There is little doubt that Turkey’s deadly coup attempt of July 15, 2016 was masterminded by the Fethullah Gülen network, with both confessions and solid evidence pointing to this fact, journalist Sedat Ergin has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
“The confessors who actively took part in the coup attempt all admit to being part of the Gülenist organization … They have confessed that they acted under directives from the organization,” said Ergin, who has been publishing the details of the indictments against the coup suspects in a series of articles for daily Hürriyet.
He also highlighted certain key evidence, including footage from security cameras at the Akıncı Air Base, the command center of the coup attempt, that showed civilians linked to the Gülen network alongside soldiers carrying out the coup.
What is the picture that emerges after reading thousands of pages of indictments?
First of all, prior to my readings I was sure that this coup attempt was undertaken by members of the Gülen movement. And the more I read the more my conviction was confirmed. We see there was meticulously detailed coup planning; it was not an amateurish initiative by a handful of soldiers. The coup attempt was executed across almost all of Turkey, from east to west. Another point is that the civilian mechanisms of the movement were involved in this process, in the planning and execution phases. Thirdly, I think these indictments are largely well-documented; for example, in the case on events at the Akıncı air base – the central headquarters of the coup attempt – we see how actively the civilian cadre of the Gülenist secret network was involved.
How do you define the organization that emerges from the evidence?
There was a great deal of planning and a huge organization. We knew that the Gülenists had created a big organization over the course of the past 20 or 30 years. We in Turkey have long been familiar with the presence of the Gülen movement but it is not so easy for the Western public and decision-makers to understand it, as it is difficult to find a similar organization to which they can compare it.
Some people have voiced suspicion about the presence of credible evidence linking the coup to Gülenists.
There is ample evidence proving that the Gülen organization was behind the coup attempt. First of all, there are confessions from people who actively took part in the coup attempt and admit to being part of the Gülen movement. They have confessed that they acted under directives from the organization, but we should note that the confessions mostly come from the lower ranking soldiers, in the ranks of lieutenants and captains.
We should also look at evidence other than the confessions. To understand the dynamics of the coup we should closely analyze events at the Akıncı base on the night of July 15, 2016. The command center of the coup was the 143rd squadron of the Akıncı base, near Ankara. The leaders of the coup attempt gathered at the base’s 143rd squadron, while the 141st squadron served as the operational center from which the F-16 pilots took off for their missions. Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar was interned by pro-coup soldiers at the Akıncı base headquarters.
On the night of the coup attempt, the decisions were taken at the 143rd squadron, conveyed to the 141st squadron, and executed by pilots stationed there. The 143rd squadron was connected to every military unit in Turkey that engaged in the coup activity. The decision to abort the coup attempt was also taken at the 143rd squadron. General Akar sent his messengers to the 143rd squadron to try to persuade the putschists to cease the coup attempt. The putschists ended up coming to Akar from the 143rd squadron to ask him to take part in the coup. There is no doubt that the 143rd squadron was the brain, the nerve center of the attempt.
Now let us ask the critical question: Who was there at the 143rd squadron on that night? The answer can be found in the video footage of security cameras of the 143rd squadron. In this footage, we see two groups of coup plotters walking in the corridors: A group of generals and colonels and a group of civilians.
The civilians were people who are connected to the Gülen network, people like Kemal Batmaz, Harun Biniş and Nurettin Oruç. These are individuals who were employed in several institutions of the Gülen network in the past. We also know that Adil Öksüz, who was the “big brother” (higher civilian authority of the Gülen movement) in charge of the Air Forces, was also at the 143rd squadron. He does not appear in the security camera footage but several witnesses, including the commander of the air base General Hakan Evrim, have confirmed his presence on the base that night.
Öksüz, Batmaz, Biniş and Oruç were all caught by gendarmerie forces on the morning of July 16, just after the coup attempt had failed, in the field near the Akıncı base. There is a common thread in the testimonies of Öksüz, Biniş and Batmaz to the prosecutor: They all claimed that they were out there to buy land. Oruç, however, also claims that as a filmmaker he was working on a documentary on livestock farming and was visiting a village in the area as part of preparations. In my view, all these testimonies lack credibility. According to them, it was all about buying land in the area and making a documentary on livestock.
