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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Former CIA Officer Slams Turkish Claims of U.S. Role in 2016 Coup Attempt as ‘Amateurish and Baseless’

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit the United States (US) on May 9, 2024. However, the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated significantly in recent years. Despite Turkiye’s status as a NATO and Western ally, its shifting political landscape has brought it closer to Russia, which conflicts with US interests in the region. Turkiye’s increasing human rights violations, media repression, and imprisonment of journalists have driven a wedge between it and the Western world. The United States has been vocal about its concerns, which has further strained relations. President Erdogan has taken provocative actions, such as purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia, to send a message to the US.  

The government-controlled media of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi-AKP) frequently blames the US for internal and regional issues. One significant event that has soured relations between the two countries is the AKP’s allegations of US involvement in the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. The AKP government has propagated its own theory and silenced dissenting voices by imprisoning them despite lacking solid evidence to support its claims. This article utilizes an interview to present the perspective of a former CIA Operations Officer who was in Turkey during the coup attempt. Its aim is to shed light on the events of that night. The officer’s answers are provided below without any commentary. 

  1. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP government labeled the July 15 incident as a military coup, the former chief opposition party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the People’s Republican Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi-CHP), characterized it as a “controlled military coup.” In 2016, then-Vice President Biden likened his experience during the coup to watching a video game. When asked about a suspicious project he disliked, then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım famously quipped, “July 15,” hinting at the likely involvement of state officials. Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed former leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), suggested in his post-coup speech that President Erdogan was well-prepared for the attempt and stood to benefit from its outcome. Additionally, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the event in his book as a purported coup. What were your initial thoughts or impressions when you first learned about the coup attempt?

“Initial assessment that it may have been a terrorist attack or a response to a terrorist attack, which may have included members of the Turkish military. During that time, there were multiple terrorist attacks throughout the country, carried out by ISIS and others by PKK. However, that assessment was discarded quickly due to signs of what was described as a possible internal conflict within the Turkish military. Finally, within a couple of hours, Turkish government officials began to claim to the world that it was a coup attempt.” 

  1. Many politicians and journalists claimed that the government had prior knowledge of the coup attempt. For instance, one of the pro-government journalists stated that the government was aware of the coup attempt four months in advance. Do you believe the government had prior knowledge of the coup attempt before it occurred?

“It is very difficult to be certain that the Turkish government knew about the coup. The onus is on the person/entity making such claims to provide the evidence. Therefore, it is customary to use political figures’ statements on this topic as simply politically motivated unless they provide solid evidence.”  

  1. President Erdogan made contradictory statements regarding when he learned about the attempted coup. His statements in national and international media provided different timelines. Initially, he stated that he knew about the coup in the afternoon hours of July 15, but during an interview with CNN International on July 18, he claimed he learned about it at 8 pm on July 15. Additionally, Erdogan mentioned in an interview with Al Jazeera on July 20 that his brother-in-law informed him about the attempted coup. In a speech with ATV on July 30, Erdogan stated that he learned about the coup from his brother-in-law at 9:30 pm on July 15, and then attempted to reach out to the Head of Intelligence at 10 pm, but was unsuccessful. However, it was later revealed that the head of intelligence and chief of staff met at military headquarters between 6 pm and 8 pm. Why do you think Erdogan provided inconsistent remarks about when he learned of the coup attempt?

“The contradictory statements by government officials, especially about major events like coups, are usually meant to mislead and dilute the threads of investigations into the incident. Erdogan simply conformed to this approach, which may have provided him with latitude and flexibility to explain his government’s actions following the alleged coup against a wide spectrum of the Turkish population alleging their involvement in the coup. In the scenario where he was pretending to have uncovered the coup, then the act of fluctuating statements appears more fitting for the event.” 

  1. On the night of July 15, two factions clashed: a group of soldiers who genuinely believed in the coup’s authenticity but were inadequately organized, and a faction of senior government officials who were well-prepared to exploit the coup’s aftermath. Who comprised the soldiers convinced of the coup’s legitimacy? Were they misled by their commanders? And who were the senior government officials who orchestrated plans to benefit from the coup attempt’s outcomes?

“I do not have any facts/specifics on this question. However, the assessment that some military units may have been misled and others were ordered to react is a plausible one. The chaotic nature of the coup, uncertainty, lack of information, and intentional media blackouts fed the narrative that the military had split on itself.” 

“According to US embassy staff who lived in buildings across from the official TRT building in Ankara, a helicopter appeared to shoot at the building; however, it appeared to be shooting blank rounds.” 

“The Turkish military is well-trained, well-experienced in coups, and has advanced weapons. It would not have closed just one way of the Bosphorus Bridge and done a coup.”  

“The Turkish government officials appeared inconsistent and chaotic and seemed like actors playing amateurishly; it was embarrassing.” 

  1. In his speech in the early hours of the coup attempt, Erdogan said, “This is a gift from God”. It did not make sense why a leader of country considered the coup as a gift, because several hundred innocent people had lost their lives, and state agencies had failed to foil the coup. A dawn of understanding came to Turkiye’s citizens in the early hours of July 16, when 3,000 + judges and prosecutors, followed by thousands of military and police officers, were suspended and then arrested.  Turkiye’s President Erdogan and his inner circle were well-prepared to benefit from the coup’s results. A common-themed question came to Turkiye’s citizens –why did Erdogan need to seek such an internationally accepted pretext? Why did Erdogan see it as a gift from God?

“Erdogan likes to portray himself as a “devout, pious worshiper,” and therefore, a statement such as “this is a gift from God” would be fitting for the image he likes to portray of himself. Further, such an image and statement echo nicely among his less educated and more religious following in the remote areas of Turkiye. In addition, any savvy politician will want to make maximum benefits of a coup if he survives it, including expunging of the undesired staff, shuffling in government structure, shifting budgets, etc., and Erdogan is a very savvy politician. Besides, in reality, he needed a major scary event like this to renew his followers’ loyalty pledges in light of economic turmoil and constant terrorist attacks that killed Turkish civilians.”  

  1. The government primarily accused Gulenists and other opposition groups, including the CHP, of orchestrating the coup. According to the government’s narrative, Gulenist soldiers initiated the coup, but the government thwarted their efforts. Do you find the government’s explanation convincing?

“No. The theory, the narrative, and the following actions appeared to be that of an amateur who underestimated the level of his own people’s intelligence and the international community’s ability to read through his gimmicks.  

“The simple question that we can pose to Erdogan and his government: (a) If you DID NOT KNOW about the coup, how were you able to provide, within 12 hours of the alleged coup, a list of over 10,000 employees across many governmental institutions and at various levels of responsibilities who were Gulenists and have infested the ranks of your government?, (b) If you KNEW about the coup and had a long list of alleged suspects, why did you not arrest them much earlier than the day of the coup to avoid the fatalities? It doesn’t matter what their answer is, as either way, they’re at fault for not acting in time, or they must explain how they could produce a long list of suspects.”  

  1. Fethullah Gulen denied any involvement of his movement in the coup attempt and proposed the establishment of an international committee to investigate the government’s allegations. He pledged to surrender to the authorities if the committee found himself and his movement guilty. However, the government did not respond to Gulen’s proposal. Meanwhile, some Gulenists suspect that Adil Oksuz, a Gulenist who was arrested near the Akincilar Military Base in Ankara, collaborated with intelligence officers to frame the Gulen movement for the coup attempt. Despite being arrested, Oksuz was later released and went into hiding under suspicious circumstances. The government appeared hesitant to apprehend him and bring him to trial. Why did the government accuse Gulen in light of these developments?

“It is well known that Erdogan and Gulen used to be very close allies. However, Gulen noticed Erdogan’s increasing usage of Islamic religion as a political tool within Turkiye, and the immediate surrounding neighborhood, leaving Turkiye with practically no friends in the region. Erdogan’s behavior also triggered sensitivities with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are usually looked at as the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world, especially that he started to present himself as an alternative to many Arab/Muslim leaders. Finally, Erdogan became more of a dictator/Sultan. For all these reasons, Gulen distanced himself from Erdogan and began to make public statements opposing Erdogan. That led to a rapid change in the nature of their relationship, from allies to enemies.  Therefore, using Gulen as the enemy who plotted the alleged coup serves multiple purposes for Erdogan, including discrediting Gulen in the eyes of the Turkish public.”  

  1. Why did the US not extradite Gulen, despite Turkiye’s strong ambitions and allegations?

“From a legal standpoint, the Turkish government did not present the United States with any shred of legal evidence that proves Gulen was involved in the alleged coup attempt. Most of the documents presented would not stand a chance in any court of law. The documents were filled with emotional tirades and assumptions, which would not have been enough to indict Gulen, let alone extradited to Turkiye. Further, Turkish government refused to offer any guarantees of Gulen’s human rights if he were to be extradited to Turkiye. The illegal arrests and expunging of thousands of Turkish citizens were enough indication of how the Turkish government would handle “a trial” of someone like Gulen. At some point, the collective reactions of the Turkish government officials appeared like a child throwing a tantrum; put, unprofessional and unseemly.”  

  1. The Parliamentary Committee established to investigate the coup attempt prepared a biased report and chose not to summon the Chief of Staff and the Head of Intelligence to provide testimony before the committee. Should both officials have been compelled to appear before the committee? Furthermore, why did Erdogan promote them despite their apparent failure to prevent the coup attempt?

