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Failed Turkish Coup Accelerated a Purge Years in the Making

Night had fallen and the weekend had begun, but the head of Turkey's spy agency remained at work in the main security compound in Ankara, struggling to track reports of strange military activities across the country.

Suddenly, a roar of gunfire erupted as a fleet of choppers blasted the gates of the compound. As guards fired in the air, a helicopter tried to land beside the agency while others dropped ropes to send down commandos, according to a security official who was inside at the time, and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

More than a sudden attack on the government, the attempted coup this month has emerged as a turning point in a yearslong struggle for control of the Turkish state. The battle lines were clear: allies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against a collection of adversaries, including members of the military and followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who leads a secretive religious movement from his self-exile in Pennsylvania.

Agents inside the intelligence service had long feared a fifth column was taking shape inside the Turkish state, and they spent years compiling dossiers on tens of thousands of citizens, scrutinizing their pasts for any hints of rebellion or links to Mr. Gulen.

As dramatic and violent as the night was, the aftermath has been equally stunning. Mr. Erdogan has imposed a sweeping purge, labeling tens of thousands of civil servants and others as potential enemies of the state.

While Turkish officials say that followers of Mr. Gulen spearheaded the plot, it remains unclear whether the attempt was ordered by Mr. Gulen himself and how much support the plotters received from other parts of Turkish society. Mr. Gulen has denied any involvement.

In the short term, the purge has threatened to hobble a state already deeply divided and infected with widespread distrust and uncertainty.

But in the long term, it could mean a complete — almost revolutionary — reordering of the state. There is already talk of devising a committee system to judge the guilt or innocence of those charged, the kind of process that might further stoke divisions, turning citizens against one another.

Mehmet Simsek, Turkey's deputy prime minister, told reporters on Thursday that he expected that senior figures would be empowered to form some sort of judgment committees.

Trying to grasp for historical parallels to the upheaval, historians and analysts have compared this purge to Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.

"Mao and the Iranian Revolution are the ones that come to mind," said Henri J. Barkey, a longtime expert on Turkey who is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "But these were revolutions. You expect this."

He added: "So the interesting question is, Is Erdogan having his own revolution? He is going to completely restructure the Turkish state."

This has raised fears of a prolonged witch hunt reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the United States in the 1950s.

Already, the country's education system is stretched, with tens of thousands of teachers fired and every university dean, more than 1,500 in total, forced to resign.

"We were given no information as to what will happen next," said Ugur Tanyeli, dean of the faculty of architecture at Bilgi University in Istanbul. "We were just asked to resign, and we resigned."

Many have wondered how the government could so quickly identify so many thought to be traitors. The answer, Turkish officials say, is that they had been preparing for this for years.

Government officials have been candid on that point, saying that before the attempted coup, they were already compiling lists of military officers and other officials who were suspected of loyalty to Mr. Gulen.

But since the government officials did not have sufficient evidence to convict them in court, they planned to sideline them over time, Mr. Simsek, the deputy prime minister, told reporters on Thursday.

"We knew a lot, but either we didn't have enough legal basis or the time" to remove the Gulenists from government, he said.

"We are not making up these stories; this is not some Jason Bourne trilogy," Mr. Simsek added. "We have these massive cells, networks, and they have a bank. They have massive financial resources."

Those efforts got a boost this year, when Turkey's intelligence service captured a secret communications channel used by Mr. Gulen's followers, revealing tens of thousands of names and identification numbers, according to the Turkish security official who was inside the government compound in Ankara when it was attacked.

The revelation included 600 military officers whose names were shared with the armed forces so that they could be sidelined when the military announced new promotions in August. But Mr. Gulen's followers learned that they had been uncovered and planned the coup to pre-empt their sidelining, officials said.

The coup was scheduled to begin at 3 a.m. on July 16, a date chosen partly because the head of the Air Force, Gen. Abidin Unal, and other commanders were attending a wedding in Istanbul the night before, according to officials.

But on the afternoon of July 15, the spy agency received reports of strange activity at a military facility in Guvercinlik, in southwest Turkey. That evening, the intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, shared what he knew with the chief of general staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, his deputy, and the head of the army in a meeting at their headquarters, the security official said.

He apparently did not notify Mr. Erdogan, who said in a television interview this week that he learned about it hours later from his brother-in-law. Whenever he found out, it was just in time: He managed to elude a team of commandos dispatched to capture him while he was vacationing in the resort town of Marmaris.

The putschists apparently realized that their plot had been uncovered, so they hastily launched the coup on Friday night, coordinating moves across the country through the messaging platform WhatsApp, according to security officials.

As the army closed off bridges in Istanbul and fighter jets set off sonic booms over the city, renegade soldiers attacked government sites across Ankara, including the military headquarters, where they captured the three top military officers who had been briefed that afternoon. Guards repelled the attack on the intelligence headquarters.

"The sense at the Prime Ministry was that if this was in the chain of command, nothing could be done," said Cemalettin Hasimi, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

Once it became clear that the army leadership had not endorsed the military action, Mr. Hasimi tried to head to Parliament, only to learn that it had been bombed, leaving a hole in the roof and rubble in the corridors, he said.

Mr. Erdogan called his supporters to the streets in an address over FaceTime that was aired on CNN Turk, and civilians, the police and loyal army units mobilized and put down the coup.

Mr. Erdogan returned. And the purges began not just of those in the Gulen movement, but of government critics of all stripes. Some academics who had signed a petition this year protesting the government's war against Kurdish militants were suspended from their jobs this week.

Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, asked a simple question: "Who is going to run the universities? They will open in six or seven weeks."

No one seems to know.

"The purge of the education system — that's the most remote from grabbing a tank or a plane and doing a coup," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director for Human Rights Watch. "I don't know how the country will be governable at this point."

Government officials insist that the purge is a necessary security measure to prevent future violence. But its speed and scale have worried many.

Turkey's political opposition — secularists, nationalists and Kurds — publicly sided with the government against the coup, but it is now watching warily. Many opponents of Mr. Erdogan have little sympathy for the Gulen movement, which for years made common cause with the president's Islamist political movement.

"We know these people, this religious sect," said Metin Feyzioglu, the head of Turkey's bar association and a member of Turkey's main secular party, who explained that he had long believed the Gulenists had stocked the country's judiciary.

The worry, he said, is that the purge will broaden to include secular Turks and others. "We are afraid it is becoming a real madness, a witch hunt," he said.

Since the coup was put down, Mr. Erdogan's followers have held large rallies in a number of Turkish cities, calling the failure of the coup a victory for Turkish democracy.

Out of Turkey's chaos has come more power and more popularity for Mr. Erdogan, who has used the moment to galvanize his constituency of the country's religious masses. Seemingly speaking for all who gathered at the rally, Faruk Akkaya, who works in the tourism industry, said, "We'll stay here until Recep Tayyip Erdogan tells us to go home."

[Source: By Ben Hubbard, Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, International New York Times, Ankara, 22Jul16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 25Jul16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.