Founded in 1996 by George Friedman, Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor provides global analysis of economic, foreign policy, and security issues, and has also raised suspicions over its cooperation with intelligence units and spies in a number of countries.
On July 15, when Turkey faced a coup attempt that claimed 237 lives, Stratfor’s tweets in favor of the coup traitors and against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drew widespread criticism.
The number of Stratfor tweets the night of the thwarted coup was prodigious.
When Erdogan's airplane was returning to Istanbul from the coastal resort of Marmaris, where the president had been vacationing, Stratfor tweeted three times about its flight path even as coup-plotters were seeking Erdogan’s location for possible assassination.
In the first tweet, Stratfor showed how Erdogan's jet was over the Sea of Marmara. In the second, Stratfor reported that Erdogan's airplane had been tracked approaching Istanbul and would likely land.
In the third, Stratfor wrote that it was confirmed that Erdogan's airplane had landed in Istanbul, including a satellite image showing the location of Ataturk Airport.
Contacted by Anadolu Agency, Stratfor officials were evasive when asked how they could pinpoint the exact location of the airplane and why they shared such sensitive information on a social media platform the night of the coup.
The same night Stratfor also touted a false report by U.S.-based news channel MSNBC saying that Erdogan was seeking asylum in Germany, attracting more controversy.
In addition to targeting Erdogan the night of the coup, the next day again on Twitter it shared a profile of Erdogan with inaccurate information.
In the profile, touted as “What you need to know about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Stratfor reported that Erdogan had been "arrested by the military in 1999, and served four months in prison for trying to incite violence and religious or racist hatred."
The profile also claimed that Erdogan “has been working to reduce the military’s power since the [the] mid-2000s," sowing the idea that he had a longstanding personal enmity for the army. This was apparently meant to convince Stratfor’s Twitter followers that the coup-plotters had a valid reason for attempting a coup.
After the tweet attracted a backlash, Stratfor deleted it, but not before it had swayed the minds of some of the public.
Not the first time
Stratfor posting such tweets effectively making a country's elected leader into a target during a coup attempt was perhaps not surprising in the context of earlier incidents.
For instance, an email released in 2012 by WikiLeaks written by Stratfor Vice President Fred Burton about late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also came under fire.
In the email, Burton wrote, “Back in the day, we would have been planning his (and Chavez's) helicopter 'accident',” hinting at a covert assassination.
A 2012 Atlantic magazine profile of the group said, “Stratfor is not the shadow-CIA that WikiLeaks seems to believe it is,” adding, “A friend who works in intelligence once joked that Stratfor is just The Economist [magazine] a week later and several hundred times more expensive.”
Stratfor has hundreds or perhaps thousands of subscribers all around the world, including the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security and Pentagon, along with defense giants and warplane manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon.
When such outlets as CNN, Bloomberg, the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times publish stories with information attributed "to credible sources," often they are referring to Stratfor.
The credibility of Stratfor intelligence and its reasons for sharing this information have both attracted suspicion.
WikiLeaks peeks behind the curtain
The internal processes of Stratfor were laid bare by WikiLeaks in 2012 when it posted millions of pieces of Stratfor internal correspondence online.
The WikiLeaks posts showed that rather than being based on reliable sources, Stratfor analyses come from intelligence gathering by its "spies" all around the world.
According to one of the leaked documents, Stratfor had paid a person with connections to the Lebanese army $6,000 a month for Middle East analyses.
It is unknown if Stratfor used similarly unsound methods in other countries.
Founded by a famous political analyst in 1996, Stratfor is based in the city of Austin, the capital of the U.S. state of Texas.
It touts itself as a geopolitical intelligence firm which operates on economic, foreign policy, and security issues and also provides analyses of more than 175 countries.
Stratfor provides online subscriptions and custom consulting services – the Atlantic said, “As of 2001, a Stratfor subscription could cost up to $40,000 per year” – but its selling its analyses distinguishes it from a true think-tank, which finances itself through donations and sponsorships.
The WikiLeaks documents revealed that Stratfor analyses, which it claims are based on reliable sources, were written by its spies who have an advanced knowledge of English and several other languages.
Stratfor has many followers on social media who read its geopolitical analyses of regions important for U.S. foreign policy.
George Friedman is Stratfor’s founder and former political analyst. He is known for his neo-conservative, anti-Islamist, and pro-Israel perspective.
