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If the recent Turkish coup attempt was effectively foiled on FaceTime, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned to social media to issue his call on Turks to take to the streets, the putsch plot appeared to have unfolded on WhatsApp.
A transcript of WhatsApp chats obtained by Al Jazeera Turk reveals how the coup plotters launched their bid to seize power on July 15 and at which point, during that long, fateful night, the plot started to unravel as the tide turned against the plotters.
The posts on the mobile messaging application were gleaned from video footage and still photographs obtained by the Qatar-based TV station’s Turkish channel shortly after the failed coup. They were translated from the original Turkish language and analysed over the weekend by the UK-based open source investigative website, bellingcat.com.
At 9.15pm local time on Friday, July 15, a Turkish military officer, Major Murat Celebioglu, creates a WhatsApp group named “Yurtta sulh”, which literally means, “peace at home”.
The group’s name is a reference to a maxim by Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which as every Turkish schoolchild knows, goes, “Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh” — or “Peace at home, peace in the world”.
A putschist statement released that fateful night was signed by a group calling itself, the “Yurtta Sulh Konseyi” — or “Peace at Home Council” — in an indication that the coup attempt was launched by hardline Kemalists within the Turkish military.
Erdogan has blamed his arch Islamist foe, Fetullah Gulen, for the attempted coup, a charge the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric has denied.
The Yurtta sulh group appears to have been created to enable a communication exchange between pro-coup military officers commanding units in Istanbul. Celebioglu appears to be coordinating the Istanbul operations with fellow plotters in the capital of Ankara. However, the Yurtta sulh chat provides no details on communications between putschists operating in Istanbul and Ankara.
The WhatsApp posts reveal a measure of planning that has not been credited to the July 15-16 coup plotters, who have been widely dismissed as feckless and badly organised.
It also reveals how Erdogan’s FaceTime interview with CNN-Turk changed the tide of history and more importantly, how unarmed Turks, by heeding the Turkish leader’s call to take to streets, succeeded in overpowering the putschists.
‘Tell our police friends: I kiss their eyes’
“I’m Maj. Celebioglu,” reads the first post immediately after the WhatsApp group was created July 15, “I’ll be making public announcements from here.”
It was the first of an incredible exchange — from coldly confident to exulting and then despondent — detailing how the coup plot unraveled.
Kicking off with traffic plans to handle Istanbul’s famously gridlocked streets, the plot unravels at high speed when the order is given for instructions to be “taken immediately”.
As army divisions — at least three of them from Turkey’s NATO Rapid Deployable Corps — start to take key sites, including Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge and a military academy, the plot appears to be running fairly smoothly.
Police units and chiefs, stunned by the extraordinary turn of events, initially comply with the putschists, leading to grateful posts such as “police are following orders…no problem,” and, “Tell our police friends: I kiss their eyes.”
The media is the message
But the “police friends” prove to be far from compliant in the end, with a police unit, at one point, apprehending the putschists and calling in a prosecutor in the dead of night.
By far the biggest failure was the coup plotters’ attempts to control the media.
From the start, the plotters experience problems broadcasting their message to the Turkish people.
While a military unit reaches the offices of the national public broadcaster, TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) before 10pm, the plotters encounter unforeseen hurdles. “They are urgently requesting help from the technical team of the Air Force to cut off broadcasting,” messaged Col. Kaya at 9.56pm. “They are trying themselves, but are unable to do it.”
But while the plotters succeed in finally taking over TRT and getting an anchor to read out the coup message, the proliferation of private TV stations poses a major challenge.
CNN Turk was under particular pressure since the channel broadcasted a statement by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim at 11pm on July 15, a development that is noted by the WhatsApp group with a terse, “Prime Minister is making a statement.”
The coup-busting Erdogan interview, conducted by a CNN Turk journalist via FaceTime shortly after midnight, however was never mentioned by the Yurtta sulh group.
But the effects of that critical TV appearance are evident in the WhatsApp communication as pro-coup military units struggle to contain the crowds heeding Erdogan’s call.
That’s when the WhatsApp communication takes on a desperate, brutal tone revealing disturbing insights into the bloody end of a coup attempt that claimed more than 300 lives.
‘Nonessential photos’ – followed by an emoji
“I’m planning to open fire on provincial police HQ. There’s no other choice,” messages a desperate Maj. Akkaya as the crowds pour onto the streets of the Turkish commercial capital. Near Istanbul’s Kuleli Military High School, another Turkish army major notes, “We have shot 4 people who were resisting…Everything is fine.”
But everything was not fine, especially in the city’s Acibadem neighbourhood.
At one point, an army official, Maj. Mehmet Karabekir, shoots a mukhtar — or headman responsible for a neighbourhood — at point blank range. He then proceeds to share two photos, neglecting to mention that a civilian has just been shot.
“Mehmet, let’s not share nonessential photos,” Maj. Celebioglu chides, to which Karabekir responds with an emoji.
Despite the admonishment, Karabekir appears to be carrying out his putschist duties with alarming enthusiasm, posting some of the most violent messages on the chat group. “Don’t dare hesitate, hit them,” he rallies at one point, followed by a more explicit, “Crush them, burn them, no compromise.”
As the crowds start to overpower the pustchists, the messages get increasingly desperate. “Our men at the governorship have been overrun by the crowd, they are handing them over to the police. The police are trying to prevent the crowd but it is hard,” texts a desperate lieutenant-colonel, to which, the insatiable Karabekir replies with an inevitable, “Crush them, burn them, no compromise.”
Once again, another officer chides him with a, “C’mon Mehmet,” but by then the coup plotters are getting desperate.
“Passing on an order,” messages a lieutenant-general before proceeding in all-caps: “CROWDS THAT HAVE GATHERED WILL BE FIRED ON.”
‘Stay alive, commander. The choice is yours’
But still, the crowds just keep spilling onto the streets, overpowering the putschists in a daring display of public will.
“IMKB (Istanbul Stock Exchange) is about to fall. They’ve broken the doors,” says a colonel before pleading, “Need help.”
As units believed to be on the side of the putschists flip sides and the crowds at Taksim Square start swelling, the plotters desperately call for planes to fly low over the landmark Istanbul site.
“Taksim are saying they cannot take anymore,” says a colonel, to which, a colleague responds, “For as long as our strength holds on, friends.”
But that’s not for long. The final messages are an almost novelistic description of how a coup plot fizzles and dies.
“We’re quitting??” asks a major.
“Which operation, all of it?” shoots a colonel.
“Yes quit, commander,” replies Major Celebioglu, the man who set up the WhatsApp group just hours earlier.
But the message is still not clear to commanders on the ground. “Meaning?” asks a colonel tersely.
“Yes, commander, operation aborted,” answers Celebioglu.
Seconds later, after the colonel asks, “Shall we escape?” he receives a fatalistic reply: “Stay alive, commander. The choice is yours. We have not decided yet. But we have left our position. I’m closing the group. Delete the messages if you want.”
The chat transcripts reveal member after member leaving the Yurtta sulh group. Not all of the coup plotters succeeded in deleting the messages and the group chat will no doubt return to implicate them in the tumultuous days to come.