The story of how two rival Islamist movements brought Turkey to the brink of civil war is so colorful it could easily inspire a spy movie.
Whether the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was actually involved in the failed coup, as claimed by top Turkish officials, may not be clear for years to come.
Nor is it known whether this perception has anything to do with the fact that Erdogan is meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, on Wednesday. However, his arrival in Moscow has set off alarm bells in the West.
Was the CIA Involved?
Much has already been written about the night of July 15, which left some 300 dead and over 2,000 wounded. Yet key details — such as who actually organized the coup and how — are still missing.
The Turkish press, known for its penchant for conspiracy, is full of stories about retired US generals orchestrating the bloody coup via Afghanistan and Nigeria, the involvement of the Woodrow Wilson Center think-tank in DC, and CIA operatives escaping on a helicopter full of Turkish officers, which landed in Greece after the putsch failed.
A number of current and former officials, including Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu and former army chief of staff Ilker Basbug, have directly accused the US of trying to topple Erdogan — who himself has suggested that the West was siding with the plotters.
Most Western analysts think this is unlikely, despite the long history of the US sponsoring various forms of regime change around the globe, and the recently strained relationship between the White House and Erdogan.
US officials from President Barack Obama on down have categorically denied those allegations, and have loudly condemned the coup. (According to an account published by Buzzfeed, the aides of General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, slammed the phone on the rogue generals when they sought US help.)
Yet enough odd things happened that night to fuel suspicions of US involvement in Turkey and beyond. Many Turkish army officers heavily involved with NATO were among those arrested for complicity in the putsch — to the point where, according to media accounts, US officers are complaining that their counterparts in Turkey are now gone.
During the coup attempt, Incirlik, the main Turkish air base used by the US and NATO, was commandeered by the plotters to refuel their fighter jets (more on the saga of how the aerial part of the coup unfolded can be found here).
And the US and other Western countries took considerably longer to condemn the attempt than Russia and Iran, raising speculation that the West was waiting to see who came out on top — though some analysts blame the delay on bureaucratic inefficiencies.
The US may indeed have had a motive to root for the putsch: Erdogan’s repeated power grabs in recent years have alarmed many in the West. In May, for example, he ousted his former protegé, then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Some have argued that Davutoglu, considered a discreet ally of the US, was one of the last remaining checks to Erdogan’s power.
The Smoking Gun?
The man named by Erdogan as the brain behind the putsch — the charismatic Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen — has resided in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gulen obtained his US green card with the help of a former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, Graham Fuller. Following the coup, Fuller published a passionate defense of Gulen’s movement as “one of the most encouraging faces of Islam today.” But he also says he supported Gulen’s application solely as a private citizen, and denies any connection between Gulen and the CIA. (Fuller is an enigmatic figure who shows up in all manner of intrigue, including through his family relationship with the uncle of Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.)
Here is where it gets really interesting and colorful — even Turkey’s main intelligence agency, MIT, has reportedly been busy analyzing the color of Gulen’s clothes during sermons in an attempt to decode his messages to followers; the Turkish authorities have also been tracking down mysterious one-dollar notes with which the conspirators allegedly communicated.
The Turkish rumor mill is working over time, with some even speculating that ads with laughing babies and Grand Theft Auto cheat codes were means of covert communication among plotters.
In a more serious nod to the digital age, there is also a hacking saga involved. The MIT reportedly was able to penetrate an obscure messaging app the Gulenists used, and to identify some 600 army officers belonging to the movement. This may have forced the coup plotters to launch their attempt prematurely, resulting in what from the outside looked like a fatally clumsy performance.
Muslim Martin Luther or Dangerous Cult Leader?
The spiritual dimensions of the conspiracy are no less colorful.
“I went to Gulenist schools in the past, I know them very well,” said a 29-year old graduate student, who is a government supporter and was lightly injured by tank shrapnel while resisting the coup attempt in Istanbul. He described the Gulen movement as a “messianic cult” that believes Gulen communicates directly with the Prophet Mohammed and whose ultimate goal is a “global Islamic empire.”
“I have a lot of experience with them, I went to their meetings and they were quite open to me in the past…. They have this double-speak for the West and for Islamists like us on the ground,” he said. “[To us] they say, we are now living in the time when we are very few in Turkey and in the world. We should hide ourselves, we should keep a very low profile until we take over everything from within.”
His account contrasts profoundly with how Gulenists describe their movement — as “a transnational social initiative that advocates for the ideals of human rights, equal opportunity, democracy, nonviolence and the emphatic acceptance of religious and cultural diversity,” in the words of Mustafa Akpinar, the CEO of the Rumi Forum, one of the main Gulenist organizations based in Washington, DC.
And the movement is open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Akpinar added in an email to WhoWhatWhy. He acknowledged that some Gulenists may have concealed their identities in order to rise through the army and other institutions, but attributed that deception to Turkey’s deficient democracy and discrimination toward minorities.
The Putsch as Pretext to Remove Opponents
Many fear that Erdogan will use the putsch as an excuse to remove his remaining opponents and to consolidate his power — we’ve written about this in the past.
