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Weird 'confession' doesn't solve mystery of who led attempted coup in Turkey

The mystery of who is behind the plot to overthrow the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is deepening. Was it an attempt to preserve democracy and secularism, or a putsch from a Islamist conspiracy?
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
People chant slogans as they gather at a pro-government rally in central Istanbul's Taksim square. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Confusion is rife in Turkey on Monday, as finger-pointing and misinformation plagues an effort to figure out who is behind the effort to putsch the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Reports emerged on Monday that Akin Oztürk, a retired air force general, was responsible for the organized but short-lived effort to unseat Erdogan.

Oztürk initially told the Dogan News Agency that "not only I was not involved at any part of this coup attempt that jeopardized our country and our democracy, I also tried my best to end it with minimum damage to our people."


But later in the day, after appearing in an Ankara courtroom along with 26 other generals and admirals, state news reported that he pled guilty to being the mastermind. Pictures show him sporting bruises and injuries on his face and arms.

Less than an hour after that, state news agency Anadolu retracted that report.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Istanbul on Saturday. (AP Photo)

The lack of certainty hasn't stopped Erdogan from launching a vast effort to arrest and fire members of what his supporters have long called a "parallel state" opposed to the rule of the president's Islamist party.

At an unseemly fast speed after the coup, thousands of judges, local governors, administrators, cops, and members of the military were removed from their jobs, suspended, or arrested — including some who likely had no hand in the planning of the coup, such as magistrates.

Johannes Hahn, the European Union commissioner dealing with Turkey's application to join the EU, said the purging had the hallmarks of an orchestrated move. "It looks at least as if something has been prepared. The lists are available, which indicates it was prepared and to be used at a certain stage," he told Reuters.

As of Monday afternoon local time, the Turkish government had dismissed or suspended nearly 9,000 government employees — 7,899 police officers, 614 officers of the gendarmerie (military units that handle national and border security), 30 provincial governors, and 47 district governors, according to Hurriyet newspaper.


Related: Turkey's government went on an arrest spree after the attempted coup

Another 7,500 military officers and members of the judiciary, mostly judges, were detained.

Turkish state media reported that many of those who were arrested were loyal to Fethullah Gülen, an exiled theologian who leads an international liberal Islamic organization from exile in Pennsylvania.

His movement has been dubbed a terrorist organization by Erdogan, and his supporters are regularly targeted and removed from the various levels of the Turkish government by Erdogan loyalists.

"The 'parallel state' represents a clandestine group of Turkish bureaucrats and senior officials, allegedly embedded in the country's institutions, including the judiciary, the police, and the army," reads a report from the Anadolu Agency, a state-run broadcaster.

Rounds of purges have already hit the judiciary, army, and police forces in recent years, as Erdogan has ramped up the rhetoric about this supposed conspiracy, and using it as a way to centralize power.

People kick and beat a Turkish soldier that participated in the attempted coup, on Istanbul's Bosporus Bridge, Saturday, July 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Selcuk Samiloglu)

The president has directly accused Gülen of being the leader of that secret society, and a main driver for the attempted revolt. Gülen, in turn, has accused Erdogan of having orchestrated the latest coup.

Ankara has demanded that the US government, its longtime ally, extradite Gülen in the aftermath of the coup, at this point to no avail. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim expressed his frustration during a press conference on Monday, according to Hurriyet.


"Even questioning our friendship may be brought to the agenda here. Nonetheless, our Justice Ministry is conducting the necessary work," he said. "Is there better evidence than this? We will be a little bit disappointed if our friends say 'show us the evidence' while there are members of this organization which is trying to destroy a state and a person who instructs it."

One columnist with Daily Sabah, a newspaper thought to be close to Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and critical of the supposed Gülenist conspiracy, estimated that 15 percent of the Turkish military is part of the shadow state.

"NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening."

The paranoia might not be entirely misplaced. A 2010 analysis from private intelligence firm Stratfor cites court documents, filed before Gülen's 1999 exile, calling on his supporters to "move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers."

"More than a decade later, the Gülen movement has a presence in virtually all Turkey's power centers," it said.

The movement has also shifted from hardline Islamist positions to a more moderate and secular outlook, in parallel with Erdogan's pivot from a moderate Islamist stance to a more openly religious approach. And when Erdogan called on his supporters on Saturday, as the coup unfolded, to go in the streets and stop the plotters, they did so at the urging of mosques, chanting religious slogans.


It appears very likely that the arrests and detentions will continue in the days and weeks to come.

Reuters released video on Sunday showing detainees, hands cuffed and stripped of their clothes, being transported by city bus as protesters draped in Turkish flags yelled and banged on the windows of the bus, as police futilely tried to keep them at bay.

Related: Turks tell the story of a terrifying night as the coup attempt unfolded

Despite Öztürk's confession, the question remains of who was really behind the plot — whether it was a military faction opposed to Erdogan's creeping authoritarianism, as the plotters claimed in a statement; an Islamist faction within the state that was looking to gain power for itself, as early media reports suggested; an actual shadow state run by Gülen; or whether the whole thing was staged by Erdogan to justify a further crackdown.

Those suspecting a false flag operation have suggested that the plotters had two chances to take out Erdogan, and failed to do so both times — once, where the plotters launched an assault on the president's hotel, only minutes after he had already escaped; and a second time, when two F-16 jets piloted by pro-coup officers got a chance to shoot down the president's plane, but did not fire.

"At least two F-16s harassed Erdogan's plane while it was in the air and en route to Istanbul. They locked their radars on his plane and on two other F-16s protecting him," a former military officer told Reuters, adding: "Why they didn't fire is a mystery."


A Twitter account, seemingly sympathetic to Erdogan's government, fired back online against those who were suggesting the coup was staged.

Coup plotters cold-heartedly opening fire on civilians…still claim it's staged? — Failed Coup Facts (@failedcoupfacts)July 18, 2016

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Brussels on Monday to meet with EU leaders, echoed concerns that Erdogan was essentially using the coup as carte blanche to remove political rivals.

"A lot of people have been arrested and arrested very quickly," Kerry told reporters. Asked about what this response means for Turkey's NATO membership, he suggested that the military alliance could take action, without saying what that could be.

"NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening," he said.

The State Department threw some cold water on the idea that Kerry's statement was actually opening the door to Turkey's ouster from the alliance.

"Secretary Kerry didn't say anything at all about NATO membership being in jeopardy," reads a statement from the US embassy in Ankara, according to the Daily Sabah. "There is nothing in his actual statement that indicates the US believes Turkey is in a danger in this sense.''

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling