Why Turkey's most important city invites spies, assassins and gangsters

On October 9, Habib Chaab, an Arab-Iranian dissident living in Sweden, landed in Istanbul with plans to meet a woman for a romantic rendezvous in Turkey’s largest city. Almost immediately upon arriving, Chaab was drugged and smuggled across the border into Iran where he would be trotted out two days later on state television to confess to involvement in terrorism.

The kidnapping was only the latest in a string of covert yet bold acts taken in Istanbul with echoes of the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi almost two years prior to the day of Chaab’s abduction. This plot, involving ‘honeypots’ and spies working together with gangsters, sounds more like a movie than reality.

What these events bring to light is Istanbul’s complex identity as a safe haven for political dissidents, an economic bridgehead and taken together as a target for dangerous elements from across its tumultuous region.

True to its history, Istanbul is a commercial hub linking Europe to Asia which lends to its standing as Turkey’s singular most powerful province. However, as Turkey’s political and economic stature grew over the years, it acquired a certain magnetism for spies, assassins and gangsters to operate in its shadows. 

Just as Turkey’s geography gives it a commanding role in commerce, it plays the same role for the underworld as a major drug trafficking route and money laundering destination with Istanbul being the centre of much of it. The visa-free entrance permitted to many of the countries these mafias arrive from only sweetens Istanbul’s allure for those looking to cash in on the shadow economy.  

Turkish mobsters have a long history of turf wars in the city’s neighbourhoods, but they are joined by crime syndicates, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, who bring with them their own set of feuds.

One striking example of this is the case of Rovshan Janiyev, an Azerbaijani mafioso, wanted for assorted crimes in Russia and Italy. He was accused of being behind the assassination of a Russian mafia godfather in a sniper hit in 2013 and was gunned down in the Beşiktaş district three years later to settle the score.

This saga continued through 2020 with Turkish authorities breaking up multiple attempts on the life of another Azerbaijani gangster named Nadir Salifov, who was accused of orchestrating Janiyev’s murder. In January, Istanbul police arrested members of the Russian mafia who arrived in the city to kill Salifov, and nine months later their leader, a Georgian mobster named Guram Chikaladze, was arrested again for the plot.

Salifov was killed in August further away in the southern resort town of Antalya by one of his bodyguards. The one allegedly responsible for ordering the hit was a mafia boss from Uzbekistan.

If Istanbul’s part in the global criminal underworld is a negative side effect of its economic might, its role as a safe haven for political opponents of the wider region’s autocratic regimes carries its own burden.

Home to numerous refugees, dissidents, activists, rebels and journalists, Istanbul provides relative security as a base to escape persecution and challenge their regimes at home. This status has lured hostile intelligence officers to the city with the intent to silence them once and for all.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives tainted this reputation, and it’s expected that Chaab’s abduction will carry that chill onto Istanbul’s Iranian dissidents. He is not after all the first to fall victim to Tehran’s long arm in Istanbul’s streets since the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah.

Almost a year earlier, Iranian agents operating out of the consulate in Istanbul gunned down Masoud Molavi Vardanjani after he spoke out against Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps before fleeing to Turkey. Saeed Karimian, an Iranan TV executive reviled by the regime, was murdered in a gangland-style killing in 2017, with Iran being the prime suspect.

All of these acts illustrate how Istanbul is a victim of its own strategic geography, but it is also telling of the dangerous geopolitics and regimes in its backyard.

Despite cordial relations with Ankara, there is a deep reservoir of suspicion among such regimes over Turkey's historical closeness to the West. In some cases, whether from real or imagined fears of cooperation with their dissidents, this misgiving has led these regimes to take matters into their own hands, even if it means spilling blood on the streets of Istanbul.

Russia is perhaps the notable offender in this category. In their book, “The New Nobility”, about Russian intelligence, journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write that Turkey “had long been accused of providing support to Chechen rebels, as many Chechen refugees found asylum in the country, mostly in Istanbul”.

Over the years, Russian operatives murdered numerous Chechens across Istanbul without any severe repercussions despite arrests made in some cases. Often they are quietly released back to Russia and in some cases been linked to other assassinations in Europe, as revealed by the investigative news website Bellingcat.

Iran too has managed to escape any accountability for its actions in Turkey. The Turkish authorities have not directly blamed Iran in any of the cases where its opponents had either been killed or captured, but have preferred instead to provide leaks to international media that point the finger at Tehran, as was the case with Chaab’s kidnapping.

The reason why assassins and gangsters in Istanbul are able to kill with impunity may have nothing to do with the effectiveness of Turkish security services. According to several experts, it is likely Turkey’s police and intelligence agencies are capable of acting against assassins or hired guns inside its borders, but larger considerations supersede any need to do so.

Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said that in the case of Russian assassinations, Turkey places a larger priority on cooperative relations with Russia than on making a big fuss over dead rebels Moscow views as terrorists.

“I suspect that Ankara isn’t that keen on having lots of Chechen rebels and supporters at home, so it isn’t that bothered when Moscow eliminates them,” Galeotti told Ahval via email.

Galeotti went further by pointing to Russia’s muted response to the murder of its ambassador Andrey Karlov by a Turkish police officer in 2016 as an example of mutual preference on focusing on wider goals, such as Syria, than be side-lined by unfortunate but unrelated acts.

Seth J. Frantzman, executive director at the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) in Jerusalem, said it’s likely that a similar Turkish indifference exists towards state-backed crimes on its soil by Iran and that abducting Chaab should be seen as a scandal similar to Khashoggi’s assassination by Ankara.

“A country as strong as Turkey with a sophisticated intelligence apparatus is certainly aware this is happening and either purposely ignored or facilitated it,” Frantzman told Ahval. “There is likely a quiet deal by each state not to allow dissident activities against the other.”

Turkey’s release of the footage depicting Chaab being abducted, its leaking of information on Iranian intelligence operations and its arrest of 13 suspects in the case seem to confirm that the authorities have at least some understanding of what Iran is up to.

Frantzman said that despite its growing relationship with Iran, Ankara was looking to signal that Tehran may have crossed certain lines, and Turkey may have had a third party in mind to please: the United States.

“Likely Ankara was aware that the U.S. knew this had happened,” Frantzman said. “The messaging here is about pleasing Washington and scolding Iran, but clearly had Ankara wanted to prevent the operation they could have.”