The Chronicle of a Long Night Revisiting Turkey's Failed Coup Attempt
Almost one year ago, a coup attempt took place against Turkish President Erdogan. Even today, it remains unclear who was behind the attempt to overthrow the government. SPIEGEL reviewed numerous documents to create a chronology of events, as they happened.
The buses stop half a kilometer short of the courthouse and the prisoners are forced to disembark and walk the rest of the way. Each prisoner is flanked by two guards, who force them to keep moving, while soldiers in battle gear, their assault rifles at the ready, escort the proceedings. Demonstrators are crowded behind a fence screaming "traitors!" and "murderers!" The screaming gets louder the closer the prisoners get to the courthouse.
It is May 22, 2017, in Ankara and the Turkish state is indicting 221 men, accused of having led the July 15, 2016, coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Twelve of the accused are either still at large or in exile, including the man who Turkish authorities believe is the primary backer of the putsch: Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen.
Journalists are waiting at the courthouse entrance. Each of the accused is marched up the steps on his own so that the cameras are able to capture close-ups of their faces. Their expressions are blank and most are staring at the ground. The state is putting them on display like hunting trophies.
Even today, almost a year after the attempted coup, it is still unclear what exactly happened on July 15, 2016, in Turkey. According to Erdogan, Gülen ordered the coup from his U.S. exile and his followers in the military, particularly in the Turkish air force, tried to take over control by force. But the revolt, according to the official narrative, failed due to popular resistance as people took to the streets in opposition to the soldiers.
Fethullah Gülen says that the attempted coup was staged by Erdogan himself in order to tighten his grip on power. Turkey's Western allies are unable to say for sure which version is closer to the truth.
President Erdogan has used the attack on his government as an excuse to launch an offensive against all parts of society that do not support him. Since last July, almost 140,000 civil servants have been suspended and around 50,000 people have been arrested.
With the first anniversary of the coup attempt approaching, SPIEGEL has reconstructed the crucial hours, which cost the lives of almost 300 people and marked the suspension of democracy in Turkey. The documents, indictments and investigation reports that SPIEGEL has obtained must be approached with caution. Witnesses contradict themselves, the judiciary is under Erdogan's control and some confessions are said to have been coerced through torture committed by Turkish police.
Taken together, however, the documents -- including files from state prosecutors, reports from the military and the parliamentary investigative committee, witness statements from the police investigation and interviews with more than two dozen participants such as military officers, politicians and police personnel -- provide a new and more immediate narrative of that fateful day.
Saturday, July 9, 2016
Theologian Adil Öksüz has gathered a group of men in a villa, including two Turkish army generals, an admiral and several civilians. A compactly built, mustachioed 49-year-old, Öksüz hasn't published anything during his career as an academic in western Anatolia aside from his dissertation, but he is nevertheless extremely influential. Öksüz is considered to be a confidante of the exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen. There are pictures that show the two of them praying together at Gülen's estate in Pennsylvania.
Gülen has built up an empire of schools, universities and media companies in more than 160 countries worldwide and his followers occupied key positions in the Turkish state. For every institution, Gülen has identified a leader, a so-called imam. Adil Öksüz, say Gülen followers, is the "imam of the army," responsible for ensuring the Gülen movement's influence over the military. It is alleged that many soldiers have more loyalty to him than to the general staff.
For many years, Erdogan and Gülen controlled Turkey together, until a power struggle led to a falling out in 2013. Since then, Erdogan has viewed the cleric's followers as terrorists while the Gülen movement tried to get rid of Turkey's head of state.
Adil Öksüz opens the secret meeting in Ankara with a prayer. According to witness testimony given to state prosecutors, the group then goes through the final details of the plan that Özküz has prepared: A team of elite soldiers is to take President Erdogan into custody and bring him to a ship on the Mediterranean. Hulusi Akar, the head of the army, is to be convinced to lead the coup. Some of the meeting participants express doubts about the plan's prospects for success. "Let's not invite Satan in with negative thoughts," says coup planner Öksüz, according to his indictment.
Monday, July 11, 2016
Istanbul, 6:45 a.m.
