How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Two weeks after the failed Turkish coup attempt, there are still questions about the full extent of the plot and who, exactly, was involved. Still, it is possible to make some educated guesses.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has blamed Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen and his followers. The ongoing power struggle between the AKP and the Gulenists renders this account suspicious, although mounting evidence suggests that high-ranking followers of Gulen were intimately involved in the plotting and execution of the coup attempt. The evidence thus poses thorny challenges for Turkey and its partner, the United States. Turkey will craft its response to maximize domestic political advantages, although its decisions will perhaps have greater implications for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian conflicts. Meanwhile, the United States will have to come to terms with an operational partner in turmoil and the possibility that the coup was ordered or inspired from U.S. soil by a permanent resident.
The AKP government’s complicated history with the Gulen Movement has regained attention after the attempted coup. Starting in 2002, the two distinct political Islamist movements joined forces to lead Turkey politically, populate its bureaucracy, and subjugate the overactive military to civilian control. The erstwhile alliance worked well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wielded political power; the Gulenists entrenched themselves in the civil service, police force, prosecutors’ offices, and judiciary. Meanwhile, the Gulen Movement concocted show trials to cleanse the military and bureaucracy of the joint political project’s more radical opponents. Yet, divergent interests and competing designs on power led to conflict. The Gulenists launched corruption probes against AKP heavyweights; Erdogan retaliated by purging Gulenists from the bureaucracy, media, and business worlds—an effort that was ongoing when the coup attempt touched off on July 15.
The AKP government’s rash behavior following the failed coup served its political purposes but diminished its trustworthiness. Within hours of the start of the coup attempt, Erdogan and senior government officials had already blamed Gulen for orchestrating the plot—an unsurprising move that nevertheless cast doubt on the government’s reliability. The government then broadened and intensified its ongoing purges. In addition to the 8,600 military forces formally arrested and the 15,000 detained, the government fired tens of thousands of state employees it claimed had connections to the movement.
The government also undermined its own credibility through its treatment of detainees. Lieutenant Colonel Levent Türkkan, top aide to Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, confessed that he was a Gulenist and that the movement was behind the coup. Yet, photographic evidence appears to show that Türkkan had been tortured while he was detained—tainting the confession and rendering it invalid. Indeed, Amnesty International has received several reports of systematic detainee abuses that undermine the Turkish government’s credibility.
That the AKP government is inherently untrustworthy, though, does not make it entirely wrong.
Few dispute the Gulen Movement’s efforts to enter the military power structure from the 1980s onward. Nokta magazine—a publication staunchly aligned with Kemalism, the secularist founding ideology of the Turkish state—published an exposé of Gulenists’ inroads into the military in 1986. “Grit your teeth and hide yourselves until you are staff officers,” it quoted an older Gulenist telling teenage military students in his charge. “Pray [only] with your eyes. By the 2000s, Turkey will be in our grasp.”
As Gulenists rose through the ranks during the 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Military Council began using its semiannual planning meetings to cull suspected Gulenists from the officer corps. These removals were a crude instrument, as they undoubtedly overlooked many adherents to the movement and may have wrongly implicated others.
Once the AKP and the Gulen Movement joined forces, the military’s expulsion of Gulenist figures was curtailed, opening up unrivaled space for the movement. The Gulenists worked to eliminate all obstacles in their path to power—routinely using extralegal tactics to achieve their objectives. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer show trials of 2008 and 2010—which used fabricated and planted evidence to frame senior military officers for attempting to overthrow the government—are only the most infamous examples of shadowy endeavors that began much earlier.
In 2005, a bookshop was bombed in the small Kurdish town of Şemdinli, seemingly by local military forces. When the case came to court, the indictment—written by a suspected Gulenist prosecutor—expanded to include charges of “establishing an [illegal] organization” against the Commander of Ground Forces and two other generals. To prevent a row with the military, Erdogan stepped in and fired the prosecutor. The generals’ lawyer, Vedat Gülşen, would later claim this as “the Gulenist Terror Organization’s first plot against the Turkish armed forces.”
In the aftermath of the coup, over 40 percent of generals and admirals have been expelled from the force.More recently, in the 2011 Military Espionage case, key admirals were accused of organizing a gang that provided underage, illegally-trafficked, and drug-addicted prostitutes to naval officers, and then blackmailing them into furnishing information for sale to foreign intelligence services. This year, courts exonerated all suspects, and prosecutors opened a new case investigating allegations that Gulenist-linked officers had fabricated the claims. A man named Colonel Muharrem Köse had signed off on some of the evidence in the initial case; some in the security forces now claim that he masterminded this month’s coup attempt.
With each new prosecution targeting senior military figures, new officer positions opened up. Gulenist officers—no longer subject to expulsion—were ready to fill the gaps. As with their modus operandi in other government institutions, Gulenists first sought control of key intelligence and human resources positions. By the 2010s—despite the 2013 AKP–Gulen Movement rupture and consequent society-wide purges—officers believed to be associated with the movement were being promoted at an astounding rate.
