Gulenist coup attempt in Turkey: a new coup concept

The implications of Friday's failed coup are vast for Turks and for the global community alike. It gives rise to a new type of political warfare.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

People react near a military vehicle during an attempted coup in Ankara, Turkey, July 16, 2016. Image: REUTERS/Tumay Berkin

Updated Aug 14, 2016

By Merve Sebnem Oruc

For a while, the world has been witnessing a new type of warfare, which is also a new type of terrorism that includes indiscriminate violence against civilians. Terrorism targets the social and political structures of countries as well as destabilizing their economies.

Terror organizations like the outlawed PKK and DAESH are playing leading roles in 21st Century guerilla warfare throughout the Middle East, taking advatange of the chaos the region is suffering from. The number of people who believe that terror organizations have been used to change the balance in the region and control their countries is increasing every day. This new warfare inflicts fear and terror while it feeds and breeds terrorists as its soldiers in these areas.

For this reason, it is of utmost importance that we discuss the nature of the failed coup attempt in Turkey whilst it has also been fighting against the PKK and DAESH for more than a year. 

This is because what really happened that night is crucial for the future of Turkey and the region since the characteristics of the failed coup attempt was quite different from other coup attempts we witnessed in the world, and for that matter, throughout history.

The dreadful night of terror

The night of July 15, 2016 was horrific for the Turkish people. The generally calm cities of Turkey, particularly Istanbul, its biggest city, and Ankara its capital, were plunged into chaos. 

Around 10 pm unconfirmed reports started to emerge that some soldiers seized weapons from police in front of the Beylerbeyi palace on the Asian side of Istanbul, and the Bosphorus Bridge had been blocked by soldiers. 

They were followed by other reports claiming that Turkish airspace was closed to traffic yet F-16 fighter jets were flying low over Ankara. It was hard to determine whether this was a massive terror attack or a coup attempt. It was worse; it was both.

Turkish society has long suspected that Gulenists inside the Turkish army had been preparing to stage a coup. The Gulenists previously tried to overthrow the democratically elected government of Turkey in December 2013, and their public declarations revealed that something worse was on the horizon. 

The Turkish state has been fighting a running battle against the Gulenists for around three years, however, the Gulenist threat has been overshadowed in the media since last year's terror attacks which are alleged to have been been carried out by the outlawed PKK and DAESH. 

While Turkey has had to increase security measures lately due to major terror threats from three different terrorist networks, the Gulenists have been leading smear campaigns against Turkey accusing President Erdoğan of being an authoritarian leader.

What the Gulenists tried to do in the attempted coup was to turn the terror attacks targeting Turkey, into an opportunity. A small Gulenist junta group started the plot by spreading a false terror alarm inside the army. They were going to take control of the government and the state by benefiting from the panic created by the alarm. 

It was a thorough plan, which would have succeeded in a short period of time if the Turkish people had not been quick to intervene. Some of the targets they attempted to seize were TV channels, including the state-owned TRT, aiming to control public perception through the network. 

TRTWorld, the English language channel of the TRT network was their top priority, as they wanted to make the world believe that the coup was about to succeed.

Who were the persons behind the coup attempt?

The Turkish army's Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar was taken hostage, and the official website of the Turkish army was sabotaged. They announced a pirate statement both on TRT and the website in question. Introducing themselves as the ‘Turkish Armed Forces’, they said the Turkish Armed Forces had completely taken over the administration of the country.

Unsurprisingly, the whole world was ready to take the bait, as the global community were not familiar with the facts surrounding Fethullah Gulen and his network, and that the Gulenist terror organization is one of the primary threats targeting the Turkish state and its people.

The world has known Gulen as an enigmatic Turkish Muslim scholar who has stated in his books that he believes in interfaith dialogue and democracy. His network’s public profile has been defined primarily by a global network of schools, universities, dialogue centers and charity organizations. Yet, little is known about the inner workings of their educational structure, which raises the question of how exactly this movement became one of the most powerful Islamic organizations in the world. This question was answered  in 2013. 

Apparently, the Gulenists managed to build a parallel state within the Turkish state apparatus. Gulen's followers were often clean-shaven and English-speaking individuals educated in the West, which allowed them to enter the judiciary and police without attracting the attention of the secularist establishment during the 1990s and 2000s. 

Despite their image of breaking stereotypes of Muslims, it was revealed in 2013 that they set up a huge network within the state, lead by outsiders like "judiciary imams" or "police imams," who are members of a big chain within a hierarchy of imams loyal only to their leader, Fethullah Gulen.