Adil Öksüz takes off on Turkish Airlines Flight 003 for New York. Sitting in the same plane is Kemal Batmaz, a former manager of the Gülen-controlled company Kaynak. State prosecutors believe that Öksüz and Batmaz flew to the U.S. to get Gülen's final approval for the coup attempt, but they have no evidence for their supposition. It has been established, however, that Öksüz and Batmaz returned to Turkey two days later in the same airplane. Security cameras show the two arriving back at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul.
Friday, July 15, 2016
Güvercinlik Military Airport
Ankara, in the morning
Pilot Osman Karaca returns earlier than planned from his camping vacation on the Aegean Sea. He is picked up by a major. That is the story that Karaca would later tell investigators. The major asked him to turn off his mobile phone before saying: "I know that you belong to the Gülen movement. We are activating tonight. I will pick up (intelligence chief) Hakan Fidan with the helicopter. Much blood will flow."
Karaca has admitted that he was once a follower of Gülen and that he lived in a residential complex belonging to the movement -- and that in the military, he would meet with members of the movement every two weeks. But he disassociated himself from the Gülen community and now he is overcome with doubts. He sneaks out of the barracks and takes a taxi to the headquarters of the Turkish intelligence agency MIT.
Ankara, 2:20 p.m.
Four officials question the pilot and ask him what he thinks is in the works. He answers: "It will be a large action, perhaps even a coup."
At this point, at the latest, MIT is aware that a coup could be in the making. Intelligence head Hakan Fidan is considered a confidante of Erdogan's, but in this fateful moment, the only person he informed was the deputy head of the army.
According to his own testimony, the intelligence chief first spoke on the phone with Erdogan only hours later, at 10 p.m. Did he not trust the source? Or did he conceal the truth to protect the president? Fidan still hasn't provided a sufficient answer to that question.
Akinci Air Force Base
Ankara, early afternoon
Commander Hakan Evrim sends some of his soldiers home earlier than usual. Only those who later take part in the plot against Erdogan remain. Coup participants use encrypted text messages to order other co-conspirators to the base. Only those who know the password "Peace at Home" are allowed to pass through the entrance. As the day progresses, all of the alleged coup leaders make their way to Akinci:
- Four-star general Akin Öztürk, the former commander of the air force. According to federal prosecutors, he is the one who delivered the order to start the coup attempt.
- Major-General Mehmet Disli, brother of Saban Disli, the deputy head of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
- Lieutenant-Colonel Muzaffer Düzenli. He will lead the operation by telephone from Istanbul.
Along with 35 additional officers, the three are part of the "Peace at Home" council. The name is a reference to Atatürk's slogan "peace at home, peace in the world." Civilians are not allowed access to military facilities in Turkey, but coup planners and Gülen confidante Öksüz are nevertheless present in the Akinci base on July 15. Later, he will claim to have been looking at farmland to buy not far from the military base.
Security cameras will also record Kemal Batmaz, the former Gülen manager who returned from the U.S. together with Öksüz two days earlier, walking through the base on the night of the coup and consulting with soldiers.
Ankara, 6 p.m.
Almost four hours after the informant's visit to MIT, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan seeks out Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar and warns him that soldiers are planning an attack. According to members of the coup investigative committee in Turkish parliament, Akar's reaction is astoundingly composed; he merely issues a no-fly order to the military.
To this day, observers are puzzled by the passive attitude adopted by the chief of the general staff. Did he misjudge the situation? Did he want to lure the conspirators into a trap? Or was he driven by other motivations?
Coup participants in military headquarters learn of the meeting between Fidan and Akar. According to the indictment, they notify their headquarters in the Akinci base. As a result, the order is issued to participating soldiers to launch the coup six hours earlier than originally planned. The move will ultimately prove to be a fatal error, because it will allow Erdogan to mobilize the population against the conspirators. Had the coup taken place in the early morning hours, that likely would not have been possible.
Hotel Grand Yazici Club Turban
Marmaris, around 8 p.m.
President Erdogan is on vacation on the Aegean coast together with his wife Emine, daughter Esra, her husband, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, and his three grandchildren. In a later interview, Erdogan will say that his brother-in-law informed him on the phone of "problems with soldiers" in Istanbul. According to the president's version of events, Erdogan tries to reach intelligence chief Fidan, but is allegedly unable to get ahold of him.
