Since it was launched in June 2007, the Ergenekon investigation has become the largest and most controversial case in recent Turkish history, resulting in over 300 people being charged with a membership of what is described as a clandestine terrorist organization seeking to destabilize the country’s Islamist government. In the parallel Sledgehammer investigation, 195 members of the fiercely secularist Turkish military stand accused of plotting a coup in 2003. Yet not only is the evidence in both cases deeply flawed, there are also increasing indications that much of it has been fabricated.
On June 12, 2007, acting on an anonymous tip-off, the Turkish police discovered a crate of grenades in a shantytown in the Istanbul suburb of Umraniye in the beginning of what later became known as the Ergenekon investigation. By May 2011, a motley collection of over 300 people had been formally charged with membership of what public prosecutors described as the “Ergenekon terrorist organization,” which was allegedly plotting to use violence to try to destabilize the government of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (JDP). In January 2010, prosecutors launched a parallel investigation into claims that members of the Turkish military had plotted to stage a coup against the JDP in early 2003. By May 2011, 195 serving and retired members of the Turkish military had been formally charged with involvement in the alleged plot.
In a country where conspiracy theories are rife and where the Turkish military has a record of intervening in the political arena, initially at least, many were prepared to take the allegations at face value. However, as the investigations progressed, another–more disturbing–picture began to emerge. From the outset, the investigations were characterized by outlandish claims and numerous abuses of due process. The indictments against the accused ran to thousands of pages. Yet not only were they riddled with absurdities and contradictions, but they contained no convincing proof that either the Ergenekon organization or the coup plot existed. On the contrary, some of the evidence adduced to support the prosecutors’ claims had clearly been fabricated.
Equally troubling was the profile of the accused, particularly in the Ergenekon case. Not only was there no proof that they were members of Ergenekon but they held disparate views, covering almost the entire political spectrum except for the Islamist right. Indeed, the only characteristic that the accused all appeared to share was an opposition to the JDP; and particularly to the movement inspired by the exiled Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen, which has been the JDP’s more important political ally.
COUPS, CONSPIRACIES AND THE DEEP STATE
For most of the last 50 years, politics in Turkey has been conducted under the watchful eye of the country’s military. Fiercely secular and nationalistic, it seized power in full-blooded coups in 1960 and 1980. In 1971, it forced the elected government from office and replaced it with a government of technocrats. Most recently, in 1997, the military instigated a campaign of pressure and persuasion to topple modern Turkey’s first ever Islamist-led government. Even between interventions, the military effectively set parameters for civilian governments, which varied both over time and between policy areas; with military control being tightest on issues that were regarded as being strategic or security-related and relatively loose in areas such as the economy.
Yet by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the military’s political influence was based mainly on bluff and bluster. Its past record of staging coups and its still considerable public prestige meant that few civilian governments were brave enough to defy a warning from the Turkish General Staff (TGS). Nevertheless, there was a general awareness inside the officer corps that–even if they had wanted to do so–a seizure of power was impossible in all but the most extreme of circumstances. The price had simply become too high.
Unlike in 1980, when the military had last staged a full-blooded coup, Turkey was now integrated into the global economy and vulnerable to shifts in international investor confidence. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the perceived threat from the Soviet Union had made the United States less willing to tolerate military regimes among its allies; particularly in a country that, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Washington had been touting to the Islamic world as an example of a Muslim, pro-Western democracy. In addition, in December 1999, Turkey had been named as an official candidate for EU accession; a process that still enjoyed overwhelming public support when the JDP first came to power in November 2002 and that would have been immediately suspended if the Turkish military had seized power.
As a result, although many members of the officer corps wanted General Hilmi Ozkok, who had been appointed chief of the TGS in August 2002, to warn repeatedly the new JDP government to preserve the secular state, they were also aware that their options were limited if the JDP refused to take his advice. In the event, much to the frustration of his subordinates, Ozkok adopted a low profile and rarely attempted to apply pressure on the government.
In addition to direct pressure on the government, one of the means by which members of the Turkish military had traditionally exercised political influence was through the networks known to Turks as the derin devlet, or “deep state.” The Turkish deep state had its origins in the Gladio-style organizations created by NATO during the Cold War in order to form the basis of a resistance movement in the event of a Soviet occupation of an alliance member. Selected members of the Turkish military received specialized training in covert warfare and intelligence gathering in what was called the Special Warfare Unit (SWU). They subsequently returned to their units, where they pursued a normal career path in parallel to their new responsibilities. In theory, this meant remaining in a state of readiness for a possible Soviet invasion. In practice, many put their newly-acquired skills to immediate use; running intelligence-gathering networks, planting black propaganda and even becoming involved on the side of the rightists in the factional fighting that brought Turkey to the brink of civil war during the 1970s–not least because they regarded the Turkish leftist movement as a Soviet fifth column.
However, contrary to the image in the popular imagination, the deep state was never a single, centrally-controlled organization. In fact, officers were specifically trained to create small, self-contained cell networks, in which only one member of each cell had contact with anyone else from the same network. As a result, it would probably be more accurate to speak of the Turkish deep state in the plural, in which there was a multitude of autonomous and semi-autonomous groups, gangs, and networks, which shared merely common goals and–if the need arose–an ability to ensure that they enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
The end of the Cold War robbed the SWU of its original raison d’être. In the early 1990s, it was closed down and replaced by a new unit, which focused on conventional counter-insurgency training. Yet the disappearance of the Soviet threat came at a time when the deep state had shifted its focus to trying to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KWP), which in 1984 had launched a violent campaign for greater rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. There is considerable evidence to suggest that through the late 1980s and early 1990s, SWU-trained officers played a key role in what rapidly became a dirty war against the KWP; recruiting KWP defectors, forming links with ultranationalist elements in the Turkish underworld, and running death squads responsible for the deaths of hundreds–probably thousands–of Kurdish nationalists and KWP sympathizers.
By the late 1990s, the KWP was in retreat. In 1999, following the capture and imprisonment of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, the KWP announced an indefinite suspension of violence. At the time of Ocalan’s capture, the influence of the deep state was already in decline. With the KWP insurgency apparently contained, the groups and networks that had been formed to combat it either disintegrated or turned full-time to organized crime. No new members were being trained in the SWU. Many officers who had received covert training in the past either retired or concentrated on pursuing a conventional career. Those who remained active focused almost exclusively on intelligence gathering, particularly against the growing Islamist movement.
FROM PLAUSIBLE PARANOIA TO THE POLITICS OF THE ABSURD
On April 27, 2007, General Yasar Buyukanit, a hard-line secularist who had replaced Ozkok as head of the military in August 2006, posted a memorandum on the TGS website implicitly threatening a coup if the JDP pushed ahead with its plans to appoint Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the Turkish presidency a move secularists feared would give the JDP a stranglehold over the apparatus of state. The JDP responded by calling an early general election for July 22, 2007, which it won by a landslide, taking 46.6 percent of the popular vote. On August 28, 2007, Gul was sworn in as president. Buyukanit did nothing.
Despite Ozkok’s lack of assertiveness, during its first term in power, the JDP was sincerely convinced that the TGS might stage a coup and tried to avoid doing anything that could provoke the military. The decision to hold an early election was the first time it had effectively called the military’s bluff. Buyukanit’s passive response to Gul’s election as president demonstrated to the JDP what many in the military already knew; namely that the military was now powerless to respond if the civilian government ignored its warnings. The result was a massive surge in confidence among the JDP and its supporters, and a rapid expansion of the Ergenekon investigation.
On October 5, 2007, Zekeriya Oz, the main prosecutor in the Ergenekon case, applied to Police Headquarters in Istanbul for details of a string of assassinations, racist murders, terrorist attacks, and even protest marches going back to 2002. On January 21, 2008, the police arrested 27 people on charges of membership of the organization, which had allegedly hidden the crate of grenades in Umraniye. Two of those detained were retired military officers widely regarded as having been involved in the death squads that had terrorized southeast Turkey in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their arrest triggered excited speculation in the Turkish media that, freed from the threat of a military intervention, the JDP was finally going to bring to justice those responsible for one of the darkest chapters in modern Turkish history. However, it soon became evident that something else was going on, although initially it was unclear whether it was politically motivated or simple paranoia.
From the evidence subsequently presented in court, it is clear that when he applied to the police in October 2007, Oz had not uncovered anything to link those in custody with the files he had requested. The doubts intensified through the first half of 2008, as wave after wave of arrests led to the detention of scores of suspected members of what the pro-JDP media was now confidently referring to as the “Ergenekon” organization, which they claimed was synonymous with the deep state. Yet the profile of those detained suggested something different. Those named in the arrest warrants included university rectors, lawyers, journalists, television presenters, the author of some erotic novels, retired generals, the head of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce, and even Turhan Comez, a dissident former parliamentary deputy from the JDP who had resigned in 2007 in protest at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian management style. Indeed, the only thing that all of the detainees appeared to have in common was opposition to the JDP.
More worrying was the regularity with which, starting in spring 2008, transcripts of wiretaps– some of alleged Ergenekon members, others of government opponents or those who had begun to question the Ergenekon investigation-began to appear in pro-JDP newspapers and on pro-JDP websites. Under Turkish law, both the tapping of telephones by private individuals and the publication of the contents of court-approved wiretaps are crimes. Yet no attempt was made to investigate the sources of the leaks.
The first indictment in the Ergenekon case was published on July 10, 2008. A total of 2,455 pages in length, it formally charged 86 suspects with “membership of an armed terrorist organization” and “inciting the people to armed rebellion against the government of the Turkish Republic.” It maintained that Ergenekon was a single, centrally-coordinated, hierarchical organization, which had been responsible for every act of political violence in Turkey over the previous 20 years. The indictment further argued that the organization was controlling every military group active in the country–from the Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (RPLP/F) to the KWP and the Islamist organization known as the Turkish Hizballah (unrelated to the Lebanese organization of the same name). Yet, despite its extraordinary length, the indictment provided no convincing proof to support its claims. More remarkably, neither did it provide any evidence that Ergenekon even existed, much less that the accused were members. Indeed, the indictment was so riddled with absurdities and contradictions that it frequently defied credulity. For example, on page 81, it asserted that Ergenekon planned to “manufacture chemical and biological weapons and then, with the high revenue it earned from selling them, to finance and control every terrorist organization not just in Turkey but in the entire world.”
Nevertheless, the indictment was hailed by the pro-JDP media, particularly Zaman, the daily newspaper of the Fethullah Gulen Movement (FGM), which described it as “analyzing a contra-guerilla organization with cogent reasoning and fluent language.” Indeed, by summer 2008, the FGM’s media outlets had become a major player in the Ergenekon case, repeatedly running stories about “evidence” it claimed investigators had uncovered and conducting smear campaigns against those who questioned the conduct of the case, several of whom were subsequently detained and themselves charged with membership in Ergenekon.
The concerns about the real motives of the Ergenekon investigation increased as hundreds more suspects were taken into custody through late 2008 and into 2009. They included an improbable array of academics, journalists, retired members of the police, serving and retired members of the military, doctors, businessmen, actresses, charity workers, politicians, and even a transsexual concert organizer. Two more prodigiously long indictments followed. The second indictment of March 8, 2009, ran to 1,909 pages and charged 56 people with membership in Ergenekon. The third indictment of July 19, 2009, was 1,454 pages long, and accused a further 52 people of belonging to the organization. As with the first indictment, both documents were strewn with absurdities and contradictions and failed to provide any convincing proof that Ergenekon existed much less that the accused were members.
More disturbing were increasing signs that the case was being used as an instrument of intimidation. For example, pages 188-189 of the third indictment contain a transcript of a tapped telephone conversation from December 2008 between the Ergenekon suspect Professor Mehmet Haberal and the former JDP Minister Abdulatif Sener, in which the latter discussed a recent family holiday in Spain. Nothing else was mentioned, and Sener was not charged. However, the indictment was published at a time when JDP supporters were concerned about the possibility of Sener establishing a rival political party. Similarly, the third indictment also includes a transcript of a tapped telephone conversation between one of the more elderly male suspects and his young mistress. The conversation is so brief and innocuous that it is difficult to explain its inclusion in the indictment except as a means of psychological intimidation.
THE NARROWING FOCUS
In recent years, the provision of educational scholarships in Turkey has become dominated by Islamist organizations, such as the FGM, which currently provides financial support for tens of thousands of students, many of whom live in dormitories regulated in accordance to the FGM’s values and precepts. There are only two large non-religious organizations that provide educational scholarships: the Association for the Support of Contemporary Living (ASCL) and the Daddy, Send Me to School (DSMTS) campaign, which specializes in providing financial assistance to enable young girls in the east of Turkey to attend school. On the morning of April 13, 2009, police raided ASCL and DSMTS offices across the country, seizing computers and taking staff–most of them women–into custody. The police later announced that they had received intelligence that the two organizations were recruiting students to Ergenekon and then using them to infiltrate and control terrorist organizations. Most of the members of the ASCL and DSMTS staff were later released, albeit after spending up to 60 hours in custody. It was several months, however, before the police returned the computers, thus severely disrupting the ability of the organizations to function. After a lengthy investigation, on March 18, 2011, seven executives from the ASCL appeared in court on charges of belonging to Ergenekon.
In retrospect, the raids of April 13, 2009, can be seen to have marked a turning point in the Ergenekon investigation. Few impartial observers inside or outside the country genuinely believed that the ASCL and DSMTS were grooming children in order to control terrorist organizations. Yet the relentless disinformation and defamation campaigns by the pro-JDP media and the alacrity with which critics of the Ergenekon investigation were themselves imprisoned or intimidated into silence meant that few Turks were prepared to speak out. Emboldened, those driving the investigation gradually abandoned any attempt to disguise its real purpose.
Starting in 2007, Ilhan Cihaner, a public prosecutor in the eastern province of Erzincan, had begun investigating the activities of local elements of the FGM and another Islamist organization known as Ismailaga, including allegations that they were using their connections with leading members of the JDP to fix state contracts. In late 2009, the JDP began to try to pressure Cihaner to drop his investigation. He refused. They then tried to have him suspended for alleged abuse of office. Eventually, they succeeded in physically removing him from his office and transferring his investigations to Osman Sanal, the public prosecutor from the nearby province of Erzurum, who was widely regarded as being sympathetic to the JDP. The investigations were then quietly shelved. On February 17, 2010, Cihaner was arrested and charged with membership in Ergenekon.
In August 2010, Hanefi Avci, the veteran head of the police in the central Anatolian city of Eskisehir published a book of memoirs. During the 1970s and 1980s, Avci had frequently been accused of overseeing the torture, and sometimes disappearance, of leftist activists. Personally pious, Avci had long been regarded as being sympathetic to the FGM and had even sent his children to schools run by the organization. Yet in his book, Avci claimed that his conscience would not allow him to remain silent in the face of what he described as the infiltration of the police force and judiciary by the FGM, who he alleged were protecting corrupt members of the JDP, fixing appointments and promotions, and fabricating evidence against perceived opponents of the movement. On September 28, 2010, two days before he was due to hold a press conference at which he had promised to provide documentary evidence to support his claims, Avci was arrested and charged with membership in a militant leftist organization. On March 14, 2011, while he was still in prison pending trial, Avci was also formally charged with membership in Ergenekon.
Through 2009 and 2010, a series of anonymous tip-offs had resulted in investigators uncovering what they claimed were secret arms caches belonging to Ergenekon. Yet the discoveries had raised more questions than they had answered; not least because they contained material of no obvious military value for a covert organization, such as empty shell casings and ammunition for an anti-aircraft gun but no gun. More bizarrely, many of the small number of weapons that would have been genuinely useful–such as assault rifles–had been buried in damp soil wrapped only in newspaper, something no one with even the most basic knowledge of firearms would ever have done. On February 14, 2011, police raided the premises of an anti-JDP internet television channel called OdaTV as it prepared to post footage on its website apparently showing members of the police planting weapons in the alleged Ergenekon arms dumps. Four OdaTV employees were arrested and charged with membership in Ergenekon.