Since the coup, tens of thousands of teachers, prosecutors, judges and others were sacked or arrested alongside the thousands of soldiers who actively participated in it. More than 100 media outlets were banned, and numerous abuses of detainees were documented.
But here is something about the coup and the subsequent purges that by and large has evaded Western media so far: as troubling as some aspects of Erdogan’s response have been, it is doubtful whether the US would have responded much differently if a secretive Islamic organization, whose leaders are based abroad, penetrated its state institutions and then allegedly launched a coup that included bombing Congress from the air (as the coup plotters did to the Turkish parliament).
Just think of the US response to 9/11 — the excesses of the Patriot Act and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — for a crude comparison.
There is a strong case that this is pretty much what happened in Turkey, though Gulen’s direct involvement in the coup has not yet been proven. Gulen himself denies it and has condemned the attempt. And it is unclear whether the only conspirators were some of his many followers.
All the major political parties in the country, even those who are bitterly opposed to Erdogan, immediately united against the attempt and condemned the Gulenists.
“Please be advised that this roundup so far has been targeting mostly Gulen followers, some of whose members in the military were — almost certainly — actually part of the bloody massacres,” Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, a former Assistant Professor of Political Theory at Istanbul Commerce University, said in an email to WhoWhatWhy.
What is striking about his statement is that he himself was fired at Erdogan’s instigation earlier this year, for signing a petition calling for peace with the Kurds in the south-east.
Moderate Islamist vs Moderate Islamist vs Secular
Many of the alleged plotters came from the ranks of the president’s former allies.
Gulen and Erdogan, who both brand themselves as moderate Islamists and have a large following in Turkey and beyond, were actually allies against the secular Turkish establishment for about a decade, after Erdogan rose to power in 2002. Back then the military was a key power base of the secularists.
It was with Erdogan’s implicit support that Gulen’s movement, known in Turkish as Hizmet (service), expanded its network in Turkey exponentially over the past 15 years, as many graduates of its schools penetrated key Turkish institutions.
Then during the past few years Gulen and Erdogan fell out spectacularly. After Erdogan closed down many of Gulen’s schools in 2013, Gulenist prosecutors allegedly launched a surprise investigation of corruption in Erdogan’s inner circle. Erdogan, in response, suppressed the investigation by purging thousands of members of the police and judiciary.
Gulenists blame the quarrel on Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism, while the president has accused Gulen of staging first a “judicial” and now a real military coup.
Analysts say that both charges, in a sense, may be correct. Though Gulen seeks to brand his interpretation of Islam as more mystical and tolerant, in contrast to Erdogan’s more nationalist and traditional version, both have used religion to expand their power in opaque and authoritarian ways that have brought Turkey to the edge of a precipice.
“We can’t really say that Gulen is more moderate [than Erdogan],” said a prominent Turkish political scientist and government critic, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job.
“The most important issue between Erdogan and Gulen is the power struggle and the distribution of resources. Both are eager to have power, and as Erdogan is trying to concentrate power in his own hands, at some point he came to a clash with the Gulen movement…. These are two groups with Islamic ideology that use similar means to achieve their goals — for example, education and business.”
More Twists and Turns
There is also a strong case to be made that Erdogan brought the near-disaster upon himself and his country by suppressing all legitimate forms of dissent while alienating many people through his frequent and abrupt changes of course, in both domestic and foreign policy.
In the first half of his rule, he courted the US and sought to suppress the army, fearing a military coup. More recently, however, he fell out with the Obama administration and the West and sought to empower the army in order to crush the Kurdish movement in the south-east, which had succeeded in drawing many votes away from his party.
Then, as his aggressive policy in Syria failed to show results, he almost went to war with Russia last November and sought NATO assistance. More recently he reconciled with Russian President Vladimir Putin, moving away from the Western orbit. His critics say he has been gambling with Turkey’s security and stability for his own gain.
None of this excludes either a foreign-backed or a domestic Gulenist-led or -supported conspiracy. But a wilder theory began circulating on the Turkish street just after the coup attempt: that Erdogan himself had orchestrated an elaborate theatrical performance to grab more power.
This has been largely discredited. Analysts say the putsch, despite its clumsy appearance, involved significant planning and sophistication. It is widely believed that Erdogan narrowly escaped death or capture the night of July 15.
On the other hand, it is possible that the government may have infiltrated the plot earlier than has been acknowledged — and allowed it to launch (perhaps misjudging its scope) in order to use it as a pretext to cement Erdogan’s power.
It is also possible that Gulenist officers in the army acted in desperation to pre-empt a purge they knew was coming.
For the time being, Erdogan is enjoying unprecedented support in Turkey, even as the purges continue. Some see in this an opportunity to heal the deep rifts created in Turkish society by his 13-year rule.
Many others, both among Erdogan’s supporters and opponents, fear this may only be a brief moment of calm before further violence.
Yet whatever happens, a key NATO ally — and perhaps the alliance itself — is likely to remain in flux for some time to come.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from rally in Istanbul (Mike Norton / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and CIA logo (CIA / Wikimedia)