Meanwhile, those questioning whether these figures are part of the ruling cadres of the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization [FETÖ] should look at YouTube and find many pictures of Öksüz kneeling down in front of Fethullah Gülen at the latter’s compound in Pennsylvania. In sum, the civilian network of the Gülen movement was active in the planning and execution phase of the coup.
What makes you say that the evidence in the indictments is credible?
In general I’m rather skeptical about indictments in Turkey. I’m also someone very critical of current judicial practices in Turkey. I also see how problematic some indictments are these days, such as the indictment against daily Cumhuriyet, which is a kind of masterpiece in terms of how problematic an indictment can be. But I see a different picture when I look at the July 15 indictments, which are all very well-documented. Almost a third of the 2,581-page indictment on the coup attempt at the General Staff headquarters is made up of photographs taken from security cameras of the building. Together, those pictures show clearly what happened on that night at the headquarters. In many cases the specific charges against coup plotters are supported by photos. The indictment is like a photo novel.
There is a strict chain of command within the military. How correct is it to assume that all coup plotters were FETÖ members? Some could have just been executing orders.
During my examination of the indictments I see that many soldiers were identified as coup plotters just because they implemented orders. This is particularly true for those in lower cadres, like privates and sergeants. In most cases they were told that they were going to carry out a mission against terrorists.
They were basically used by the real coup plotters. In the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt it may not be easy to differentiate between those who were used and those who planned and executed the putsch. Let’s hope that this problem is overcome during the trial process. The judges must be very rigorous in distinguishing between these two groups.
How could such an organized group with such a sophisticated plan end its coup attempt in total failure?
The coup was scheduled to take place at 3.00 am. But when the plotters saw signs that news of the coup had leaked, they panicked and started the coup earlier. The coup therefore could not be executed as planned; it led to a sloppy execution. They also had to deal with unpredictable events that they probably would have not encountered if the coup attempt had started as planned early in the morning, like resistance from society. If execution of the plan had started at 3 a.m., the whole country would have been caught off-guard and we would be facing a different reality. The coup plotters would have held the upper hand.
There are many question marks still surrounding events during the coup attempt. What stands out for you?
There are a number of questions lingering that need to be clarified. Chief of General Staff Akar and National Intelligence Agency (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan did not conduct a proper crisis management once they received word of the coup attempt. They should have taken a different course of action. So there was operational failure on their part and it was wrong to keep the civil authority uninformed.
Another issue is the fact that Fidan, after assessing the intelligence with Akar, called the president but could not reach him. He then asked the president’s security chief whether they could protect themselves.
This shows that he was concerned about something that could affect the security of the president, and it also needs clarification. But such question marks should not lead us to the conclusion that this was a controlled coup. The huge volume of evidence in the indictments shows us that this was indeed a very serious coup attempt, not the kind you would face in a “controlled coup” environment.
What is your evaluation of the West’s response to the coup attempt?
It’s fair to say that the West failed to show a prompt reaction to the coup attempt and also failed to show solidarity with Turkey in a timely fashion. Condemnation was belated. I find this hard to comprehend in terms of the democratic credentials of many Western governments. But this issue is not only related to July 15, 2016 – Western decision-makers and opinion leaders in general have failed to read and understand developments over the past 10 years in Turkey, especially since 2008. They monitored Turkey through blinders. They continued to rely on the narrative pushed by the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] and the Gülenists, even after the country clearly began to switch to an authoritarian track after 2008.
They missed Turkey’s slide to authoritarianism as they did not want to face the new reality until 2013. So in terms of analyzing developments in Turkey, the track record is one of failure. The failure regarding the coup attempt is no exception in this regard.