On March 3, 2011, investigators ordered the detention of nine journalists who were known for their opposition to the FGM. All were subsequently charged with membership in Ergenekon. They included Nedim Sener of the daily Milliyet, who had won international press awards for his work on the alleged involvement of the security forces in political assassinations, and Ahmet Sik, a left-wing reporter for the daily Radikal. Sik had recently completed the first draft of a still unpublished book on the activities of the FGM in the police entitled The Imam’s Army. On March 25, 2011, the police raided the offices of Radikal and Sik’s prospective publisher and deleted every digital copy they could find of Sik’s manuscript. Prosecutors subsequently refused to allow Sik’s lawyers to see a copy of the manuscript they had taken from his home computer on the grounds that it had been produced by a “terrorist organization”. Yet on March 27, 2011, pro-JDP newspapers, such as Zaman, published detailed of a leaked 49-page police report on the book, including copious quotations. However, Sik had already taken precautions. On March 31, 2011, a copy of his manuscript appeared anonymously on the internet and immediately went viral recording over 100,000 downloads in the first 48 hours.
As if to confirm the allegations in Sik’s book, on March 30, 2011, the day before his text appeared on the internet, police raided premises associated with seven Islamic theologians, and confiscated documents and computer files. The only characteristic that the seven shared was that each had questioned Gulen’s credentials as a theologian.
Since January 2010, the Ergenekon investigation has been running parallel to what has become known as the “Sledgehammer” case, after the alleged codename of a purported coup plot. On January 20, 2010, an article by a journalist called Mehmet Baransu appeared in the daily newspaper Taraf. Though largely staffed by anti-militarist leftists, the publication has long been vigorously supported by the FGM. Baransu claimed that an anonymous member of the military had provided him with a suitcase full of documents containing details of a planned coup, which had been discussed at a seminar at the Turkish First Army Headquarters in Istanbul on March 5-7, 2003. Over the weeks that followed, scores of serving and retired members of the military were arrested on charges of complicity in the alleged coup attempt.
Doubts about the plausibility of a coup plot being debated at a seminar attended by 162 members of the military were reinforced when it emerged that First Army Commander General Cetin Dogan had ordered audio recordings of what he claimed were discussions not of coup plots but war gaming scenarios similar to those that are conducted in all other NATO countries. Suspicions about the plausibility of the alleged coup plots had been further fuelled by stories that appeared in the pro-JDP media–apparently based on sources involved in the investigation–through early 2010. For example, one of the elements of the coup plot the pro-JDP media claimed was discussed at the seminar on March 5-7, 2003, was a plan to try to destabilize the country by bombing a mosque on February 28, 2003.
Any possibility that such inconsistencies were the result of clerical errors was demolished by the “evidence’ contained in the Balyoz indictment, which was finally completed on July 6, 2010. Although Baransu had been given 2,229 pages of documents, 19 data CDs, and 10 audio cassettes, all of the material related to the purported coup plot was contained on just one CD, which was named “No. 11” in the indictment. The other CDs and hard copies were all genuine documents, which had apparently been stolen from the military’s archives, including some dating back 30 years.
According to a forensic report presented to the court, the metadata of CD No. 11 showed that all of its contents had been burned to the disk in a single session on March 5, 2003, and there had been no subsequent additions, deletions, or changes. However, the documents on the CD contained numerous errors and inaccuracies. Most damning were the anachronisms. For example, the CD contained a list of newspapers, including Gurcu Ekspres (which was not established until September 12, 2003) and Ilk Adim (founded August 15, 2005). A list of NGOs regarded as being sympathetic to a coup in 2003 included the Turkiye Genclik Birligi, which was not founded until 2006. A list of pharmaceutical companies that would be taken over during the coup included a reference to Yeni Recordati Ilac. Yet in March 2003, the company was called Yeni Ilac and did not acquire its new name until October 2008, when it was bought by an Italian company. Similarly, another document referred to NATO’s southern command as CC MAR NAPLES. However, in March 2003, it was called Headquarters Allied Naval Forces Southern Europe (HQ NAVSOUTH). It was not called CC MAR NAPLES until July 2004.
CD No. 11 includes hundreds of other similar errors and anachronisms. The unavoidable conclusion is that the documents have been fabricated and the clock on a computer changed–which is a very straightforward procedure–in a clumsy attempt to make it look as if they were part of a coup plot discussed at the seminar in March 2003.
