The Turkish government secretly investigated U.S. airmen deployed to Turkey, monitoring their movements and alleging they were connected to a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016, according to documents unearthed by Turkish dissidents.
But the fact that a host nation kept tabs on U.S. operations isn’t necessarily malicious, or surprising, U.S. officials said.
Turkish intelligence allegedly monitored U.S. service members working drone operations, conducting troop movements and operating against the Islamic State. Turkish prosecutors concluded that the activities were relevant to the coup investigation and ordered the documents to be incorporated into a case file regarding the coup attempt, according to Nordic Monitor.
The reports that were gathered detailed mundane logistical movements between Incirlik Air Base and a Turkish army base in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.
But Nordic Monitor alleges that the reports also contained information about more sensitive missions, including U.S. troops working on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System deployed in southern Turkey and operations involving the Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System.
“I don’t know anything about that website, or the provenance of the documents, so I’m hesitant to provide comment and give credibility to something that might be totally fake,” said Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman. “In broad terms, however, it’s generally expected a host nation would monitor our activities in their country. I think there’s nothing surprising there.”
Military Times could not independently verify the authenticity of the documents.
Nordic Monitor is a website run by the Stockholm-based Nordic Research and Monitoring Network. The website focuses on Turkish dissident-related news. Levent Kenez, who is listed as the group’s deputy executive director is also a journalist for the Stockholm Center for Freedom, a group of exiled Turks who have revealed past attempts by Erdoğan supporters to file charges against U.S. airmen.
The documents, which are available online but only in Turkish, play into anti-American sentiments that have grown in Turkey since the coup attempt, according to Nordic Monitor.
“It helps the Erdoğan government to spin conspiracy theories around the coup attempt, with partisan prosecutors doing the bidding of the government instead of searching for the facts,” Nordic Monitor reported.
Even if it’s not surprising that host nations monitor U.S. operations, it’s important for service members to understand the context of the countries they’re deployed to, and to act appropriately when working, training and off-duty.
The documents that Nordic Monitor posted listed the Air Force’s 39th Mission Support Group and 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron as specific units that were tracked by Turkish authorities.
The 39th provides civil engineering, contracting, communications and law enforcement support. The 727th operates radar equipment and provides air control communications.
The documents tracked construction work and personnel needs of both units. Helicopter flights that carried troops and equipment between Incirlik and Gaziantep were also logged.
Turkish authorities also tracked the July 2016 operations of U.S. personnel operating the Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System, according to the documents, as well as monitoring Americans overseeing a HIMARS system in southern Turkey, Nordic Monitor reported.
Since the failed coup, tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have risen dramatically. Some of that tension has trickled over to U.S. Air Force personnel at Incirlik — a pivotal way-station in the air campaign against the Islamic State.
In December, a U.S. soldier assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force–Syria was detained at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport for questioning by Turkish officials over accusations that he had links to the coup attempt in 2016, according to Stars and Stripes. The soldier was later released.
Prior to that, in August 2018, Pro-government Turkish lawyers filed charges against U.S. Air Force personnel at Incirlik based on allegations that they were connected to the 2016 coup attempt, according to court documents unearthed by the Stockholm Center for Freedom, to which Nordic Monitor is connected.
The 60-page criminal complaint specifically listed the names of enlisted and officer airmen previously stationed at Incirlik.
“Any reports that U.S. government or military personnel had any previous knowledge or involvement in a Turkey coup attempt are baseless and completely false,” Mark Mackowiak, a U.S. European Command spokesman, said at the time.
Washington and Ankara are also involved in a public spat over Turkey’s decision to acquire the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, despite the Pentagon’s warning that such a purchase would compromise the F-35 stealth fighter, in which Turkey is a partner.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.