After the failure of the recent military coup d’état in Turkey, much attention has been given to the country’s armed forces, the police, even the judiciary. In contrast, little to no information has surfaced about Turkey’s intelligence establishment, which is led by MİT, the National Intelligence Organization. Did it anticipate the plot, and how did it fare as the crisis unfolded in the early hours of July 16?
Two days after the failed coup, American Congressman Peter King (R-NY), a senior member of the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, claimed that “no one […] saw this coup coming”. Speaking on WNYM, a conservative talk-radio station in his home state of New York, Rep. King said that, as far as he was aware, “there was no diplomatic talk; there was no intelligence talk of this coup”. Speaking a day earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that the White House had “no idea” that a coup was imminent in Turkey, and that developments in the country had “surprised everybody”.
As is often the case, King and Kerry were both wrong. Even as early as October of 2015, Norman Bailey, of the University of Haifa in Israel and the Institute of World Politics in Washington, was stating with certainty that Turkey’s “army will step in and take over” if it senses that the country is descending into chaos. On March 12 of this year, Russian observers warned that Turkey’s military was “gradually building up its political influence, thus laying grounds for a military coup”. Later in the same month, Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, asked: “could there be a coup in Turkey?”, and answered that “no one should be surprised […] if the Turkish military moves to oust Erdogan and place his inner circle behind bars”. And on March 30, the esteemed journal Foreign Affairs hosted an article by Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, in which she explained that Turkey was about to face its “next military coup”. During an interview on July 2 of this year, the present author spoke about the “very volatile situation within [Turkey]” and added: “I can’t think of any countries in the region that are more unsettled and unpredictable right now than Turkey”.
If analysts relying on open sources were able to issue concrete warnings about Turkey’s political instability at least a year in advance of the coup, it should be taken for granted that intelligence observers were equally alarmed over the same period. We know, for instance, that American intelligence analysts were “concerned for months” prior to the coup “about simmering tensions between President […] Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish military brass”. Throughout the past year, as Turkey’s autocratic —yet popular— president continued to consolidate his power by quashing dissent, perverting the course of justice and silencing the media, it became increasingly clear that a major political breakdown was imminent. The only question was when and by whom. Judging by Turkey’s turbulent history, the military was the most obvious candidate.
But if countless observers outside Turkey —barring US Secretary of State Kerry and Rep. King— had forewarned about the possibility of a coup, what can be said about Turkey’s intelligence apparatus? Judging by the initially disjointed and haphazard response to the coup by the Erdoğan administration, it is safe to state that the putsch startled the MİT, which prides itself as the frontline of Turkey’s spy machinery. So unprepared was the agency, that it was unable to defend its headquarters in Ankara from an attack in the morning of July 16 by military helicopters. The latter were able to unload their machine guns on the defenseless building unmolested, causing serious damage and injuring at least three people. The MİT’s beleaguered director, Hakan Fidan, once tipped as an up-and-coming parliamentarian, remained in hiding, frantically contacting President Erdoğan and his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim throughout the long night.
How is it possible that the MİT could have failed to pick up signals of an imminent coup that involved thousands of government officials and troops in every branch of the Turkish armed forces and the police? The reasons are many and complex, but three stand out. First, the abilities of the MİT are limited and often grossly exaggerated in Turkish media reports. The agency is highly bureaucratic, its operational traditions are archaic, and its network of agents is even more limited than its chronically lacking analytical capabilities. Second, the MİT has never been known for its analytical impartiality. But since Erdoğan’s rise to power in 2003, the agency has been virtually integrated into the political apparatus of the Islam-oriented AKP, the Justice and Development Party led by Erdoğan. It was one of the very first government agencies to undergo extensive personnel purges during the early days of Erdoğan’s rule. The AKP strongman carried out these purges in full knowledge of the central role played by MİT during Turkey’s numerous postwar military coups, wishing to prevent a repeat. Critically, Erdoğan removed the vast majority of MİT’s military staff, who represented Turkey’s secular anti-AKP faction, and replaced them with pro-AKP civilian officials. That ensured MİT’s political compliance, but also isolated the agency from the military, which contains large numbers of militant secularists and led last week’s putsch. Finally, in the past decade the MİT has focused largely on the long list of Turkey’s foreign-policy difficulties, which revolve around the destabilization of the Middle East after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the emergence of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, the mayhem caused by the Syrian Civil War, and the rise of the Islamic State. These unprecedented challenges have prevented the agency from paying much attention to domestic concerns, including factionalism within the military and the police.
There is, of course, an alternative explanation, which is that Erdoğan conspired with the MİT to allow anti-AKP elements in the military to stage a limited putsch. Its failure, the theory goes, would give the AKP strongman the excuse to carry out extensive purges within the government and the military, thus solidifying his power for years to come. But, in the opinion of the present author, this theory overestimates the planning capabilities of the AKP and the MİT. It also overlooks the obvious risk posed to Erdoğan’s power by an armed coup involving large numbers of tanks and fighter jets. Such a gamble may be easy to imagine, but involves a tremendous degree of unpredictability. Knowing about it and allowing it to go forward for tactical reasons would risk plunging the country into an all-out civil war —as the coup almost did— and possibly ending Erdoğan reign. As is usually the case in these situations, the least complicated explanation is the most likely, and it makes logical sense to adopt it.