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Is Fethullah Gülen behind Turkey's coup?

Author(s): Dani Rodrik

From Dani Rodrik's blog:

If what Erdogan said on TV today is correct, there is no longer much doubt about the answer to this question. According to Erdogan, the officers who detained the chief of general staff, Hulusi Akar, on July 15 offered to put Akar in contact with Gulen. As of this writing, Akar has not made any statements confirming this. (See update on this at the end of this entry.) But if he does, it will be manifest that responsibility for the coup attempt reaches all the way to Pennsylvania. It will be very difficult for the U.S not to extradite Gulen, subject, of course, to (some huge) fair trial concerns back in Turkey.

What evidence, other than Erdogan’s word, is there that Gulen is behind the coup attempt?  

Years ago when my wife Pinar Dogan and I first began to investigate the bogus documents in the Sledgehammer case, we were stuck by how quick many observers were at assigning blame: “it’s the Gulenists’ work of course,” they would say, “this is the kind of thing they do.” We did not know much about the Gulen movement at the time. So we hesitated, and in our early writings we listed Gulenist involvement as only one of the possibilities.

Over time, we learned a lot. The evidence that Gulenists were heavily involved in – and quite likely stage managed – Sledgehammer and many other similar sham trials accumulated. By now it should be clear to any objective observer that the Gulen movement goes much beyond the schools, charities, and inter-faith activities with which it presents itself to the world: it also has a dark underbelly engaged in covert activities such as evidence fabrication, wiretapping, disinformation, blackmail, and judicial manipulation.

In late 2013 the fight between Erdogan and the Gulen movement became public. Ever since, the AKP has purged suspected Gulenists from many state institutions and closed down their largest media and business operations. There was one state institution which had remained immune from these purges: the army. Perhaps because the top brass were reluctant to relive a trauma similar to the Ergenekon-Sledgehammer, none of the suspected Gulenists in the military had been touched.

But that was about to change. In the run-up to the July 15 coup attempt, a few officers were detained for allegedly fabricating evidence in the infamous Izmir espionage case. There were indications that a much larger sweep was being readied. And rumors were flying that in August’s Supreme Military Council meeting a large number of Gulenists would be finally be discharged.

Traditionally, Turkish coups are produced by Kemalist secularists. But hardline secularists have lost their control of the military thanks to the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials during 2008-2011, which led to their imprisonment and discharge. Their ranks had been filled by officers more pliant to Erdogan (and, in all likelihood, to Gulen himself). An analysis by Hurriyet’s Sedat Ergin found that a disproportionate number of the new appointees were involved in the July 15 coup attempt.

It is possible that many remaining Kemalist officers below the very top ranks still harbored considerable animosity towards Erdogan. But another consequence of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer was that these trials shattered any sense of secularist solidarity and esprit de corps in the military. They sowed fear and suspicion among the ranks: you couldn’t tell who was informing on whom and had to watch your back. I find it inconceivable that a cabal of Kemalists would have been foolhardy enough to get together to plan a coup, and even if they did, that they would not have been found out by Gulenists hiding among them.

And in any case, there was no reason for Kemalists to act now or to rush into what was clearly an ill-planned coup. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer verdicts had been reversed and Erdogan had long distanced himself from these trials, explicitly acknowledging they were plots against the military. Erdogan was also reversing many of his foreign policy actions that must have grated on the military: he had just reconciled with Russia and Israel and was pulling back on Syrian adventurism. Before the coup, there was not the slightest hint of tension between the government and the military establishment.

For its part, the Gulen movement has a long history, going back to the 1980s, of trying to place its sympathizers in the military ranks. And while the high command systematically tried to purge them, it is quite likely that the Gulenists were able to outwit them. To evade suspicion, Gulen is said to have instructed his sympathizers to go to great lengths, including not letting their wives wear the headscarf – a telltale sign of religiosity in Turkey – and even to drink alcohol. The steady stream of document leaks that enabled the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, as well as the mysterious way in which investigations of these leaks have been blocked, also suggests the presence of a large number of Gulenists in the military.   

All of this points to the Gulen movement as the immediate culprit behind the coup attempt. Gulenists had both the capability and the motive to launch the coup. The timing – just after military officers began to be detained and before a major sweep – also supports this theory. Many have suggested that the Gulenists decided to move early and quickly because they learned that the impending sweep had been moved forward. This is plausible, and also helps explain why the coup attempt seemed rushed and poorly planned. Under this theory, the botched coup was a last-gasp, desperate attempt to reclaim their one final remaining institutional bastion and ensure their survival in Turkey.  

My best guess is that the coup was planned and organized by Gulenists but that they were joined by quite a few others as well. The joiners may have had diverse motives: personal ambition, hatred of Erdogan, or simply the belief that they were obeying orders from the higher-ups.