On December 6, 2010, acting on an alleged anonymous tip-off, investigators raided the Turkish naval base in Golcuk on the Sea of Marmara and found another haul of documents and CDs. The pro-JDP media hailed the finds and, ignoring the documents cited in the Sledgehammer indictment, began to trumpet the new evidence as conclusive proof that the coup plans were genuine. However, it soon became clear that the material from Golcuk was as riddled with errors and anachronisms as the documents given to Baransu. For example, one of the documents has a reference to a naval vessel being part of the Turkish fleet in 2003, whereas it did not actually join the fleet until 2005.
As more inconsistencies in the Golcuk documents emerged, on April 27, 2011, acting on yet another anonymous tip-off, police raided the Eskisehir home of a retired air force colonel called Hakan Buyuk, where they claimed to have found more documents related to Sledgehammer. These too, however, were plagued by errors and anachronisms. For example, one of the documents, which according to a police report had last been saved on April 5, 2003, included quotations from what it described as the “current” Armed Forces Personnel Law. Yet the passages quoted included amendments that were not made until June 15, 2005.
Still, the flaws in the Sledgehammer evidence appear to have had little impact on the prosecution of the case. By July 2011, 223 serving and retired members of military had been charged with plotting a coup in 2003, of whom a total of 177 remained in custody pending the completion of the trial. Those imprisoned included more than 10 percent of the Turkey’s serving generals and admirals.
A COMMUNAL CONSPIRACY?
By July 2011, more than 300 suspects had been formally charged with membership of Ergenekon, many of whom had already spent years in prison, their requests for bail consistently refused. Despite the construction of a purpose-built courthouse in Silvri, approximately 100 miles west of Istanbul, there appeared little prospect of an imminent conclusion to the case. Indeed, with new suspects continuing to be arrested and charged, the Ergenekon trial appeared likely to drag on for years.
Although the JDP has undoubtedly benefited politically from Ergenekon and Sledgehammer–not least because they have made many of its opponents reluctant to criticize the JDP for fear of being arrested–the government appears to be allowing the cases to proceed rather micromanaging or actively driving them. Exactly who is behind the cases remains a topic of often heated debate, but most critics blame the FGM.
To date, no evidence has emerged to tie Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in Pennsylvania in the United States since 1999, personally to the investigations. Nevertheless, there is no question that elements from within the FGM community are heavily involved. Gulen sympathizers now dominate large swathes of the judiciary and the police force, particularly the intelligence branches, which have been providing most of the evidence for the investigations. Since the outset, the FGM’s media outlets have sought to shape domestic and international public opinion about the cases by running vigorous disinformation campaigns, including inaccuracies, distortions and outright untruths. They have also mobilized their resources to launch vicious defamation campaigns against anyone who criticizes or questions the investigations.
Nor is it possible to ignore the regularity with which, particularly since 2009, the Ergenekon investigation has targeted the FGM’s critics and rivals. Through early 2011, there were increasing signs that, even in a country as awash with conspiracy theories as Turkey, the public was finally beginning to question the plausibility of the outlandish claims made for Ergenekon and Sledgehammer. Similarly, the frenzied coverage of the investigations in the FGM media and the consistency with which they targeted the movement’s rivals and opponents for arrest and imprisonment was increasingly looking like a coincidence too far.
*Gareth Jenkins is a writer and analyst who has been based in Istanbul since 1989. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program.
 Ergenekon is the name of a valley in Turkish nationalist mythology where the Turks of Central Asia are reputed to have taken refuge before emerging to conquer the surrounding region.
 Mumtaz’er Turkone, “Ergenekon Dedikleri Neymis?” [“What Is This Thing That They Call Ergenekon?”], Zaman, July 27, 2008.
 Hanefi Avci, Halic’te Yasayan Simonlar: Dun Devlet, Bugun Cemaat [“The Simons Living on the Golden Horn: Yesterday the State, Today the Community”] (Ankara: Angora, 2010).
 Changes to Law No. 926 of June 15, 2005, published in the Turkish Official Gazette of June 20, 2005.