Born in Hungary to Jewish parents, Friedman came to the U.S at a very early age. As an adult, he became an expert on strategic warfare and military technology.
Friedman resigned in 2015 when current CEO David Sikora joined the company. Prior to joining Stratfor, Sikora was the founder and CEO of Digby, where he built mobile and application storefronts.
A father of three daughters, Sikora starts work at 8 am every day and works until 6 pm local time.
While Sikora has no background in intelligence and military technology, Stratfor reportedly brought him on to provide more digital intelligence expertise.
The intelligence background of Stratfor’s other senior staff is also interesting.
Take, for instance, Jon Sather, who was a member of a team which conducted CIA operations for 25 years. He was recruited by Stratfor in November 2015 to be its head of intelligence.
Stratfor's Vice President of Custom Intelligence Services Bret Boyd has raised eyebrows for his background in the U.S. Special Forces Command.
As specialist on intelligence operations, developing countries, and army-state relations, Boyd took part in operations in Iraq.
Stratfor’s Editor-in-Chief David Judson is also notable for his eight years of experience in Turkey.
Before joining Stratfor, Judson worked for the Istanbul-based Dogan Media Group, first as managing editor of Turkish-language daily Referans and later as editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, the company’s English paper.
Scott Stewart, Stratfor’s terrorism analyst and security issues supervisor, was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years before joining Stratfor. Among his areas of expertise are terrorist tactics and organizations, terrorism trends, and protective intelligence.
The number of former CIA staffers working for Stratfor is unknown, but indicators that Stratfor has close ties with a number of intelligence units in various countries have raised question marks.
The night of the failed coup, the American global intelligence company publicly shared the Turkish president’s locations three times.
Birol Akgun, a professor from Ankara’s Yildirim Beyazit University, told Anadolu Agency, “Stratfor seems transparent, but no one knows who’s behind the agency. Sharing information on that night, hour by hour, shows that the company’s shadow CIA-affiliated office was really aware of preparations for the coup plot.”
He added, “The company played a role in guiding coup-plotters through open lines at a time when information about Erdogan’s flight was unknown to even intelligence offices in Turkey, which shows that the probable objective of this was the coup’s success.”
Akgun argued that such institutions can’t be neutral and also running a business to disseminate news to the world. “Stratfor is known as CIA’s backyard or its unofficial shadow affiliate,” he said.
Pointing to the contrast between its supposed independence and its unofficial ties to deep U.S. government structures, he said, “It is clear that Stratfor’s information doesn’t come from the company itself but from U.S. intelligence services.”
He continued, “But after 2.00 a.m. [2300GMT] on the coup night, news about the failed coup was circulating. The staff at the company must have been related to coup-plotters in Turkey from the start or somehow they have contacts with U.S. intelligence, [and were] collecting intelligence info. This is not news-gathering, it is directing. By giving the location of the president’s flight they were trying to give directions to coup planes.”
He pointed out that if the U.S. president had been in a similar situation, there is no way his or her location would have been revealed by Stratfor or another institution, saying, “Even if they were aware, they would not dare share the location of the president.”
In light of Stratfor’s involvement buying Lebanon army information for $6,000 a month, according to WikiLeaks, Akgun said, “This makes us consider the possibility of Stratfor and the coup-plotters exchanging news. The monetary source is hidden in such companies.”
He added, “These semi-intelligence companies expend all kind of monetary resources to collect the information, they use people. In Turkey they might be linked to those who are fighting President Erdogan.”
Ahmet Uysal, a professor at Istanbul Marmara University’s Institute Research of Middle East and Islamic Countries, said about Stratfor’s tweets, “This is not sharing news, it is sort of informing against the president. It seems they almost made coup-plotters arrest the president.”
“There is a definite purpose here,” he added, “If it were the U.S. president, no information would be shared. The [press] blackout came later. No one could dare tell this. The Western media would consider sharing this [information] as betrayal. Unfortunately when it is Turkey, it is painted as press freedom.”
Citing former CIA Vice Chair Graham Fuller’s public support for coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, Uysal said, “This shows the coup plot was attempted by a lobby or an intelligence team, in which the U.S. might not be involved. The same thing happened in Egypt. If it had succeeded they would have accepted it as a fair accompli, but when it fails they say, ‘We weren’t aware of it.’ It is impossible for Western intelligence not to be aware of it.”