Erdogan’s lingering loyalty problem

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

In the wake of a failed military coup, there was a massive purge in Turkey’s security forces.

Nonetheless, the assassination of the Russian ambassador by a vetted Turkish police officer nearly one year after the purge suggests that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may face a resilient disloyalty problem.

Within hours of the assassination on Monday in Ankara, Turkish officials and the pro-government news media portrayed the gunman as a sleeper-agent disciple of Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen is a Muslim cleric who commands a following in the country and is accused of having directed the July 15 coup attempt to topple Erdogan.

But it was also possible that the assassin, identified by the authorities as a 22-year-old riot police officer, Mevlut Mert Altintas, might have been a follower of the Nusra organization, linked to Al Qaeda, or of the Islamic State.

Those extremist groups have used Turkey as a transit point into Syria and have battled Russia in the war there.

The gunman shouted jihadist slogans invoking Syrian victims of Russian attacks as he fired bullets into the ambassador, Andrey G. Karlov, before being killed by fellow officers.

Political analysts said that regardless of Altintas’s affiliation — with Gulenists, Islamists or some other group — the assassination at an art gallery in Turkey’s capital betrayed a glaring unknown among forces that have pledged fealty to Erdogan.

“It points to an ongoing vulnerability in Turkey’s security establishment, especially if it’s the Gulenists,” said Sinan Ulgen, a Turkish former diplomat and the chairman of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.

“If that was the case,  Ulgen said in an interview, “the large purge following the attempted coup has not cleansed Turkish law enforcement from Gulenist influence.”

Gulen, who lives in the United States and is facing an extradition request from Turkey, has denied any connection to the coup plot.

He  described the anti-Gulenist purge, in which thousands have been detained or dismissed, as a power grab by  Erdogan.

Gulen’s organisation in Turkey is regarded as an outlawed terrorist group, known by its acronym, Feto.

In a statement on Monday after the assassination,  Gulen denounced the assassin and blamed  Erdogan’s purge for what he called “the deterioration of security and counterterrorism efforts.”

The descriptions of the assassin and his history, as portrayed Tuesday in the pro-Erdogan news media, have not been independently confirmed and include details tied to conspiracy theories popular in Turkey about American complicity with  Gulen, which the United States has denied.

The accounts portray a scheming plotter and academic cheater who may have pulled strings to enter the police college and may have been directly involved in the July coup attempt.

Ilnur Cevik, an adviser to Erdogan, said the assailant’s classmates from police school had identified him as a member of the Gulen organization.

“It only just became apparent that he is a Feto member,”  Cevik said in a telephone interview.

“There are ‘sleeping’ Feto members that are still being identified,” Cevik added.

“Everyone has been criticizing our government for purging thousands of people,” he said, “but as this incident shows, they are still not finished.”

Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, also supported this theory.

The newspaper published what it described as a document that claims that Mr. Altintas had requested a leave of absence from July 16 to 18.

Those are the dates that government officials say the coup plotters originally intended to overthrow  Erdogan before changing to July 15.

The police officer that Sabah reported had signed the leave request is now in jail, suspected of links to Feto. Leave was banned at the time, but Sabah said the officer still granted  Altintas permission.

Other pro-government news outlets accused  Altintas of loyalty to Feto because he had attended a prep school believed to be linked to Gulen’s organization, the Korfez School in Aydin, in western Turkey.

He was caught cheating on his college entrance exam and was admitted to the police college because of his Gulenist links, Sabah and the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak reported.

Yeni Safak even published a headline describing the attack with the words “Great Sabotage: The pro-Feto assassins of the C.I.A. have been mobilized.” The newspaper has accused the C.I.A. of collaborating with the Gulenists in the coup attempt.

The semi-official Anadolu news agency reported that books relating to both Gulen and Al Qaeda had been found in Mr. Altintas’s apartment.

Anadolu and others also reported that six people had been detained in the investigation, including Mr. Altintas’s mother, father and sister in Aydin and his roommate in Ankara.

The Dogan news agency, a privately owned outlet that is not pro-government, reported that one of the detainees, Suleyman Ergen, worked at the cafeteria of the police college attended by  Altintas.

Dogan reported that Ergen was suspected of being the lead Gulen follower at the college.

Gulen’s spokesman in the United States, Y. Alp Aslandogan, called the accusations of the assassin’s Gulenist links “nonsense” and asserted that Mr. Altintas had been an Islamist militant.

“This was clearly an al-Nusra or ISIS thing,” he said in a telephone interview, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Aslandogan added that Russia’s participation in the investigation of the killing could improve its credibility, because the Russians have a vested interest in knowing who was responsible.

“That gives me a little bit of hope that they will find the truth about this case,” he said.

Article by Rick Gladstone of New York Times

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