As a matter of fact, the movement and its leader, who likes to talk to Western media and reiterate his commitment to democracy again and again, were defining themselves quite differently in Turkey until then. Their discourse on Turkish and English media was as different as black and white for a long time with regards to matters of religion, democracy and freedoms. 

He and his followers think that God has chosen them and that God has promised Turkey to their network. Fethullah Gulen tends to circulate myths about himself. He pretends as if he sees and meets with angels or that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) often visits their organizations. According to his former right-hand man, Latif Erdogan, Gulen said to some of his followers that he was talking to God one day and God said to him "I created the world for Prophet Mohammad but I am sustaining it for you."

Some of Gulen's loyalists think he is the Mahdi, or even the Messiah. His ideas are promoted instead of those of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which of course ensures that no one can question him, no one can engage in rational debate and everyone has to submit to his rule even if he is wrong.

People say ‘No’ to the Gulenists

The world has not been familiar with the true face of the Gulenists but the Turkish people know who they are. After the pirate announcement was declared on the night of the coup, within seconds, people started to vow on social media: “you will not get away with this”, “you have to kill all of them before you succeed”, and “the people will not let them take control of Turkey”. 

Within minutes, the Turks were on the streets, they were in front of the tanks. It was not hundreds; it was not thousands. It wasn’t only Muslims, seculars, leftists or conservatives -- almost everyone in Turkey stayed together and shouted: “We will not let that happen.” When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was finally able to address Turkish citizens and call on them to resist the attempted coup, the number of people on the street clashing with the Gulenists increased dramatically. It was millions.

People who were spending an ordinary Friday night at cafes, mosques, theatres or at home when they heard of the coup attempt poured into the streets and stopped the Gulenist terrorists. They didn’t hesitate even for a minute. It took hours. Hundreds sacrificed their lives, thousands were wounded. 

The nature of the failed coup attempt

Everyone now agrees that it was not a coup attempt that the Turkish Army staged. It is not possible to define the plot as an attempt exercised by only an elite faction within the army. 

The conspirators are loyal to a man living in Pennsylvania, not to the military of the Republic of Turkey. They can only be labelled as ‘Fethullah Gulen's soldiers in the same way that Daesh terrorists see themselves as “Baghdadi's soldiers” and PKK terrorists claim to be Abdullah Ocalan's soldiers.

The Gulen Movement’s designation as a terrorist organization is not the only detail that distinguishes this coup from others.  The night of the coup, the truth was made clear to me and several others while we stood in front of a tank at the police headquarters on Vatan Avenue. 

We saw a former Gulenist police officer, Mithat Aynaci, in the first of the four military tanks and he was dressed in the Turkish Armed Forces' (TSK) uniform, proving that this coup was not planned by the Turkish Army or a military elite. This was in fact perpetrated by the Gulenist network.

Another intriguing detail is the number of innocent people who were massacred under heavy fire and crushed under tanks while trying to protect their nation. Only a few hours of clashes resulted in the massacre of 240 people, showing that the coup plotters did not only try to take power, but rather that they carried out an act of terrorism. 

After our first stop on Vatan Avenue, we went to Sarachane square in Fatih district of Istanbul where 17 people were killed by gunshots in a matter of hours while the F-16 jets were flying over us as if Turkey had been invaded by a foreign army. It gives a clue as to how many people the Gulenists would have killed in the next few months, had they succeeded.

The world has never before seen a coup attempt where F-16 jets of a nation fly over their own cities and their own people causing sonic booms to intimidate people. 

The sonic booms made people think that the occupation forces of an enemy were bombing them, which makes the coup attempt an absolute act of terror.

Another important detail is the bombing of the parliamentary building of Turkey. Even if a military elite takes control of a government, as they believe a country is not being governed properly, would they have bombed the parliament that belongs to the people -- which is the symbol of a nation where all the political parties are represented? No coup maker, who wants to portray their coup as a patriotic act, would resort to such actions.

All the issues above show that this coup attempt was neither a normal coup attempt nor a civil coup attempt like we experienced during the winter of 2013. What happened in Turkey can only be defined by a new phrase: a “terrorist coup” attempt.

(Disclaimer: This article is an opinion which does not necessarily reflect the editorial views of TRTWorld.)

About the Author

Merve Sebnem Oruc is a managing editor, a commentator, and a columnist at Yenisafak and Daily Sabah in Turkey. She focuses on Turkish politics and diplomacy, Arab-Israeli relations and the Middle East politics.