The July 15 coup attempt in Turkey was thwarted thanks to strong political leadership and the people’s extraordinary courage. Last summer’s failed coup, coupled with the December 2013 “judicial coup”, established beyond doubt that FETO, the armed organisation led by the US-based Turkish national Fethullah Gulen, had infiltrated not just the Turkish Armed Forces but also the various strategically important public institutions in the country.
Under the circumstances, restructuring Turkey’s bureaucracy became an important part of the fight against the Gulenists.
Traditionally, the bureaucratic class in the country was more than just a group of people that implemented policy decisions made by elected officials and provided services to the general population. Instead, they had a number of self-identified missions such as to ensure the survival of the state and to safeguard the principles of secularism.
As such, efforts by FETO to gain total control over the bureaucracy for the past four decades can be considered an extension of the organisation’s broader goal of wielding political power by promoting bureaucratic oversight over elected officials and distorting facts and documents to their advantage. FETO operatives have been linked to various major developments, operations, investigations, and high-profile court cases in Turkey’s recent history shows the level bureaucratic influence the group has enjoyed.
Since the 1970s, FETO operatives systematically infiltrated strategically important public institutions. As part of a comprehensive long-term strategy they sought to build power within the Turkish state under the pretext of maintaining an equal distance to all political parties.
Understanding how FETO was able to infiltrate the bureaucracy is crucial to successfully fighting this infiltration. The organisation’s infiltration tactics can be found in media reports regarding indictments against FETO operatives and the confessions of the group’s operatives.
The most important part of any plan to infiltrate the bureaucracy starts with targeting human resources. For decades, FETO was able to solve this problem by launching educational institutions and using their recruitment machinery.
The Isik Evleri, or Houses of Divine Light, exam preparation centres, student housing centres and Sohbet Evleri, or Houses of Conversation, in this sense, played an important role in introducing recruits.
As such, all of these different mechanisms made it possible for the group to identify sympathisers and recruit new members. In particular, the group targeted key institutions in the areas of education, the judiciary, law enforcement, national security and defence.
Various indictments indicate that FETO leaders considered the Isik Evleri as barracks where they would train knights to be placed inside the bureaucracy. By securing the appointment of graduates of Isik Evleri to key institutions, the organisation aimed to have total control over the highest levels of the Turkish government.
According to media reports, a number of former undercover FETO operatives within the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish National Police, who volunteered to testify against the group publicly or anonymously, stated that they had been introduced to the group as teenagers at the various houses and exam preparation centres.
In this regard Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to raise the issue of preparation centres was important to tackle FETO’s cash flow and human resources.
Upon infiltrating the bureaucratic class, FETO operatives generally resorted to tedbir, or deception, in order to go undetected and lead a long career in public service. Simply put, the principle of tedbir makes it possible for Gulenists to engage in certain acts, such as consuming alcohol and going to certain places, that are not compatible with their so-called conservative upbringing.
In other words, the main point of tedbir is to appear as a member of another social group in order to avoid scrutiny. By skillfully adapting to changing circumstances, FETO operatives inside the bureaucracy were able to rise through the ranks even though governments and senior officials changed over time.
Having trained and secured the placement of undercover operatives into the bureaucracy, FETO leaders maintained contact with the recruits to keep them under control and to use their links to facilitate further infiltration of public institutions by fellow Gulenists.
Once FETO operatives became decision-makers in the public sector, they were expected to act in accordance with the organisation’s internal hierarchy instead of the bureaucracy’s organisational structure. As such, high-ranking officials could at times receive orders from their official subordinates, who in fact ranked higher within the FETO hierarchy.
By cooperating with fellow Gulenists, undercover operatives formed an informal ‘bureaucracy of imams’ and paved the way for the appointment of additional FETO operatives.
Within individual institutions, FETO operatives typically targeted strategically-important departments such as human resources, personnel affairs, intelligence and IT to be able to gain access to classified information and to handpick committees for job interviews with prospective civil servants. In doing so, the Gulenists were able to ensure that job candidates who had been trained by FETO were hired, while others were prevented from entering public service.
A popular method among Gulenists trying to infiltrate public institutions was to steal exam questions ahead of centralised examinations at various levels. In addition to the Public Employee Selection Exam, FETO operatives gained advance access to foreign language examinations, postgraduate exams and specialised written exams conducted by certain public institutions.
The ‘stolen’ questions would be memorised by loyal followers at FETO-linked preparation centres and ‘houses’ – who were able to get high scores in order to secure their placement to popular institutions.
In order to infiltrate the bureaucracy and fast-track the careers of fellow Gulenists, several indictments and witnesses show that FETO operatives stole exam questions at police colleges, the Police Academy, military schools, judgeship examinations and the Public Employee Selection Examination, in addition to manipulating oral examinations.According to the Turkish Parliament’s Investigative Commission on the July 15 Coup Attempt, this method made it possible to expedite the infiltration of state institutions by FETO operatives and paved the way for the group to gain near-total control over the institutions they targeted.
In an effort to maximise group interests, FETO operatives inside the bureaucracy not only fast-tracked the careers of fellow Gulenists but also targeted their rivals by either preventing their career progress altogether or forcing them to join the organisation. The group’s strong presence in law enforcement, intelligence and the judiciary proved to be a significant advantage, since FETO operatives within those institutions could use their official powers to target, intimidate and pressure non-members in other agencies.
In certain cases, FETO operatives violated the privacy of their rivals by collecting information about them, illegally wiretapping their communications, falsifying documents, and blackmailing them. Needless to say, the group’s main goal here was to identify the weaknesses of their rivals that could be exploited, discredit them in the public eye and force them to collaborate with the organisation.
However, FETO did not resort to hard power alone to infiltrate the bureaucracy and gain near-total control over strategically-important public institutions. In an effort to reach out to public officials with no previous ties with the organisation, the Gulenists organised trips, roundtable meeting, academic conferences and high-profile events such as the Turkish Language Olympics in order to make a positive impression on the rest of the bureaucratic class and the general population.
Having learned more about the ways in which FETO operatives infiltrated the bureaucracy over recent decades, the authorities are better equipped than before regarding the measures that must be taken to combat the group and mitigate the threat it poses.
Moving forward, it is important to take necessary steps without delay in order to prevent another attack against Turkish democracy akin to the July 15 coup attempt. Although the specific measures to be taken remain outside the scope of this piece, it is safe to assume that rewarding merit, honouring ethical guidelines and managing the performance of public employees will be key to this effort.