FETO: Portrait of a Terrorist Organization

July 15, 2018

We must not forget that FETO is the product of an 'intelligence thinking' and the group's structure and activities were shaped by the same line of thinking. As such, the organization poses a security threat not just to Turkey but also other countries where it remains operational.
Turkish people resistance against the military coup attempt in Taksim Square. Anadolu Agency

Exactly two years has passed since the July 15, 2016, coup attempt in Turkey, but the fight against the terrorist organization led by the U.S.-based former imam Fetullah Gulen, officially known as FETO, remains at the top of the country’s agenda. The sustained importance of this issue stems from the discovery of new evidence about the organization as well as the opposition’s approach to Turkey’s crackdown on the FETO network.

In the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, Turkey launched a proactive campaign against FETO terrorism. It is necessary to note, however, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s commitment to this struggle predated the failed coup. As a matter of fact, he described the group as a ‘parallel state’ in the immediate aftermath of the judicial coup attempt on December 17-25, 2013. A designated terrorist organization that the National Security Council (MGK) officially identified as a threat against Turkey’s national security, FETO suffered major setbacks since the July 15 coup attempt, as its operational capabilities within the country were completely eliminated – at least for the time being. The declaration of a state of emergency, coupled with a number of decreed issues within that legal framework, facilitated the dismissal of FETO members, affiliates and contacts from the public service. Others, who actively participated in the organization’s illegal activities, were brought to justice. Over the following months, