Winner- The Innovation Award

The Turkish Coup in WhatsApp

Volgende week komt De Groene met een bijlage over de European Press Prize 2017. Vandaag publiceren we vast het stuk van Christiaan Triebert, de Nederlandse journalist die de innovatieprijs won voor zijn stuk over een Whatsapp-conversatie tussen Turkse coupplegers in 2016. (Engels)

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A military vehicle near Sabiha Airport in Istanbul. It carries a number plate that starts with 196, which links to the 2nd Armoured Brigade © Baz Ratner / Reuters

July 15, 2016, 21.15 - Group created

Major Murat Çelebioglu creates a WhatsApp group with the name ‘Yurtta sulh’. This refers to the first two words of a famous sentence pronounced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, in 1931: ‘Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh’: ‘Peace at home, peace in the world’. It was later accepted as the approach to foreign policy for Turkey, but also became the slogan of the Turkish Land Forces.

Subsequently, Major Çelebioglu adds a number of people to the group and tells them that he will be making announcements in the group, and that the members can share important updates here. ‘I’ll pass them on to Ankara,’ Çelebioglu says, referring to the coupist headquarters in Ankara.

Some numbers that are being added to the group have been added to the contact book of the person’s phone from which we read the conversation, as they are shown by name and, most of the time, military rank. Others introduce themselves or can be identified sooner or later in the conversation as they reveal more of their identity.

21.26 - Military vehicles on the road

Major Çelebioglu gives the first instructions for military action: block traffic on Istanbul’s two main highways, the E5 and the Trans European Motorway (TEM or E80). Traffic outside of Istanbul will be left as it is, but traffic ‘trying to enter Istanbul will be halted and turned back’.

Colonel Ahmet Zeki Gerehan replies that the locations ‘which need to be taken must be taken immediately’. Clearly, the coup plotters had several locations in mind to seize or, at least, show their presence at. At 21:29, Colonel Müslim Kaya is the first to mention a unit that is on its way: ‘6 started’, referring to the 6th Motorised Infantry Regiment based in Hasdal, a district of Istanbul. The link identifying this specific regiment to which Colonel Kaya refers will be discussed below.

The first problem arises at the same time. At ‘the academy’, a person referred to as ‘Fatih Irmak’ is having difficulty convincing his unit to join the coup attempt. Major Çelebioglu asks whether Colonel Gerehan can help him out. The latter replies a minute later that he is on his way to help, only to discover that there is no problem after all: ‘Fatih and his team are onboard. There’s no problem,’ Major Murat Yanık writes.

However, a few minutes later, there is a new problem which will recur throughout the night: traffic congestion. ‘Are the 2nd and 66th having difficulties due to traffic congestion on the roads?’ asks Major Çelebioglu. Istanbul is notorious for its traffic jams, especially on Friday night. But again, there is nothing to worry about, Major Osman Akkaya replies, ‘We have not left yet.’

Subsequently, Major Çelebioglu asks again for the location of the two regiments. Though he is from a different regiment, Colonel Kaya replies that the 6th Motorised Infantry Regiment is about to reach the Disaster Coordination Centre (Turkish: Afet Koordinasyon Merkezi Müdürlügü, AKOM), which is located in northwest Istanbul. This appears to show that, before taking any other action, the coup plotters wanted to take control of the disaster centre.

21.45 - Blocking the Bosphorus bridges

Major Muammar Aygar reports that the access to the Bosphorus Bridge or First Bridge has been halted. The bridge is one of the two suspension bridges spanning the Strait of Bosphorus and a vital highway between the European and the Asian continent. But that is not all: the Fatih Sultan Mehmet or Second Bridge is also under the control of soldiers obeying the coup plotters. This development marks the military start of the coup attempt. It is over half an hour later before the development is widely reported by international media.

22.06 - ‘Vast majority’ of Istanbul police complies

Another major challenge for the coup plotters will be the police. Will they comply and obey the military’s orders? At 22:06, Major Çelebioglu writes that the deputies of the Istanbul Police Chief have been called and informed about the coupist intentions: ‘the vast majority have complied.’ Colonel Uzan Sahin also writes that the Istanbul police deputies have complied. Using a Turkish phrase expressing warmth and affection, he does not hide his satisfaction, ‘Tell our police friends, I kiss their eyes.’

At the same time, Colonel Kaya states that troops are on their way to the Logistics Supports Base (Turkish: Lojistik Destek Üssü, ldü ), which is a military facility that provides supplies, and sometimes personnel, to troops that are deployed or to facilities closer to the deployment area. One interesting note is that it is Colonel Kaya who informs the group of the most military movements by far (akom , TRT Radio and TV, Bayrampasa Police, Atatürk Airport, and now ldü).

22.09 - First Army Commander must be taken hostage

While the planned locations are successfully taken, the coup plotters also want to intern several military and governmental officials. The most important person for this group is their superior: General (Turkish: Orgeneral; OF-9) Ümit Dündar, Commander of the First Army. It is Colonel Cebeci who mentions it for the first time in the conversation (at 22:09), but it will be repeated throughout the night and morning. They ultimately will not capture him. Instead, Dündar will be appointed the acting Chief of Staff for the anti-coup military a few hours later (Source: T24).

22.19 - Commanders try to reach coup plotters

Non-coupist military commanders realise that something is not right. General Dündar keeps on calling Kuleli Military High School, while Brigadier Kemal Basak, Commander of the 66th Regiment, is calling Colonel Eyyüp Gürler ‘non-stop’. They are told not to answer their phones.

Simultaneously, group members discuss the ‘Hadimköy reinforcements’. The coupist headquarters are wondering whether they are ready, according to a message from Major Çelebioglu. They are, and on their way to the barracks in Hadimköy. Colonel Gerehan then asks whether the reinforcements are going ‘to send location’, to which Cebeci replies that this was already sent in the morning.

22.36 - LDÜ under control

The Logistic Supports Base is now also under coupist control, roughly 30 minutes after Colonel Kaya said that units were on their way to take the location. At IDÜ , ‘Planning is underway for meals to all our troops on the European and Asian sides for tomorrow morning onwards.’ From July 16, Colonel Kaya says he does not know the ‘overall picture’ of the coup plan, so ‘someone who does know needs to go to IDÜ ’. No one replies.

At this stage, IDÜ , AKOM and the bridges are under the control of the rebelling military officials. Colonel Gürler informs the group that units are also on their way to the governorship (though it is unclear which one) and the IBB , while Major Akkaya reports that there is also a unit on its way to the Provincial Police headquarters, located at Vatan Caddesi. Colonel Kaya then writes that the ‘ AFAD provincial directorate said that there won’t be a problem at the Governorship. (…) He supports the action.’

Meanwhile, General Dünder has arrived at the bridges. Major Aygar describes the situation, ‘They ran away to the Asian side after having come 600-700 m to the bridge.’ Major Çelebioglu suggests that the bridges will be open both ways, and ‘tell everyone to go home’, perhaps referring to the many hundreds of civilians blocked by the military. Colonel Sahin then tells Major Aygar to open the bridge, but to ‘put a couple of armoured vehicles in the middle of the bridge to prevent police from crossing’.

22.44 - Atatürk Airport and TRT Radio under control

The main entrance and entrance B at Atatürk International Airport have been successfully taken, Colonel Korkut reports at 22:44. ‘They have complied,’ he says, referring to the airport police who are cooperating. ‘Their superiors are coming, too, we are waiting.’ TRT Radio has also been taken, Colonel Kaya says in a message.

With Atatürk Airport under control, there are several other interventions going on at the War Colleges Command (‘They have complied, they are sitting inside’) and TRT TV, while a unit is on its way to the provincial office of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Logistic Supports Base, meanwhile, asks for the settings. Colonel Kaya says, ‘It would be good if the 1st Army prepared a report.’ Again, no reply. But there are a lot of messages about General Dünder, who is believed to be on his way to the Kuleli Military High School. ‘Has anyone interned him’, Major Aygar asks. ‘He’s still free’, Colonel Gürler responds. Quite randomly, perhaps feeling the heat of growing resistance, Colonel Sahin mentions that their numbers are 20,000, including units from Trakya. Open source data of the manpower of the different regiments suggest that the following numbers per regiment were identified as taking part in the coup: 52nd (9,000), 2nd (5,000), 66th (5,000), and 6th (4,000), the ‘units from Trakya’ excluded. Those numbers do not tell us much, however, as they might be outdated and, more importantly, not reflect the number of soldiers who can be deployed.

Meanwhile, ‘they’ want to send police from Bayrampasa, Major Akkaya writes. ‘Prevent it.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli goes as far as to say that even the intervention at AKP’s provincial offices should be stopped if ‘Bayrampasa’ needs back up.

Captain Yıldız, who is in charge of the units at the Riot Police’s headquarters, is the first to reply, ‘Done.’ He says ‘a tank has closed’, which seems to suggest he has blocked the main entrance of the facilities. This is indeed what a photo shows, which can be geolocated to Bayrampasa Riot Police headquarters, tweeted at 22:50: a military vehicle blocking the entrance. Captain Yıldız notifies the group that he will send three armoured personnel carriers (Turkish: Gelistirilmis Zırhlı Personel Tasıyıcı, GZPT’s) to the location.

23.01 - PM Yıldırım makes a statement

At 23:01, Turkish Prime Minister (PM) Binali Yıldırım makes a statement about what he calls an ‘uprising attempt’ (CNN). This gives a good indication of the time, as Brigadier Yigit mentions it in the group. No one reacts to his message.

It is around this time that Taksim Square is mentioned for the first time, the heart of modern Istanbul that they want to occupy. Other locations are also successfully seized: the Sakarya governor’s office and the IBB.

However, General Dünder has still not been taken. Major Aygar tried, without success, to get him to Kuleli by tricking him, ‘I’ve invited him by saying that I could not control Mürsel.’

23.18 - Coup announced on TV

A statement purportedly from the Turkish military is broadcast by TRT TV, stating that the country has been taken over by the military to protect the democratic order. The statement was e-mailed to news organisations by coupists (Source: TSK).

The statement also announces that martial law has been imposed, to which Colonel Ömer Faruk Özköse seems to refer. A bit later, Colonel Kaya asks what will happen to ‘the ones said to be the Turkish Land Forces’, possibly referring to anti-coup soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Istanbul Governorship is about to be taken over by units under Colonel Cebeci, after some initial resistance offered by the police. The blocking of the bridges will create problems for incoming reinforcements, Lieutenant Özgenc foresees, and he suggests Major Aygar needs to be there to control the exits. He informs Major Aygar.

Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli then requests an intervention at the Istanbul Moda Sea Club, where a wedding is taking place that is being attended by many senior-ranking military officials. ‘Many Generals there that need to be brought in’, he says, meaning they need to be interned.

But the WhatsApp group is busy with other things: Landings are permitted at Ataturk Airport, while units are about to reach Istanbul’s other airport Sabiha Gökçen; and the 5th and 2nd Corps ‘have been assigned to providing reinforcements to Istanbul’. Colonel Cebeci says he is about to take the AKP provincial office, but finds it is crowded outside and postpones taking action. He asks Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli what to do.

The former mentions that an intervention is needed at the club, ‘Guys, Air Force Commander Abidin Ünal is at the Moda Deniz Club. Intervention needs to be done there,’ which suggests that Air Force Commander Ünal’s internment is also important for the coupists.

Meanwhile, reinforcements for the troops at Vatan Caddesi are ready to take off by helicopter, Captain Türk informs the group. A reply by Major Çelebioglu seems to suggest that he sees a chance to let Captain Türk’s helicopter intervene at the Moda Deniz Club first, before flying to Vatan Caddesi. Türk replies that, if they hurry, they can make it ‘to the empty space in the middle of the crowd’, opening fire if needed. It is not clear whether he is referring to the club or to the police headquarters at Vatan Caddesi.

One way or another, a helicopter did intervene at the wedding. A video of a military helicopter hovering above the club’s parking lot was uploaded to Twitter at 23:52. Unfortunately, the user who uploaded the video has restricted her account since. This is one of perhaps two Turkish Air Force AS532 combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters that raided the wedding. Commandos successfully kidnapped the person, David Cenciotti writes on The Aviationist.

At the same time, the units at Taksim Square are calling for reinforcements, as a ‘crowd is gathering’. Captain Türk replies that they are airborne but are bound for Vatan Caddesi, not Taksim. While reinforcements are coming to Vatan Caddesi, Taksim is requesting extra troops, and so is Colonel Cebeci at the AKP provincial office. ‘Helicopters would work. Crowds keep gathering.’

00.05 - TRT news anchor forced to read coup declaration

TRT TV news anchor Tijen Karas is forced to read a declaration from the coup leaders, who call themselves the ‘Peace at Home Committee’ (again, ‘Yurtta sulh’). They claim to have taken over control of the country to restore democracy and the rule of law.

‘Friends, thankfully we have captured several targets in Ankara and Istanbul. The statement has been read on TRT’, Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli writes. ‘Anyone who opposes our acts will be dealt with harshly. This is the order.’

Television ‘has a significant influence on people in Turkey, especially among older generations,’ TRT wrote in a post-coup article. AKOM, TRT TV and Radio have been successfully seized. But unlike the previous coups in Turkey, the state broadcaster is not the only broadcaster. There are now also private channels such as CNN Türk and Habertürk, which continue live broadcasting. Politicians and citizens are now, on live television, encouraging others to go onto the streets to protest against the coup attempt. Colonel Cebeci says, ‘Privately owned TV stations must be silenced.’

But that is a little too late.

00.19 - Citizens pour into the street

Citizens are ignoring the military curfew and are pouring into the streets to protest the coup attempt, as this one of hundreds of videos shows.

That crowd is still getting bigger when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the nation on CNN Türk around 00:26, urging Turkish citizens to ‘take the streets’.

President Erdogan’s speech is not mentioned in the group conversation, but the direct results of that speech are clearly noticeable: most units are asking for support as they are being surrounded by large crowds of civilians.

For example, the helicopter reinforcement for Colonel Akkaya at Vatan Caddesi is now itself being surrounded by ‘a really large crowd’ and cannot find Akkaya and his troops.

Similarly, the troops at Taksim Square need reinforcements, and so do the units at Atatürk Airport. ‘Can armoured vehicles be sent?’ Colonel Kaya asks. The next message is from Kaya again (‘We are sending one column to Taksim’), suggesting that at least some of the WhatsApp group members are not on the ground themselves but coordinating their troops through Istanbul. Understanding the symbolic value of public squares and the strategic importance of airports, Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli stresses that such locations should be kept under control. ‘Units will not withdraw.’

Meanwhile, outside of Istanbul in Sakarya, ‘urgent support’ is also requested by Lieutenant-Colonel Çoskun, where crowds are trying to stop the coup tanks. He sends another message, ‘Need urgent air support for Sakarya.’

The only place that seems relatively calm, judging from the messages, is Çengelköy, where the Kuleli Military High School is located. But the calmness came at a price, ‘We have shot 4 people who were resisting at Çengelköy. Everything’s fine.’ The victims were probably soldiers who were disobeying the coupist soldiers.

Another location where people are getting shot is the Acıbadem neighbourhood, where Major Mehmet Karabekır and his units ‘were attempting to take over Turkey’s telecommunications center Türk Telekom,’ according to Daily Sabah.

However, they met civil resistance, and Major Karabekır ordered any civilian standing in the way to be shot. One of the civilians was Mete Sertbas, the mukhtar of Acıbadem (a headman responsible for the neighbourhood). Major Karabekır then shot mukhtar Sertbas at point blank range in his stomach. The chilling moment was captured on camera. Sertbas bled to death on the street.

With regard to Acıbadem, Karabekır does not mention that a civilian has been shot (after he shared two photos).

Interestingly, Major Karabekır sends the most violent messages to the chat. ‘Show no compassion,’ he writes, as well as ‘Don’t dare [to] hesitate, hit them.’

President Erdogan’s call to take the streets is strengthened by Turkey’s Directorate for Religious Affairs (Turkish: Diyanet Isleri Baskanlıgı). Mosques throughout Turkey begin to recite the Sela prayer, used in times of emergency, to protest the coup attempt and to get people on the streets. The ‘Sela’ is not the regular call to prayer, but used to alert and gather the public. It was used to gather people to their town squares, prior to advertisements and the widespread use of communication networks, and sometimes as a call to arms.

‘They are whipping up fury among the public. Is there no way to stop it?’ The WhatsApp group tries to shut the mosques down. The following selection from different periods of time shows that the WhatsApp group is aware of this, and successfully closes a mosque (the Arıcılar Mosque in northwest Istanbul, close to AKOM). Later, reference is made to the satellite antennas at Çamlıca that need to be taken under control while coup tanks have them in range.

00.40 - Helicopters over Vatan Caddesi

A helicopter is reportedly flying over Vatan Caddesi.

01.26 - Sakarya Governor’s house overrun by civilians

Lieutenant-Colonel Çoskun’s forces are overrun by civilians, and he informs the group.

‘Crush them, burn them’, Major Karabekır tells Çoskun. ‘No compromise.’ Çoskun replies that even if he were to open fire, it would not help. ‘We’ll hit 3 or 5, but we won’t be able to stop them from entering.’

Ten minutes later, his soldiers are convinced by civilians to leave the premises.

Lieutenant-Colonel Çoskun’s last message to the conversation informs the group that some of his soldiers have been taken by the police and that the prosecutor has been called.

01.43 - Firing on civilians at the First Bridge

‘We have shot 20-30 people,’ writes Major Aygar, who is responsible for the Bosphorus bridges. ‘But our guys at the 2nd Bridge are struggling. Need helicopter.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli passes on an order from the coup headquarters: ‘CROWDS THAT HAVE GATHERED WILL BE FIRED ON.’

There are videos of the soldiers at the First Bridge firing on civilians, both from civilians on the ground as well as from a Sky News livestream.

02.29 - Clashes at IMKB

A photo tweeted at 02:29 speaks of heavy clashes at the Istanbul Stock Exchange (Turkish: Istanbul Menkul Kıymetler Borsası, IMKB). In the conversation, there are only three messages referring to the IMKB . There had been clashes with police, but Colonel Baykal regained control of the situation and said that the ‘morale is high’. But not for long. The third and last message says that IMKB is about to fall. ‘They’ve broken the doors. Need help.’

Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli replies in caps, ‘FRIENDS, RESPOND WITHOUT HESITATION,’ while Colonel Sahin reassures the group that the reinforcements from Trakya, the 65th Mechanised Infantry Brigade from the 5th Corps, are coming. But they never arrive.

‘The battalion I sent from Lüleburgaz,’ which is in Trakya, ‘never made it past the police barricade. The police arrested the battalion commander.’ The story of the Lüleburgaz reinforcements in these messages:

But there were also other reinforcements. What about them? Colonel Kaya wonders.

Turns out that units that were thought to be on the side of the coupists were transformed into anti-coup units.

03.21 - CNN Türk studio seized

At 03:21, coupist soldiers force broadcaster CNN Türk to go off air. The moment is captured on live TV.