The Turkish president governs his country like a despot. But he says he only learned of the coup attempt from his brother-in-law that evening? Erdogan's account supports suspicions that he knew of the coup earlier than he claims, but allowed it to go ahead to reap the political benefits.
Ankara, 8:30 p.m.
Intelligence chief Fidan and the chief of the general staff go their separate ways. Fidan has hardly left military headquarters before Major General Mehmet Disli shows up at the site. Disli, 55, is head of the general staff's strategy department. Witnesses will later describe him to public prosecutors as a Gülen follower.
At around 9 p.m., Disli knocks on the office door of Chief of the General Staff Akar to try to convince him to lead the coup. That is the story Akar will tell investigators later, backed up by the testimony of other officers who were in the room during the conversation. Disli himself claims not to be involved in the coup, but says he has been forced to speak with Akar by the conspirators.
Akar refuses to join the coup. "Who are you? Are you crazy?" he yells. Additional members of the plot show up, put Akar in handcuffs and take him to coup headquarters at the Akinci base by helicopter. According to Akar's later testimony, Commander Evrim offers to put him in touch with Gülen.
Güvercinlik Military Airport
Ankara, 9:30 p.m.
Karaca, the man who informed the intelligence service of the impending coup, has returned to base. The major says to him: "We have to take off (for Akinci) immediately!"
Soldiers jostle their way into the barracks. Bullet-proof vests, night-vision goggles, machine guns and ammunition are lying on a table. Karaca takes advantage of the chaos to leave the barracks unnoticed. He calls his contact person at intelligence and informs him of the planned flight to Akinci.
Istanbul, around 10 p.m.
Volkan Koc, head of the news website Haberdar, is on his way home from a party when he sees that soldiers are blocking the entrance to the Bosphorus Bridge. He asks why and is curtly told: "A state of emergency has been imposed, effective immediately." The 30-year-old journalist has always dreamed of landing a scoop and he grabs his phone and dictates to his newsroom: "Military imposes state of emergency." Koc becomes the first journalist to report on the coup attempt.
AKP politicians call Major General Disli on his mobile phone, wanting to know what is going on. The officer brushes them off. He doesn't contact his brother, deputy AKP head Saban Disli. Later, he will say he didn't have his number.
Ankara, around 10 p.m.
Air-traffic controllers receive a message from their counterparts at the Akinci Air Force Base telling them that two F-16 fighters, Löwe 1 and Löwe 2, will be passing over Ankara at an altitude of 21,000 feet. The pilot of Löwe 1 says that it is a "special mission."
A short time later, low-altitude jets roar over the Turkish capital. The Esenboga air traffic controllers demand an explanation and their counterparts at Akinsi say that the F-16 pilots have switched off their transponders and could no longer be reached. Plus, they say, two additional jets have taken off.
Istanbul, 10:20 p.m.
General Ümit Dündar, commander of the First Army, tries in vain to reach the chief of the general staff and his deputy. Ultimately, he drives to the Bosphorus Bridge, but turns around when he sees that the entrance is blocked by soldiers. That, at least, is what he will later testify.
The coup participants view Dündar as one of their most important adversaries and use a WhatsApp group to call on their comrades to hunt him down. "Take the commander into custody, no matter what it takes," one colonel writes.
Istanbul, around 10:45 p.m.
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has just landed in Istanbul when he learns of the coup from his press spokesperson. He turns to the deputy head of the AKP, who is sitting next to him in the front row of the Turkish Airlines plane, and utters a sentence that will play a significant role in the events of that night: "We are opposed to the coup."
Kilicdaroglu and his AKP counterpart are led across the tarmac to the VIP area. They are then able to avoid the coup plotters and make their way into the city. On television that same night, Kilicdaroglu will criticize the military's grab for power.
Riot Police Headquarters Bayrampasa Barracks
Istanbul, 10:50 p.m.
The government wants to mobilize riot police, but the rebels have blocked the building's exit with a tank. On the coup group on WhatsApp, Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli, who is coordinating the operation in Istanbul, writes: "The police may not leave Bayrampasa under any circumstances. Do what is necessary."
