting Europe and North America due to the large Turkish Muslim diaspora communities in these regions, has recently been expanded to include countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The last coordination meeting for this secret program took place on the sidelines of the 10th Overseas Religious Services Conference, held at the five-star Dedeman hotel in the conservative province of Konya from November 27 to 29, 2023. The conference was attended by approximately 250 embassy advisors, attachés and coordinators serving abroad as well as agents from the intelligence agency.

Bozkurt further said, in the last decade, certain Western European countries have implemented measures to reduce the presence of imams sent by Turkey, following revelations that some imams were engaged in espionage for the Turkish government. These imams were reported to have dispatched intelligence reports to headquarters in Turkey on critics in the Turkish expatriate community.

Starting in January 2024, France halted the practice of accepting Turkish imams who are on the payroll of the Turkish government. In the same month, Germany also announced its intention to replace imams sent by Turkey with domestically trained clergy. In 2018 Austria declared its plans to shut down Turkish mosques and expel at least 40 imams as part of a crackdown on political Islam, alluding to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its roots in political Islam.

However, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already initiated its plan B to circumvent such bans and restrictions. In recent years, the Diyanet has been cultivating a new generation of imams selected from abroad to serve Turkey’s national security interests.

In February 2017, German police raided the homes of four imams alleged to have spied on the opposition for the Turkish government. The police action was part of an investigation into what documents obtained by Deutsche Welle (DW) show to be a broader Turkish effort to collect information across Europe on supporters of the religious movement Ankara blames for last July’s failed coup attempt.

The raids targeted the homes of four Turkish imams affiliated with the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), Germany’s largest Islamic umbrella group with over 900 mosques tied to the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religion, or Diyanet.

Turkish spy imams with diplomatic passport

All imams of Turkish origin who are trained at the “Spy Imam” project are stationed overseas with diplomatic passports, provided by the Foreign Ministry after their selection by the interagency commission, granting Turkish imams diplomatic immunity while serving abroad.

According to Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, Turkey’s Diyanet boasts a substantial budget and employs approximately 140,000 people in Turkey and abroad, overseeing around 90,000 mosques. Its budget for 2024, at 91.8 billion Turkish Lira (TL), saw a staggering increase of 151 percent over the previous year, which stood at 36.5 billion Lira.

This budget surpasses the budgets of six ministries: Interior, Foreign Affairs, Energy and Natural Resources, Culture and Tourism, Industry, and Technology and Trade. The projected budget for the Diyanet in 2025 is TL 113.9 billion, and for 2026, TL 131.1 billion.

Diyanet closed 2023 with expenditures exceeding TL 50 billion, TL 14 billion more than its initial allocation.

Conversion rate of TL with 1 US dollar is 32.40.

Bozkut said, in the last decade, the Erdogan government has significantly expanded its spying operations abroad, with multiple government agencies actively recruiting agents, assets and informants from dual citizens or foreign nationals to gather intelligence and collect information. The objective is to gain leverage for the Erdogan government in discussions with its counterparts, influence the policies of host governments, create proxies for mobilization to achieve political objectives and suppress opposition groups in Turkish expatriate communities.

Covert operation of Pakistani ISI’s spy imams

In 2011, a Pakistani spy imam named Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar, code named “Colonel Imam”- known as a legendary spy in Pakistan who was almost a godfather for the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Umar’s leadership – was kidnapped by a faction of Pakistani Taliban aligned with Al Qaeda. Another former spy, Khalid Khawaja, who accompanied him on a trip to the Waziristan area, was brutally murdered by kidnappers early on.

According to media reports, Mullah Umar and Haqqani Network leader Siraj Haqqani, two of the best friends of Pakistani ISI, tried their best to rescue “Colonel Imam” but failed.

According to a credible source, on completion of their training at Turkish intelligence run training centers, spy imams of Pakistani ISI are deployed under numerous covers to several countries in the world while many of them also successfully enter India using passports of a third country under the garb of Tablighi Jamaat members. These spy imams meet ISI’s assets inside India with various assignments while a section of the spy imams are also involved in dealing in counterfeit India currency, which are being spread through ISI’s assets inside the country.


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