Government ministers expected to die but plotters undid work by attacking parliament.
It was midnight in the Turkish capital, just 2½ hours into the attempted coup, and the group of nine senior ministers who were gathered in a conference room at the prime ministry were convinced that they were all about to meet their end.
“They probably will be successful and we will die tonight,” said one of the ministers, according to an official who was present at the meeting. “Let us be ready to die. We will all be martyred in this fight.”
He sent his bodyguard to fetch his personal gun. Security forces charged with protecting the building had been escorted out of the room in a sombre scene, because ministers did not know who to trust in the middle of the unfolding coup.
They were in the meeting when the state broadcaster, TRT, was taken over by the rebels and the channel’s anchorwoman was forced to read a statement declaring the military was in control and denouncing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The cabinet fell into utter silence for two minutes.
Then one minister cracked a joke that eased the tension: “Don’t bother with TRT, I don’t even watch it during regular times, it’s just state TV.”
More than four days have passed since a faction within Turkey’s military attempted to overthrow the government, deploying tanks to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, blocking bridges, arresting top military officers, seizing TV stations and launching co-ordinated attacks on police and security headquarters, promising to restore true democracy.
That effort was short-lived but bloody, with hundreds of lives lost and thousands wounded in the carnage. The capital city is pockmarked with tell-tale signs of the violence, abandoned tanks now a curiosity for locals posing on the metal carcasses left in the streets. Shattered glass and concrete adorn the grounds of local security and intelligence headquarters and the parliament building, itself bombed in an attack on democratic institutions of symbolic importance.
But as Turkey picks up the pieces after the failed coup, new details are emerging of how it unfolded, and just how close the military intervention came to succeeding. Many observers have labelled the attempt amateurish, but accounts by officials contradict this characterisation, describing it as well organised and very nearly successful.
In Ankara on Friday, the day of the coup, the interior minister had been invited, along with other top officials, to a high-level security meeting in military headquarters that was supposed to take place after 5pm, a ploy that turned out to be intended as a pretext to detain him. He did not go because he was too busy, and later when the coup unfolded he was stuck in Ankara’s Esenboga airport, setting up a crisis cell there to manage the fallout, protected by crowds that had gathered to oppose the coup outside the facility.
The top counter-terrorism official responsible for Turkey’s campaign against Islamic State did go to a “meeting” at the presidential palace in Ankara. He was later found with his hands tied behind his back, shot in the neck, according to a senior official.
President Erdogan himself was at the resort of Marmaris, but had left the residence where he was staying some 20 minutes before coup plotters attacked it. About 25 soldiers in helicopters descended on a hotel there on ropes, shooting, in an apparent attempt to seize him just after Erdogan had left, broadcaster CNN Turk said.
But as he flew from Marmaris on a business jet, two F-16 fighter jets locked their radar targeting system on the president’s plane, according to an account first reported by Reuters and later confirmed to the Guardian.
The jets didn’t fire after the presidential plane’s pilot told the fighter jet pilots over the radio that it was a Turkish Airlines flight, a senior counter-terrorism official told the Guardian.
But that came later. At about 9pm, General Mehmet Disli, the brother of a long-serving MP with the ruling AK party, allegedly gave the order that set the coup in motion, sending army special forces officers to arrest the military’s senior command. Tanks began rolling out into the streets of Ankara, and an hour later they had closed down Istanbul’s Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges.
‘Is it real?’
Cemalettin Hasimi, a senior adviser of prime minister Binali Yildirim, watched it all with a sense of foreboding. At 10.24pm, after surveying besieged Ankara, he walked into the office of the prime ministry’s undersecretary.
“Is it real?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s real,” came the reply. “But we are not sure if it’s within the chain of command or just a group in the army.”
By 10.37pm they had conferred with Yildirim, who was in Istanbul, deciding to declare it an attempted coup on national television. They called TRT, but 10 minutes later the channel was overrun. So Hasimi called the private channel NTV, and minutes later Yildirim was denouncing the plot.
Meanwhile, there were chaotic scenes in Ankara and Istanbul. A statement appeared on the military’s website and was circulated by email declaring it had taken control to restore democracy, feeding into the fears of government officials who worried the military chain of command had endorsed the takeover. Hasimi claimed that judges aligned with the coup had begun calling on associates to adhere to the military’s demands.
The national intelligence building and the police headquarters were attacked from the air. In the latter, helicopters had targeted the intelligence department in the top three floors of the facility, unleashing a hail of shattered glass and concrete that still scars the building.
“It was a nightmare,” said Murat Karakullukcu, a police official who spent the night at the headquarters through the attack and had served at UN peacekeeping missions in Kosovo. “Our first thought was how to survive, and then we started shooting at the helicopters with small arms.”
Back at the prime ministry, despair was setting in. They had resolved to make a final stand in the parliament, when Erdogan appeared on a live broadcast at 12.37am on a reporter’s iPhone, exhorting the people to defend democracy.
“What is FaceTime? Why don’t I have it?” asked one of the ministers in attendance.
“That was the moment when the psychology were reversed and we thought we were going to win,” said Hasimi.
Taking to the streets
People began taking to the streets in larger numbers, answering the call of the president and the religious affairs Diyanet ministry, which had called on the imams of Turkey’s mosques to take to their minarets to declare “God is great”. The call to take to the streets was met with unease by some ministers, who worried it would result in a massacre.
On their way to the parliament, Hasimi and the rest of the ministers received the news that it had been bombed. That was one of the key pivotal points that led to the failure of the coup, he said. While he appreciated that many of those who took to the streets did not like Erdogan’s government, the attack on the parliament, the first by the military since the 1920s, was too much of a provocation.
The statements by opposition leaders and top military officers, including army commanders, disavowing the coup sealed its fate.
Stories emerged of those crucial hours, between the president’s address and the successful quelling of the coup, by 4am, that are sure to pass into the official mythology of the events. At 1am, officials say the police chief the city of Bursa arrested the local army commander, who possessed a six-page list that included the names of designated judges and military officials who were to be appointed to various positions in the bureaucracy in the aftermath of the coup. Other pro-coup soldiers possessed lists of secure telephone lines to receive orders.
“There were crucial moments,” said Hasimi. “It was incredibly well organised actually, but sudden moves by the leadership and sudden movement by the people changed the whole plan.”
“It could have succeeded,” he added. “They lost the moment the president and the prime minister went on air, and when high-level army commanders came out on air and declared their support for democracy, and the people rejected going home.”