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Questions abound, one year after Turkey's coup that wasn't

Özge Artunc
July 15, 2017

As Turkey marks one year after the coup attempt, much remains obscured about what exactly happened on July 15, 2016. Some of the questions go right to the highest level.

A group of Turkish people standing on a tank at Bosphorus Bridge after the failed coup attempt
Image: picture-alliance/abaca/F. Uludaglar

"Madness," "terror attack," "controlled coup attempt." These are a few of the expressions used by Turkish politicians to explain what happened in Turkey on July 15 2016, when a faction within the Turkish military tried to overthrow the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, which has held power since 2002.

Read more:  Turkey's purges continue a year after failed coup

The night of July 15 saw Istanbul's landmark Bosphorus Bridge become a scene of confrontation, with the Turkish parliament being hit by war planes and Turkey's state TV reading a coup statement. The past year has seen increasing crackdowns on personal freedoms, blame thrown at various actors, and massive purges of public employees in several sectors. Yet what precisely happened behind closed doors before tanks and soldiers flooded the streets remains a mystery.

Hours unaccounted for

On the day of the coup attempt, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in a hotel in the Mediterranean coastal city of Marmaris. He left the hotel about an hour before the raid began. Later, Erdogan would reveal in an interview that it was his brother-in-law who told him about the coup attempt, triggering a heated intelligence debate in Turkey.

The first reports of the uprising reached Turkish intelligence agency MIT in the early evening. It was information provided by a pilot at 14:45 local time. According to the pilot, a plot to kidnap Turkish intelligence agency MIT's chief Hakan Fidan would begin at 03:00 the next morning.

The intelligence was immediately shared with the Turkish Army (TSK). While a top-level meeting was held in the capital, Ankara, the plotters decided to go ahead with their plan before the scheduled time.

It was around 18:30 when the Turkish army was first ordered to act. Soldiers were asked to stay in the barracks and Turkish airspace was closed to traffic. However, these measures could not help prevent the plotters from taking Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar hostage or bombing the parliament building.

The question naturally remains: After having received intelligence, why did the Turkish army wait? Erdogan's own accounts indicate he was informed about the attempt sometime between 20:00 or 21.00. Why so long after the army was informed? One year after the coup attempt, these questions remain unanswered.

Turkish soldiers being arrested after the 2016 coup attempt
A group of solders being taken into custody in Ankara following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016Image: picture-alliance/AA

Intelligence debate: Could no one see it coming? 

After the coup attempt, a heated debate raged regarding failures of intelligence. Many observers have asked how both the intelligence agency and the army could have been in the dark about such a plot. A parliamentary commission formed to investigate the coup attempt ended up with two contradictory answers.

The MIT intelligence agency says its powers are limited when it comes to gathering intelligence on army officers, citing it as the reason why it failed to pin down the date of such a plot. The Turkish army, on the other hand, claims it cannot track soldiers outside the barracks. Once they leave the military compounds, the army insists they are under MIT's jurisdiction.

A graphic showing the number of dismissed public employees in Turkey since the July 15 coup

With a blame game going on between MIT and TSK, another debate revolves around the Gulen movement's infiltration into the army.

The Turkish government considers the Gulen religious movement, named after exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, as an enemy of the state and a terrorist organization responsible for the coup attempt.

Yet in 2010, the Gulen movement was removed from a list of threats to national security known as "the Red Book" - the so-called "secret constitution" of the Turkish government. Between 2010 and 2015, dismissals of officers with links to the Gulen movement stopped. Why the government turned a blind eye to a growing Gulenist presence within the army for so long is among the questions left unanswered.

An Erdogan supporter in Istanbul waves a Turkish flag
Support for Erdogan remains high despite massive crackdowns on freedoms of speech and the pressImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Mihailescu

No questions asked

After the attempted coup, the Turkish parliament formed a commission in nine days to shed light onto the coup attempt. 141 key witnesses testified for a 637-page report written up over the ensuing five months. Those witnesses included former MIT and TSK chiefs.

Read more: Turkey's purged military officers stuck in limbo one year after failed coup

However, key actors from the night in question - current MIT chief Hakan Fidan and Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar - did not testify in person before the commission. Akar was sent a list of 10 questions and Fidan presented a 38-page report instead. President Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim were not called to testify either.

What do we know about the plotters?

The junta in charge of the coup attempt was called the "Peace at Home Council". Turks heard of the name for the first time on July 15 after the state television TRT's reading of a coup statement.

Today what is known about the 38-member council is very little. Their ultimate plan if the coup had succeeded is a mystery. It is not known which figures would have taken over the offices of president and prime minister had the coup not been quashed. 

One Year On: Erdogan Under Pressure?