The dust cloud brought about by Turkey’s authoritarian drift should not be allowed to obscure the reality of the coup itself.
Located 35 kilometers out of Ankara, Akıncı Air Base served two important functions during the coup attempt on the evening of July 15, 2016. It was the base where F-16 fighter planes took off to terrorize the capital with low altitude flights, killing 68 people. And it was also the command center of the plot to overthrow the Turkish government.
Five civilians apprehended by the Turkish military police on the morning after the coup attempt in the vicinity of the base provided one of the most revealing pieces of evidence in terms of the identity of the coup plotters.
Bear in mind that the base was being bombed by F-4 jets assigned to quash the coup at the time they were apprehended. So the setting was far from calm and peaceful when these civilians were detained in an open field near the base.
Two of these individuals were detained together, while the remaining three were alone when they were caught. Two (Kemal Batmaz and Harun Biniş) claimed they were looking for land for investment. Another (Adil Öksüz) claimed “he was looking at some lot” in a similar statement. The fourth individual (Nurettin Oruç) said he was a film producer and was on his way to a nearby village to talk to people “in preparation for a documentary on livestock farming”. The fifth individual (Hakan Çiçek) said he had been at the Akıncı Air Base for a “social event”, and that he was trapped at the base when the coup occurred and he was trying to get home at the time. The individual who had invited him to this “social event” was the operations commander of Akıncı Air Base, Staff Colonel Ahmet Özçetin, who is among the key suspects of the coup.
We know – from video footage taken from security cameras installed at the corridors of the 143. Squadron - that three of the suspects had spent the night of July 15 at the Akıncı Air Base. Kemal Batmaz, Harun Biniş and Nurettin Oruç can be seen walking the hallways, in and out of rooms in the squadron office where putschists were spending a very busy night. As for Adil Öksüz, who has become the centre of attention as the leading authority (called “imam”) of the Gülen network within the Air Force and who is now a fugitive, there is no video footage of him proving that he was at the squadron. However, at least two defendants have said they saw him at the squadron in their testimonies.
Who are these individuals? An associate professor of theology (Öksüz), an electronics and software engineer (Biniş), a professional manager (Batmaz), a teacher (Oruç), and a businessman (Çiçek).
It is not at all difficult to connect four of these individuals to the Gülen organization. Biniş has worked in companies with Gülen connections. Oruç was described as a senior representative of the Gülen organization in a confession by a Gülenist gendarmerie officer. And most strikingly, the US Department of Homeland Security recently revealed that Batmaz, upon his arrival in Newark airport on January 1 2016, informed US customs officers that planned to stay with İmam Fethullah Gülen himself.
But the most important name in this group is undoubtedly Öksüz. In his statement taken at the prosecutor’s office, Öksüz claimed he did not know Gülen. Yet a quick search of Adil Öksüz and Fetullah Gülen on YouTube reveals a video of Öksüz kneeling in front of the imam at the mansion in Pennsylvania, where Gülen resides, and Gülen himself has said that “(Öksüz) came here once several years ago” – though he also added that “This is something hundreds of people do… it is utterly meaningless to come up with allegations based on visiting me.”
As for relations between the suspects, Öksüz and Batmaz – who deny knowing each other - flew to New York on the same plane on July 11, 2016, four days before the coup, and returned to Istanbul on July 13, again on the same plane. In addition to both being found near Akıncı Air Base, the fact that they both claimed they were “looking for some land” is yet another thread in their shared fate.
These five individuals in question are among the six key defendants, together with Fetullah Gülen, in the Akıncı air base indictment, charged with being the civilian leaders of the coup. Their involvement is one of the strongest links tying the coup to the Gülen organization. But it is not the only one. Numerous confessors - including helicopter pilots in the Army Aviation Command – have stated that they belonged to the Gülen network.
We see a similar pattern in many of these confessions. A significant majority of these names are individuals who had been hand-picked by “older brothers” - or senior network members - mostly as early as 8th grade, a year before they enrolled in a military high school. These older brothers then support the students to pass their military high school exams, continuing their support through the students’ later years in military academies and into their careers.