Black Sea Region,
around 11 p.m.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim departs Istanbul to drive back to Ankara. But the streets are partly under the control of the putschists. "We can't go any further," Yildirim's bodyguards warn. The prime minister doesn't know what to do and is afraid that they could be attacked from the air. On the search for safety, Yildirim and his entourage hide in a darkened tunnel construction site on the Black Sea and stay there for hours. In a telephone interview with broadcaster NTV, he confirms that part of the military has launched a coup against the government.
Saturday, July 16, 2016
Office of the Prime Minister
Ankara, shortly after midnight
Nine ministers gather for a crisis meeting. "Let's be prepared to die," says one of the meeting participants, according to a later report in the Turkish media.
On state television broadcaster TRT, a newsreader is coerced into reading a statement by the coup plotters. "Democracy based on the separation of powers has been eliminated. We can no longer fulfill our duties under these conditions. We have taken control under the motto: Peace at home, peace in the world."
Istanbul, during the same period of time
The coup plotters capture Atatürk Airport, the Borsa stock exchange and the state television station. They encircle the local offices of the governing AKP party. They appear to be close to achieving a breakthrough. "Anyone who opposes our acts will be dealt with harshly," coup leader Düzenli writes on WhatsApp. "This is the order."
Hotel Grand Yazici Club Turban
Marmaris, 12:24 a.m.
Rumors are swirling that Erdogan is dead or has fled, but then he suddenly appears on television on CNN Türk. He conducts the interview using Facetime from his vacation destination. The president's image is unclear and blurred, but Erdogan is nonetheless recognizable. He calls on the people to resist the military and implores them to "go to the streets and give them their answer."
The stakes are high for the president, who risks the deaths of thousands of people with his appeal.
At this point, Erdogan wants to return to Ankara, but following a conversation with Ümit Dündar, the commander of the First Army, he changes his plan. "Mr. President, I am loyal to you," Dündar tells him on the telephone. "Come to Istanbul and I will guarantee your safety."
A helicopter takes Erdogan and his family to the nearest airport in Dalaman. The pilot flies low in order to avoid radar and without any lights on.
Istanbul, 12:52 a.m.
General Dündar brings his own troops into position against the coup plotters. He gives a telephone interview to the TV station A Haber. "This coup attempt is the work of a small group of soldiers. It is not supported by the Turkish army," he says. Dündar's statement marks a turning point. For the first time, it becomes clear that large parts of the military will position themselves against the coup's plotters.
Dalaman Airport, around 1:30 a.m.
Erdogan and his family board the president's jet, a Gulfstream IV, for the flight to Istanbul. The pilot changes the aircraft's call letters from TC-ATA to THY 8456 to deceive the putschists. But Erdogan's plane is nevertheless pursued by F-16 jets. There is no point during this night that the rebels will come closer to killing the president.
The fact that they didn't do so remains a mystery to this day. It will later be reported that the fighter pilot possibly balked out of concern the aircraft might be a passenger jet.
As the aircraft reaches Istanbul, the runway is dark. The pilot circles over the city. But Istanbul's police chief ensures the president that his people can capture the tower within 15 minutes. Erdogan decides to land.
Istanbul, 1:45 a.m.
Politics have never really interested 35-year-old computer programmer Sabri Ünal and he rarely votes. But when he hears about the coup attempt on Twitter, he heads out onto the streets. Thousands of people have gathered in the city's Üsküdar district. The mosques are summoning the people on government orders to resist the coup attempt. Ünal wants to continue on to the Bosporus Bridge, at which point he hears a man shout "Get down! They're shooting." Then he sees a tank rolling toward him. Ünal is unable to get out of the way. He throws himself to the ground. Video footage shows two tanks rolling over him.
Pressure on the rebels mounts. "We have shot 20-30 people, but our guys at the 2nd bridge are struggling," one major laments on WhatsApp. Around 3,000 to 4,000 protesters occupy AKP headquarters in Istanbul and civilians at Atatürk Airport are putting up resistance.
Coup leader Düzenli issues the order that: "Crowds that have gathered will be fired on." A comerade of his agrees. "Crush them, burn them, "he says. "No compromise."
Ankara, 2:35 a.m.