Ever fearful of Gulenist motivations and capabilities, a group of senior military officers targeted in the fabricated Sledgehammer investigations began compiling a secret list of fellow officers they felt certain had Gulenist sympathies. This list, of which Foreign Affairs has obtained a copy, is not comprehensive: it contains no names from the air force, for example, where the list’s compilers likely had no sources. It also surely excludes many officers who successfully hid their allegiances from their colleagues. Critically though, the list does provide essential corroborating evidence for claims that Gulenists orchestrated the failed coup.
Even with the strongest of disclaimers, the pre-compiled list of suspected Gulenists is a strong predictor of which officers would participate in the attempted coup. This suggests either that the movement encouraged its sympathizers to join the coup attempt, or else that external factors strongly correlated with Gulen Movement membership—like enduring bitterness toward the AKP—greatly increased the chances that those officers would choose to participate.
In addition to Köse, the list includes some of those suspected to be among the leaders of the coup, as well as officers who oversaw coup-supporting troop garrisons; helped kidnap Akar, the chief of staff; arrested fellow senior officers; and ordered martial law in Turkish cities. The list includes 23 officers at the rank of admiral or general who have been taken into custody—roughly 20 percent of the total number of flag officers arrested thus far. A handful of officers on the suspected Gulenist list came out against the coup in its early stages. Perhaps their condemnations were false positives, but it may suggest that the Gulen Movement is a less cohesive entity than some have claimed.
Chief of Staff Akar’s testimony raises further questions. Akar believes his kidnappers were “members of the [Gulenist] organization,” and indeed, several of their names feature on the list compiled by their peers long before the coup. Akar also claimed that one kidnapper, General Hakan Evrim, proposed he speak by phone with Fethullah Gulen himself. Yet, Gulen and the movement’s upper echelon purportedly shifted communication to encrypted messaging applications long before the attempted coup. Further, Akar points the finger at Akın Öztürk—a retired commander of the Turkish Air Force who is not believed to be a Gulenist. Initial state media reports corroborated this claim, but Öztürk later came forward—looking badly beaten after a period of detention—to deny involvement. We remain uncertain which figures actually ordered the coup attempt.
Conflicting information on the failed coup’s legal ramifications also undermines the AKP government’s claims of the Gulenists’ sole responsibility. The government and the media emphasized that a tiny minority within the military carried out the attack, and the military itself estimated that just 1.5 percent of its force participated. On the other hand, over 40 percent of generals and admirals have been expelled from the force as a result. In its zeal to purge officers who appeared neither to take part in the coup nor to arouse suspicion as Gulenists, the government seems to have weakened its own narrative that the coup was entirely a plot by followers of Gulen.
Perhaps the government is not trying to make a sound argument, but is instead trying to construct a narrative that serves a greater purpose. Beyond the ongoing purges, it has retroactively folded past tragedies and scandals into its narrative about the Gulen Movement. Take the 2011 Uludere massacre, in which the government killed by airstrike 34 ethnic Kurdish villagers transporting goods across the border, mistaking them for PKK militants. At the time, the state did not take responsibility for the incident and attempted to bury it. Ten days after the coup attempt, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak announced that the case would be reopened and reexamined for potential links to the so-called Gulenist Terrorist Organization. The more Erdogan’s government succeeds in offloading responsibility for societal ruptures in Turkey, the greater his chances of refashioning Turkish politics as he desires.
Others have willingly leveraged the Gulenist conspiracy narrative as well. Selahattin Demirtas, chairman of the Kurdish-oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) accused the movement of spearheading the military operations conducted in the majority Kurdish southeast since late last year. The operations—authorized and executed on the AKP’s orders—killed hundreds of civilians and displaced 350,000 more. It subjected entire cities to months-long dusk-to-dawn curfews and even some 24-hour bans on movement. Demirtas’ redirection of popular anger telegraphed his interest in reopening the Kurdish peace process that broke down in the summer of 2015—turning the failed coup into a hand extended toward the government.
The United States may also face a critical decision in the matter of Gulen’s extradition. To date, Turkey has not formally requested that the United States review the evidence and make an extradition determination—although that has not stopped the Turkish government from telling its public otherwise. Still, Washington must prepare for that eventuality. There, the guiding principle would be simple: follow the letter of the law. If the legal standard for extradition is not met, the United States should not satisfy Turkey’s desire for vengeance.
Nor, however, should the United States protect Gulen if the evidence meets the legal threshold. For all his service-oriented teachings, commitment to interfaith activities, and ostensible religious moderation, Gulen’s influence is cause for genuine concern. His followers have established charter school networks implicated—at the very least—in racketeering, bid-rigging, and possible H-1B visa violations. They have built cozy political relationships with everyone from local school boards all the way to Capitol Hill—with indications of financial improprieties along the way.
A refusal to extradite Gulen would shock many in Turkey and would intensify already hysterical anti-Americanism in pro-AKP media outlets—fueling speculation of tectonic shifts in the alliance. Yet, betting on such an outcome would be unwise. Turkey has worked to repair strained international relationships in a revised, post-activist foreign policy. That effort warmed relations with Russia and Israel, and it anticipates stable pragmatic ties with the United States. It is fair to wonder, though, about the corrosive effects of Turkey’s anti-American, anti-Western posture. A 70-year relationship is far more valuable than the use of essentially fungible military bases. Turkey should not overrate the strength of its position while recognizing what it still has: a long-standing, institutional relationship with the United States it would do well to preserve.