“One of the biggest failures in his charade of coup plot is that Erdogan was not willing to sacrifice major players like the head of his intelligence and a few of his most loyal figures. The rest of the play, as it unfolded, is a direct indicator of how he underestimated his people’s intelligence.” 

  1. Accusations have been made that Americans were behind the coup attempt. Do you consider these accusations reliable? Why did the Turkish government blame the US? And why did the US respond with a softer tone when rejecting Turkiye’s accusations?

“Turkish accusations of US involvement in the alleged coup were amateurish and baseless. In any calculus, the US would not benefit from a coup in Turkiye, especially without having a solid and viable alternate who would take over and guarantee the solidarity of the country, and honor the NATO agreements, and US Turkiye defense collaboration. A chaotic Turkiye would have been detrimental to US interests. Those days, with Syria up in flames, PKK attacks inside Turkiye, and YPG fighting ISIS in collaboration with the US, a destabilized Turkiye would have sent the region into far more complicated chaos than what was, one that would not be solvable easily. The US had to walk a very fine line those days. Erdogan, who enjoys rhetoric, would have utilized the US “harsh” response to galvanize the public against the US and its interests in the region. Therefore, albeit very frustrating, a softer approach was ordered to avoid irritating the situation.”  

  1. Turkiye also accused the UAE of being the coup plotters but later sought economic cooperation with them. What are your thoughts on the UAE’s alleged involvement in the coup attempt? Similarly, what is your opinion on Russia and Iran’s alleged support for protecting Erdogan’s regime? Do you find these allegations credible?

“The impetus of Turkiye’s accusations of involvement in the alleged coup to the UAE is rooted in Turkiye’s anger at the way the UAE supported the regime in Egypt, led by President Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohammad Morsi, a friend of Erdogan, and the one who was supposed to re-open Egypt for Erdogan as the new regional Islamic Sultan. Further, UAE was already carrying out a campaign to put Qatar under siege due to its support to Muslim Brotherhood, and Erdogan did not like those plans. Once that siege was announced, Turkiye was the first one to send aid to Qatar. Just another example of Erdogan’s flexing his regional muscles, unqualified, which was another major disagreement with Gulen.”  

“Russia may have known about the coup murmur but opted to stay silent to see what would surface. To them, it didn’t matter who was in charge of Turkiye, as long as they understood to avoid endangering Russia’s interest in preserving the Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus.”  

  1. Do you think Turkish people will learn what happened on the night of the coup from reliable sources in the future? What steps should the opposition take to shed light on the coup attempt?

“If Erdogan and his regime figures remain in power, it will be very hard for the Turkish people to get to the bottom of what really happened on that night in July 2016. Perhaps with time, once Erdogan and his regime are out, the truth will begin to emerge in bits and pieces here and there, and it will take a serious herculean effort to put the storyline together in a sensible manner. However, that work would have to be supported by mountains of solid, unequivocal evidence.”  

  1. Turkiye’s standing in international indexes has deteriorated significantly since the July 15 coup attempt. The country has experienced rapid declines in various international rankings, including those related to corruption, press freedom, justice, human rights, and crime. How would you describe Turkiye’s current situation? And what impact do you think the dismissal of thousands of judges and investigators has had on the country?

“The impact of the alleged coup attempt devastated Turkiye’s chances of meaningful collaboration with the European Union and solidified all negative impressions or assumptions about Erdogan and his regime. Erdogan may have benefited in the short term but hurt Turkiye in the long term. Turkish people are less free and more afraid, their future looks more uncertain, and the firing of judges only weakens the judicial system and the world’s confidence in the Turkish government to afford its people any fair trials.”  

“Currently, there is no sound, healthy opposition. The oppression exercised against Turkish people destroyed their accomplishments in the past few decades, after rising from devastating militarized history, corrupt officials’ image, and weak resources, only to lose their successes and return to the dark days they wanted to change. This damage of the alleged coup attempt is so profound that it would take the Turkish people a few decades to fix what Erdogan’s regime has done in his era. 

In conclusion, the former CIA Operations Officer has highlighted crucial questions that demand reliable answers regarding the coup attempt. Given the current political landscape, it may take years to uncover the truth. Turkiye may eventually reckon with the injustices perpetrated by government officials, resulting in the unjust removal and imprisonment of thousands. This situation has also led to international ramifications, with the United States unfairly blamed for the coup attempt. However, the AKP government must present substantial evidence to support its allegations of US involvement. Whether satisfactory answers will emerge remains uncertain, but it’s evident that the AKP government will continue exploiting the coup attempt for its own agenda. 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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