The move was announced earlier in the WhatsApp conversation by Captain Türk, who sent helicopter reinforcements to Vatan Caddesi earlier.

03.38 - F16s above Taksim Square

It is chaos at all locations. Lieutenant-Colonel Düzenli, passing on an order from Ankara, orders once again to shoot on the crowds. ‘May God help you.’

Perhaps the most thrilling event is when F-16C fighter jets roar low over Istanbul. This was requested by Colonel Kaya, according to the WhatsApp messages. ‘Air support, plane should fly low over Taksim.’

The situation is so critical that Colonel Kaya writes that the Taksim units ‘cannot take [it] anymore’.

But then sonic booms are reported above Taksim. Journalist Oz Katerji captured the moment on the livestreaming app Periscope.

‘The planes have worked for Taksim’, Colonel Kaya writes. ‘It’s calm now.’

He asks for more air support when it gets lighter, as well as ‘helicopter fire support’. Reading the messages, Major Aygar at the bridges asks if the same can be done for the Second Bridge, where his troops are under heavy pressure.

At a certain point, Major Aygar goes as far as to ask whether it is a possibility to conduct ‘an air assault’ on the Second Bridge.

But the fighter jets flying over Istanbul are only a short-lived success: Colonel Kaya writes not much later in the conversation that the Taksim units are falling back.

Colonel Kaya still asks whether air support can be increased as soon as the sun rises. ‘The planes are important for morale.’

But when the first rays of the sun light up Istanbul, most of the coup attempt will have failed in the city.

Two people leave the group already, for unknown reasons.

Fighting is ongoing at several places.

‘Do what it takes to stay alive’, Major Çelebioglu writes.
‘Meaning?’ Captain Türk asks.
‘Surrender. Or flee’, Çelebioglu replies.

Another person leaves the group.

The last part of the conversation says it all: the coup attempt, at least in Istanbul, has failed.

‘Has the operation been cancelled, Murat?’ Major Aygar asks.
‘Yes, commander’, he replies.
Major Aygar, ‘We’re quitting??’
Colonel Dogan, ‘Which operation, all of it?’
Major Çelebioglu, ‘Yes, quit, commander.’
Colonel Dogan, ‘Meaning?’
Major Çelebioglu, ‘Yes, commander, operation aborted.’
Colonel Dogan, ‘Shall we escape?’
Major Çelebioglu, ‘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.’

Evidently, that never happened.

At 4:41, pictures emerge of young soldiers being taken prisoner by civilians from both Ankara and Istanbul. The soldiers look terrified. ‘Privates’, people comment. ‘They are just doing their mandatory military service.’ While units stationed elsewhere could flee or stand down with more ease, the soldiers on the bridge were stuck.

Two hours later, they also surrender.

The transcript is composed of two different sources. The first source is a video which was uploaded to Twitter on the morning of July 16, and appears to show the conversation on the phone of a surrendered, captured, or killed coup plotter. This video revealed the WhatsApp conversation from its start at 21:15 to 22:45. The second source is 21 photos that show the rest of the conversation, which had already been transcribed. The photos are courtesy of Al Jazeera Türk’s Selahattin Günday, and we are thankful that he was willing to share them with Bellingcat. We owe many thanks to ‘Has Avrat’ for translating the entire transcript, as well as contributing to the analysis.

This article chronologically highlights and analyses most of the most striking parts of the transcript. The WhatsApp group consisted of high-ranking military officials, mostly of the Turkish Land Forces, including two Brigadiers and eleven Colonels.

The group is just one coordination group of the coup attempt, as it focused predominantly on land forces in Istanbul and Sakarya only. There were likely other coordination groups for actions elsewhere in Turkey. It is thus important to bear in mind that this is a snapshot of the conversation of some of the coup plotters, and not a full picture. At least one member of the group communicated with ‘Ankara’, where the coupist headquarters was located (probably in Akıncı Air Base).


The full version of this article was published by Bellingcat, The Netherlands. It can be read at europeanpressprize.com.