This creates a network of organic and incredibly hierarchical relationships, with loyalty to Fetullah Gülen paramount in the relationship between the disciple and the older brother. This system of the Gülen movement was already well known, but the fact that it was so deeply embedded in the military has only recently been revealed through countless testimonies and interviews.
One surprising aspect of this coup – one that perhaps distinguishes it from all other coups – is that the civilian side of the Gülen organization seems to have been the critical actor at every step of the planning and implementation of the plot. Though military personnel were at the forefront of activities, Gülenist civilians were heavily involved in setting forth the decisions and timings of the coup attempt.
Turkish Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar was interned at the Akıncı Air Base by putschists on the night of July 15. Statements by Akar, as well as military personnel around him on the night of the coup, indicate that negotiations to try to stop the coup were carried out with the putchist generals at the 143rd Squadron where the civilians leaders were also stationed during the night at the Akıncı Air Base. The 143rd Squadron is the place where those individuals who claimed they were looking at some land around the base on the morning of July 16 had spent the night.
From all of the above, it is clear that the coup attempt bears the seal of the Gülen organization during both the planning and implementation stages.
As of today, charges have been filed in connection with the coup in almost 50 cities. Prosecutors have filed a separate indictments charge for each activity carried out by each military unit. Over 60 indictments have been initiated in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara alone - though the most important is undoubtedly the Akıncı case, with 481 defendants. Studying these indictments all together, we see an extremely detailed, comprehensive coup plan that spread to all corners of Turkey, covering all branches of the military in the army, navy and the air force, as well as the gendarmerie.
Among those tried are names known to be Gülenists in the military, as well as a considerable number of generals not thought to be pro-Gülen names. The existence of this second group of soldiers sometimes prompts questions in the West about whether the coup was primarily Gülenist enterprise.
But in fact the reason for their being on trial is that they had been selected by the Gülenists to fill certain military or bureaucratic positions after the putsch - as indicated in the assignment lists they prepared before the coup. Prosecutors linked the majority of the generals whose names appear in these lists to the coup, and subsequently arrested them even though they seem to have been unaware of their assignments.
This has led to some bizarre situations, such as that of Lieutenant General Yıldırım Güvenç. Despite having carried out the operation to recapture Akıncı Air Base from the putschists, he is under arrest today, simply because he was considered by the coup leaders for the TRT General Manager position.
Likewise, there are many lower ranking military personnel charged with taking part in the coup just because they carried out orders - without knowing that these actions were in fact coup-related. In many of these cases, military personnel were called in from home under the pretext of a counter-terrorism operation and sent into the streets. Many lower and mid-level military personnel thus found themselves in the middle of the coup activities, without fully comprehending what was actually taking place.
Taking a maximalist attitude in general, prosecutors have considered the act of taking part in the coup activity sufficient grounds to file charges. Prosecutors everywhere have to be suspicious, but a fundamental principal of criminal law is that the court must take into consideration whether deliberate intent is present.
Fortunately, the acquittal of many soldiers due to lack of deliberate intent is a newly emerging trend as the hearings progress. In late August, a lieutenant general who had faced life imprisonment was released. Likewise two brigadier generals who were being tried in Afyon and Antalya were released in September. In late September another lieutenant general was also released in İstanbul.
As a journalist who witnessed the reality of Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt, and who has subsequently worked on this matter through many court files, it is quite incomprehensible that there is still debate in Western societies on the identity of the perpetrators of the coup – even calling into question the reality of the putsch itself.
The prevailing authoritarian trend in Turkey and the strict practices of the state under ongoing emergency rule likely play a role in such confusion. But the dust cloud brought about by these authoritarian practices - which require the harshest criticisms from the standpoint of democracy and the principle of the rule of law - should not be allowed to obscure the reality of the coup itself.
What we have before us is a coup attempt that was shaped over many months by civilian and military Gülenists, with the Akıncı air base in serving as the command centre in the execution phase. This can be documented with very credible evidence presented in countless ongoing lawsuits. Regardless of the events that have taken place since July 15, there can be no doubt whatsoever who planned and executed this attack on Turkish democracy.
Sedat Egin is a columnist for Hürriyet Daily.
The EU-Turkey Strategy Group project was made possible with funding from the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.