Former high-ranking military officials and an award-winning journalist spoke about the dangerous nature of the Gulen network
Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin is the former head of Turkey’s military intelligence; Colonel Judge Ahmet Zeki Ucok is a former military judge who has conducted investigations into the infiltration into the Turkish Armed Forces of followers of Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen; and Nedim Sener is a journalist who has investigated the role of Gulen-affiliated security forces in the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.
Between 2008 and 2013, Lt. Gen. Pekin and Mr. Sener were both accused of and imprisoned for being part of a clandestine anti-government conspiracy known as Ergenekon, while Colonel Judge Ucok was arrested and imprisoned for alleged involvement in a coup plot known as the Balyoz, or “Sledgehammer,” case. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials led to the imprisonment of hundreds of individuals, including military officials, public servants, and journalists. The convictions of members of these groups were made based on what many politicians, journalists, and activists allege to be evidence forged by corrupt members of the judiciary and security forces with ties to Gulen. As a result, the majority of the imprisoned individuals have since been released and their convictions annulled or overturned. Some have been acquitted, while others are awaiting retrial.
At the THO event held at the Carnegie Conference Center in Washington, D.C., Dr. Mark Meirowitz, an Assistant Professor at SUNY Maritime College, engaged the speakers in a discussion of the individuals behind the coup attempt and the impact of the coup attempt on Turkey.
Complex and Dangerous Nature of the Gulen Network
According to all three of the speakers, there is ample evidence to show that the coup attempt was orchestrated by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen – who resides in Pennsylvania – and a shadowy group of his followers that has been labeled the “Fethullahist Terror Organization” (FETO) by the Turkish government. They presented evidence from investigations into the group to support the claim that Gulen’s followers had succeeded in infiltrating state institutions – including the armed forces – over a number of decades. With their presentations, all three speakers aimed to shed light on this organization and help American audiences understand the complex and dangerous nature of the Gulen network.
During visits in New York and D.C., including with Congressional offices, Mr. Sener noted that many Americans have asked him why no one knew about the extent of the Gulen network’s infiltration of state institutions. His answer is that “everyone” in the Turkish state and public knew of the infiltration. He emphasized that there is ample information on Wikileaks that shows how Gulen followers were organized and positioned for employment in Turkish state institutions. Sener said that at the time, both the Turkish and U.S. governments turned a blind eye to the organization “when it suited them.”
Gulen’s Questionable Residency in the U.S.
Based on his extensive research of the U.S Embassy and Consulate’s cables found in Wikileaks, award-winning investigative journalist Sener called into question the validity of Gulen’s residence in the U.S. According to Sener, Gulen was on a special visa reserved for people of “high achievement” and the FBI had a negative view of Gulen. He called into question Gulen’s message of interfaith tolerance, as three prominent religious leaders of the Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian communities in Turkey had refused to provide letters of reference for his residency application. Sener also claimed that the only reason that Gulen received residency was because two former CIA officials and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (Morton Abramowitz) had provided letters of reference to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Sener had indicated that Gulen’s questionable residency in the U.S. has endangered both the Turkish public and the U.S.-Turkey relationship. He called on media professionals and government officials in the U.S. to investigate the legitimacy of Gulen’s application file, specifically the reference letters.
Gulen’s Systematic Infiltration into the Turkish Armed Forces
To answer a common question in the West asking for evidence of Gulen’s involvement on July 15th, Colonel Judge Ucok provided a picture of how the movement was able to infiltrate the Turkish Armed Forces based on military investigations. He said that members of the network infiltrated the armed forces through two methods: 1) by stealing the questions to the examination providing entry to military schools in order to ensure that members were accepted, and 2) by eliminating officers within the armed forces who opposed Gulen members or were not affiliated with them through wrongful charges of criminal activities (as was done during the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials).
According to military investigations, Colonel Judge Ucok said that the first known instance of theft of the exam questions was in 1986, with 500 students having been helped to enter military schools in this manner. In 1987, 1300 students benefited from these stolen questions, of which only 100 were expelled. He said that many high-level military officials involved in the July 15th coup attempt confessed that exam questions had been stolen.
Colonel Judge Ucok, who helped conduct military investigations into the Gulen network’s infiltration during his tenure at the Air Force Attorney General’s office, claimed that investigations had shown evidence that during the period between 1986 and 2006, 30,000 officers could have been connected to the Gulen movement. He estimated that during the following decade, an additional 40,000 could have entered into the armed services, thus making the number of affiliated officers approximately 100,000 by the present day. He said that of the 358 generals in the Turkish Armed Forces, 160 had been connected to this organization.
Lt. Gen. Pekin elaborated on the organizing tactics of the Gulen network, saying that indoctrination of new members started with children as young as 13 who were brainwashed at “Light” (Isik) houses and then placed in state institutions. He said that the greatest danger of the organization was that it had in place a well-organized, secretive process of indoctrination, with students hand-picked for positions and answerable only to individuals in the public domain referred to as “imams.” He stated that anyone who tried to investigate the organization was punished, sometimes with imprisonment based on forged evidence of criminal activity, as happened with Mr. Sener. In more serious cases, some were assassinated for digging too deep.
Gulen’s “Empire of Fear” Intimidated Everyone
Despite the fact that everyone in Turkey – including the “party in power and the opposition” – knew about the secretive group and their goals, few acted to stop them during the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. According to Lt. Gen. Pekin, some politicians spoke of the importance of “military oversight,” while Gulen-affiliated members of state institutions created an “empire of fear,” intimidating politicians into silence via threats of blackmail. In some cases, officials kept quiet because they were expecting promotions.
All three speakers illustrated the trauma that Turkey underwent on July 15th, with Lt. General Pekin describing it as similar to the trauma experienced by the American public on and following 9/11. Mr. Sener and Lt. Gen. Pekin both emphasized that the real target of the coup was the Turkish people, not just the ruling AKP government. Lt. Gen. Pekin said that he had lived through three military coups in Turkey during his lifetime and that until July 15th, he had never seen a situation in which soldiers were so ready to shed blood and kill their fellow citizens in order to remove the elected government. The three speakers explained their wish that their presentations help create a greater understanding among the American public of the real threat posed by the Gulen network.
Gulen Still Poses a Threat for the U.S. and Turkey
Colonel Judge Ucok stated that while the view of the group outside of the U.S. is of a charitable, interfaith organization, its activities in Turkey over multiple decades prove a nefarious intent to take control of the Turkish state and have earned it the label of “terror organization.” Lt. Gen. Pekin said that only a fraction of the Gulen-affiliated members of the armed forces had been arrested following the coup attempt and that a danger further violence in Turkey remains. Mr. Sener underlined that Gulen’s organization poses a threat not only to Turkey but to the U.S., as a current fugitive member in Turkey had served in NATO and was in possession of “important intelligence,” while the commander of Incirlik Air Base in Adana was implicated in the coup attempt.
The speakers called on the U.S. to strive for a fuller understanding of the evidence pointing to Gulen’s role in the July 15th coup attempt and to extradite the cleric to face justice in Turkey so as to contribute to security in Turkey and ensure a mutually beneficial, strong U.S.-Turkey alliance.