Mustafa Yeneroglu, a member of parliament with AKP, is working together with representatives of all the country's political parties on a joint statement opposing the coup as soldiers begin firing on the parliament building from the air. The parliamentarians flee to a safe room in the basement.
Yeneroglu follows on his mobile phone as coup organizers bomb the presidential palace and the headquarters of the intelligence service. He sends a text message to his wife, who is together with her children in Germany, where he himself grew up. "Stay strong, take care of the children," he writes.
Hotel Grand Yazici Club Turban
Marmaris, 3 a.m.
Helicopter units controlled by the coup plotters are set to take off from the Taurus Mountains to fly to the site where the president is vacationing in an attempt to capture Erdogan. But security forces stop all air traffic. The putschists instead send soldiers from Izmir.
Men in camouflage uniforms slide down ropes from three helicopters onto the property of the Grand Yazici Club Turban. They storm the hotel and fire their weapons into the air, but Ergodan has long since departed. "Did they take the head of the snake," a major will later write to the WhatsApp group. He doesn't get a reply.
Istanbul, around 3:40 a.m.
Police have surrounded Taksim Square, a central part of the city that is often used for political gatherings. They fire tear gas and arrest soldiers. Fighter jets fly over the city at low altitude. For a moment, it feels like Turkey is at war. But the protesters don't retreat from the streets. The coup participants give up control of Taksim Square as well as the Disaster Coordination Center, the stock market and Atatürk Airport.
"May God help you," Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli writes from coup headquarters.
Istanbul, around 4:15 a.m.
People at the airport have just driven out the putschists. Now they're preparing a festive reception for Erdogan. They raise their hands to salute the Turkish leader. "Tayyip! We're prepared to die for you!" they shout. Erdogan's facial features are rigid. In his speech, he blames preacher Gülen for the military coup. "If we accept that everything happens for a reason, then this uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army," he says.
Coup Headquarters at Akinci
Ankara, after 6 a.m.
From this point on, the only thing left for coup plotters is to ensure their own survival. Fighter jets belonging to members of the military loyal to Erdogan have already taken off to eliminate the resistance. Coup planner Öksüz tries in vain to escape the air base. General Öztürk comes under fire as he climbs into a helicopter. He is arrested, as are Major-General Disli and Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli. Government troops free army chief Akar and fly him to the office of the prime minister.
Istanbul, early morning
"Has the operation been canceled?" a major asks on WhatsApp. "Yes, commander," the answer reads. "Stay alive, commander."
The main defendants in the failed coup d'état, General Öztürk and Major-General Disli, are currently facing charges in a court in Ankara. Düzleni is being tried in Istanbul. Öksüz, who is alleged to have organized the coup, was temporarily released from detention by a judge for reasons that remain a mystery. He fled after his release.
Intelligence chief Fadan and army chief Akar were allowed to keep their jobs even though they clearly failed to prevent the coup attempt from taking place. General Dündar, the commander of the First Army, was promoted after July 15 to become deputy chief of staff for the military. Pilot Karaca, who informed the MIT about the impending putsch, has since been placed under the guardianship of the intelligence service. The government apparently wants to prevent him from speaking publicly.
Some questions about the night of the putsch remain unanswered today. The biggest is this: Why didn't the government take action against the rebels earlier? Government agencies, after all, had been informed of the plans by early Friday afternoon at the latest. But the participation of Fethulah Gülen also hasn't been definitively proven, despite numerous indications that Gülen supporters were among the putschists.
In contrast to the West, few in Turkey are in doubt that the insurgency was led by Gülen supporters. Following numerous purges undertaken in the military, the Gülen movement was the only remaining faction strong enough to defy the government. Other groups also could have joined forces with them, including Kemalists and military officers who thought the coup might be advantageous to their careers.
The opposition is calling for a clarification of events. But so far, neither the head of the intelligence service nor the chief of the general staff has testified before the investigative committee in Turkish parliament. Erdogan himself has no interest in a further clarification of the events of July 15. He is out for revenge.
Computer programmer Sabri Ünal spent a long time in the hospital after tanks ran him over the night of the putsch. He says he still has trouble sleeping today because of the pain. Still, given the chance to do it all over, he says he would stand in the putschists' way again.
With reporting by Eren Caylan