What’s more, the prevailing sentiments and reactions in the West against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have prevented a correct reading of the reality of July 15. Emotions about Erdoğan have taken precedence over the need to make an objective analysis of the coup attempt. The fact that the AKP government is using the coup attempt in order to further slide toward authoritarianism, with the state of emergency effectively becoming institutionalized, has further prevented an objective assessment of the coup attempt. Unfortunately, the rising number of human rights violations and undue practices in the judiciary have begun to overshadow the reality of July 15.
Another important factor is that Gülenists abroad are working very efficiently in Europe and in the United States. But still, even if they have become very instrumental in influencing public opinion in the West, the problem today is that the negative developments and antidemocratic practices stemming from the AKP’s policies and the stark reality of the coup attempt have become intertwined, creating a very blurry environment. As usual, truth becomes the casualty in such a situation.
Right after the coup you took the position that the origins of the coup actually go back to 2010 with the controversial Balyoz [Sledgehammer] coup plot case. How was an institution known for being staunchly secular, like the Turkish Armed Forces, penetrated by a religious organization?
We need to revisit the last 10 years of developments in Turkey. If we continue to misread the past we will not be able to make a correct analysis of the coup attempt. We need to look at what the Gülenists’ secret organization did over the past 10 years, with a special focus on the Ergenekon, Balyoz and espionage cases.
Those cases sowed the seeds of the coup attempt, especially the 2010 Balyoz case, in which a large number of officers were accused of trying to topple the government. A large majority of the generals and staff officers under investigation in the Balyoz case were expelled, many of whom were the leading soldiers in their promotions. Subsequently, every Supreme Military Council [YAŞ] meeting from 2011 to 2015 was conducted in unfair conditions, as those staff officers and generals were expelled from the military. It was not a level playing field, and a large portion of the “crème de la crème” of the Turkish Armed Forces was eliminated in this process. The common attribute of the dismissed soldiers was that they had strong secular orientation and a strong commitment to the principles of Ataturk.
It is no surprise that many of the staff colonels promoted to the rank of general or admiral in the YAŞ meetings from 2011 to 2015 were actively involved in the coup attempt. The Gülen network used the Balyoz case, which today we know was based on fake documents, as an instrument to eliminate the officers it saw as a potential threat and pave the way for the rise of its disciples in the ranks of the military leadership.
To sum up, the Balyoz case in 2010 laid the groundwork for the coup attempt. In a sense, the Balyoz case and the coup attempt constitute an integrated whole. The sad part of the story is that many opinion leaders in the West and many liberals in Turkey applauded the Balyoz case at the time as a historic step on the path to further democratization of Turkey.
The legal cases like Balyoz put the military on the defensive. It felt cornered and defenseless, which provided the ground for Gülenist expansion. Let’s not forget that until 2013 there was an alliance between the AKP and the Gülen movement. The Gülenists were removed from the list of threat assessments in state documents thanks to the AKP government. This created a big vacuum and gave them significant room to maneuver and organize in all the institutions of the state.
Nevertheless, I’m still astonished at how the Gülen movement was able to open up such breathing room in the military, which was known for having secular principles. But we should not underestimate the deceptive tactics of the movement, which excels at dissimulation and hiding. Many people tell me they are shocked to hear that certain officers are actually Gülenists, because they thought these names were staunch supporters of Atatürk’s principles.
Who is Sedat Ergin?
Born in Istanbul in 1957, Sedat Ergin started to study literature at Boğaziçi University, during which time he worked part-time for the Turkish News Agency.
He continued his career in journalism in Ankara where he graduated from Ankara University’s Political Sciences Faculty. Between 1979 and 1987 he worked as a diplomatic reporter in daily Cumhuriyet’s Ankara bureau.
He became Hürriyet’s Washington representative in 1987 and the newspaper’s Ankara representative six years later. After a period from 2005 to 2009 as Milliyet’s editor-in-chief, he returned to write his regular column in Hürriyet. He worked as Hürriyet’s editor-in-chief between August 2014 and February 2017. Since then he continues to write his daily columns.
Ergin has been given a number of notable awards; one of them being the 2010 investigation award from the Journalism Association of Turkey for the articles he wrote on the Balyoz case.