One of the curious aspects of the coup attempt is that it had no public face or apparent leader. I know of no coup attempt, in Turkey or elsewhere, successful or otherwise, where a clear leader was not obvious or did not emerge very quickly. In Turkey, the clearest instances of failed coup took place in the early 1960s, and these attempts were spearheaded by a well-known renegade, Colonel Talat Aydemir.

This lack of a public face is a lot less anomalous from the standpoint of Gulenist modus operandi. Gulenists always prefer to operate in the shadows, behind the scenes, and never take direct ownership of operations they launch and control. They have never formed (or explicitly joined) political organizations or parties, even though they clearly have political aims, choosing to operate within existing political parties instead. In Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, the bogus documents that led to the trials were first leaked to a “liberal” newspaper (Taraf), which thereafter acted as a front. When public support for the trials waned, leading Gulenists kept arguing that it was Erdogan who pushed for the prosecutions.  

Similarly, it looks like Gulenists were hoping to remain behind the scenes and have others appear as leaders if the coup were to succeed. The putchists asked chief of general staff Hulusi Akar to lead the coup before they detained him (he refused). The declaration they drafted and that was read on state TV has a definite Kemalist tone, which suggests they wanted to make it look like the typical secularist coup. They might have hoped to be the power behind the throne once the coup succeeded, just as they shaped a large part of Erdogan’s agenda during 2007-2012.

Some of the evidence that has emerged since the coup also points to Gulenist involvement. Akar’s aide-de-camp, who was among the putschists, has confessed to being a closet Gulenist. His testimony is tainted by the fact that he was apparently badly beaten after being captured, but it is quite detailed, names names, and rings true. One of the soldiers who tried to capture Erdogan in the hotel he was vacationing had a hand-written note on him with religious invocations attributed to “H.E.” (an acronym for “Hoca Efendi,” the appellation Gulen’s disciples use for him). A police officer who had previously been removed on suspicions of being a Gulenist sympathizer was captured in one of the putschists’ tanks, wearing military camouflage.

None of these pieces of evidence (or others presented by the pro-government media) is completely dispositive on its own – especially with respect to Gulen’s own culpability. There is always the possibility that this was a rogue, pre-emptive operation by a number of Gulenists along with others, carried out without the knowledge or blessing of Gulen. Gareth Jenkins, who knows the Turkish military perhaps even better than it knows itself, is inclined to think so and is skeptical that this was a Gulenist operation planned from the top.

Erdogan’s claim about putschists’ attempt to put Akar in touch with Gulen, if true, would of course belie this scenario. But beyond that, it is well known that the Gulen movement is a highly hierarchical organization. People who have followed it closely over the years (such as Hanefi Avci or Rusen Cakir) report that very few important decision take place without Gulen’s blessing. There is certainly no tradition of autonomous, independent decision-making or dissent in the movement. It would be surprising if Gulenist officers had planned this on their own, without seeking at least the assent of their spiritual leader.

Then there is the objection that a violent military coup lies outside the modus operandi of the Gulen movement. This is true, and it is one of the things that made me cautious early on about Gulenist responsibility. Gulenists have engaged in a wide range of dirty tricks, but they have been rarely accused of armed action of explicit violence. Firing on unarmed civilians and bombing the parliament seems not the kind of thing that they would do. But then again, it is the first time that their sympathizers in the military have been called into action.   

Gulenists may have eschewed assassinations in the past, but their past operations have not lacked ruthlessness. They have a disturbing record of targeting, slandering, harassing, imprisoning their perceived opponents – military officers, journalists, police commissioners, politicians -- leading on a few of occasions to their deaths.

The case against Gulen is not shut and dried. There are many things about the coup attempt that remain unclear and mysterious. If the government has serious evidence beyond what I have discussed here, it has been very coy about releasing it and sharing it with the public.

At present, the argument that Gulen was the mastermind behind the coup attempt rests mostly on circumstantial evidence. But among all the scenarios that one could come up with, it remains the only one that makes at least some sense.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this, a journalist close to the AKP claimed that the officer who proposed to put Akar in contact with Gulen was General Hakan Evrim, commander of the air base that apparently served as the headquarters of the putschists. And newspapers have now published images of Akar's complete testimony to the prosecutors, in which Akar describes what happened when putschists descended upon his office. The relevant part of the testimony reads: "...upon which, Hakan Evrim said something along the lines of 'if you'd like we can put you in touch with our opinion leader [kanaat onderi] Gulen'. I rebuffed him by saying I wouldn't talk to anyone." 

In Turkey, any and all kind of documentary evidence can be forged, and it is possible that these images are doctored as well. But they look real to me. And even though Akar is clearly beholden to Erdogan at this point, I doubt that the government would choose to put such words in his mouth. In all, the statement greatly strengthens the possibility of a direct link between putschists and Gulen.

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