Turkey witnessed the bloodiest coup attempt in its political history on July 15, 2016, when a section of the Turkish military launched a coordinated operation in several major cities to topple the government and unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Soldiers and tanks took to the streets and a number of explosions rang out in Ankara and Istanbul. Turkish fighter jets dropped bombs on their own parliament.
For several hours, it looked like Turkey was going to face the fourth devastating military coup in its 95-year political history. But at this point, something unprecedented happened.
Thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets to oppose the attempted coup on July 15. As news of the coup attempt spread via social media, thousands of ordinary citizens, armed with nothing more than kitchen utensils, gathered in streets and squares around Anatolia to oppose the coup.
The crowds resisted tank fire and air bombardments and, with the help of loyalist soldiers and police forces, they defeated the coup attempt in a matter of hours. The government swiftly declared victory and scores of troops that had taken part in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul.
The Turkish government blames the failed coup attempt on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher and businessman who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.
Gulen is the leader of a widespread and influential religious movement known as “Hizmet” (Service), which owns foundations, associations, media organizations and schools in Turkey and abroad.
Gulen was once a strong ally of Erdogan, and during the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) struggle to end the military’s influence in Turkish politics in the late 2000s, his organization had its golden years.
A corruption investigation in December 2013, which saw renowned businesspeople and senior bureaucrats close to the AKP arrested by Gulenist police officers, gave way to an all-out war between the government and the Hizmet movement.
Erdogan reacted furiously to the crackdown and claimed that those behind the investigations were trying to form a “state within a state”, in an apparent reference to the Hizmet movement.
Turkish officials say that the July coup attempt materialized because Gulenists were increasingly concerned that the government investigation into their illegal actions was coming to an end and they would be arrested.
July’s coup attempt gave rise to serious questions about Turkey’s intelligence capabilities. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, MIT officials admitted that they received the very first intelligence report about a possible attack on July 15, only hours before their own headquarters was under heavy artillery fire.
They also admitted that the undersecretary of the MIT tried to reach Erdogan to inform him about this initial report around 7pm local time, but failed to get him on the phone. In an exclusive Al Jazeera interview, Erdogan also admitted that Turkey experienced some intelligence failures on July 15.
He said that he had learned about the extraordinary developments taking place in Ankara and Istanbul on the night of the coup attempt not from the MIT, but from his brother-in-law.
Intelligence officials said that in the months before the failed coup attempt, the country’s spy agency decoded millions of secret messages sent by suspected Gulenists, but found no mention of the plot.
It is still not entirely clear how the MIT failed to detect the preparations for the coup attempt and why it failed to notify the president or the prime minister immediately once they received intelligence on the plot.
Only days after the coup attempt, on July 22, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency “to be able to remove swiftly all the elements of the terrorist organization involved in the coup attempt”.
Dozens of media outlets suspected of having links to the Hizmet movement were also shut down. Turkish officials say that they were able to act swiftly because intelligence agencies had been investigating Gulen and his followers for more than two years.
For example, speaking to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency in May 2015 about the Gulenists within the Turkish armed forces, former Minister of Defence Ismet Yildiz said: “So far we have received reports of more than 1,000 people from Turkish armed forces.”
As a result of these investigations, it is believed that the MIT got together an extensive list of at least 40,000 suspected Gulenists, including 600 high-ranking officials.
According to officials, these lists were used to determine the names that would be detained or sacked after the coup attempt.
The post-coup purge led to a rift in Turkey’s relations with the European Union, which accused Erdogan of using the coup attempt as an excuse to eliminate the opposition.
Turkey’s relations with the US also deteriorated as a result of this incident, as Washington refused to extradite Gulen.
A day after Turkey’s failed coup attempt, all major political parties united against the “unparalleled attack on the Turkish democracy”, issuing a joint declaration to condemn it. Erdogan also put aside acrimony with the leaders of two opposition parties, inviting them to the presidential palace for talks in a gesture of national unity.
Promising to “reinforce the social state” in the new era, Erdogan also vowed to “leave behind the days that people were externalized and alienated for whatever reason” in Turkey.