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Building a Spy Case in Istanbul

Research for an upcoming sequel thriller...

ISTANBUL, Turkey (May 19-31, 2011) -- Espionage is no stranger to Istanbul, a city that has served as the capital of great civilizations, from the Romans to the Ottomans, and a place that found itself in the midst of immense conflict and tragedy, from World War I to the Greco-Turkish Wars, to the Cold War, and to the current global fight against terrorism. Turkey’s membership in NATO and its strategic location on the Black Sea and Mediterranean contibuted to its importance during the Cold War, a conflict that inducted Istanbul into an elite club of top espionage cities, joining Berlin, Moscow, London, and Paris, among others. Consequently, this bustling waterfront metropolis of 13 million turned into an ideal setting for spy movies, like the James Bond hits From Russia with Love (1963) and The World is Not Enough (1999), the acclaimed Israeli film Walk on Water (2004), and the recent thriller The International (2009). Turkey’s largest city also became a chosen venue for countless espionage novels, such as Forrest Devoe Jr.’s Into the Volcano, Claire Berlinski’s Lion Eyes, and John Le Carré’s classic tale Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been adapted for a movie set for release in November 2011. With such a rich history of cloak-and-dagger gamesmanship, it made perfect sense for me, as a spy novelist, to head to Istanbul to hunt for scenes for my upcoming spy thriller, Letter from Istanbul (Avendia Publishing), the third installment in my Jonathan Brooks series due out in 2013 (The first in the series is Tranquility Denied and the second, due out in early 2012, is The Serpent's Game. For two months prior to arriving here, I thoroughly researched the city's long history of espionage and conflict, so I already knew which places were most important to see firsthand.

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As I walk the cobbled streets and shadowy alleyways of lower Taksim and Tünel, I already envision my fictional characters immersed in the same environment, going about their tasks as the convoluted plot unfolds. But it is not just the historical buildings, or the quaint streets, or the cafés that give this gritty, mystical city the ideal credentials for an espionage setting, it’s the people, especially their attitudes and contradictions as they navigate the cultural intersection of East and West.

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The Games Spies Play

It is also no coincidence that I selected my hotel in Taksim adjacent to the British Consulate, a diplomatic post targetted in 2003 by an Al Qaeda truck bomb that killed dozens, including the UK’s top diplomat. His top-floor room overlooks the fortress- like compound that serves not only as a hub of consular activities but also functions as an important base of operations for a handful of MI-6 intelligence agents and counter- terrorism officials. Their responsibilities, not unlike those of many of their foreign counterparts stationed in Istanbul, are varied, among them: surveying ships crossing the Bosphorus; keeping tabs on Iranian, Syrian, Russian and Ukranian diplomats and operatives; conducting joint missions with Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MIT) agents and other local authorities; and tracking couriers and middlemen working for Middle East terror groups and arms traders.

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The Cold War as we know it is over, but what emerged in its place is an unstable morass of shifting alliances, caused in part by the influence of emerging powers and the perceived relative decline of traditional powers, all vying for limited natural resources, technological leadership, and greater wealth using a variety of overt and clandestine means. Whether this is a Second Cold War or something less sinister, Istanbul is not about to lose its spot as a center of espionage activity. Today, dozens of intelligence and law enforcement agencies deploy people and assets to scour this age-old city for the secrets it harbors.

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Most recently, Turkey’s southern neighbor Syria launched a violent crackdown on protestors, which has heightened the need to track Syrian agents and diplomats operating in Istanbul, some of whom have been tasked with identifying and disrupting dissident networks operating from Turkey. Istanbul is also buzzing with Iranian and Israeli operatives, particularly after the Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet are believed to have orchestrated the “defection” of an Iranian general earlier this year. General Ali Reza Asgari, formerly of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, transited through Istanbul from Damascus after apparently being lured by Mossad agents in cahoots with the CIA. Asgari never made it to his hotel, and there are conflicting accounts of what happened next, except that Turkish authorities were unhappy to see this happen on their soil. For Israel, this comes not long after several other incidents have harmed relations with Turkey, including the killing of protestors by Israeli troops aboard a Turkish vessel and the unauthorized use of Turkish airspace by Israeli jets in a mission that destroyed a nuclear facility in neighboring Syria.

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Turkish Eyes

Any visitor to Istanbul will readily see the city’s heavy police presence. One or two armored vehicles remain strategically parked in each neighbor- hood, and paramilitary forces wait in local police stations and windowless vans for orders to swing into action. There are police, cameras and all kinds of surveillance all over the city,” observed Frieden as he surveyed sites for his fictional plot. But there is so much more unseen. Indeed, the local security apparatus has a growing clandestine presence, driven by the Turkish intelligence services, the MIT. The country’s heightened scrutiny of foreign intelligence activities on its territory, and particularly in its most populous city, coincides with MIT’s restructuring under the new leadership of Hakan Fidan, a political expert with substantial foreign experience.

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With the close support of newly reelected Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan, MIT is evolving into a more dynamic and internationally-focused spy agency. Its younger recruits have better language skills, technical proficiency, and specialized knowledge that are essential to properly transform what is collected into actionable intelligence. This growing capability comes after some recent investments in tracking technology. For example, improvements include more effective cell phone surveillance equipment and data analysis is helping MIT keep better tabs on targetted individuals. Turkish banks have also implemented new data sharing arrangements to help track suspicious funds transfers. Another area of improvement is maritime surveillance. In the last three years, Turkish authorities have installed advanced software, radar and communications systems to better monitor cargo ships in Turkish waters, including this strategic waterway that links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. Cargo ship security is a key aspect of my novel’s plot, and some of the story’s most important scenes take place here.

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Some more pictures of this gritty, mystical city...

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Some pictures of the author photo shoot by acclaimed Istanbul photographer Efe Babacan
(for novels promotions, two upcoming magazine articles, various book conference marketing materials and possibly one book cover)

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Posted by AC Frieden 16:43 Archived in Turkey

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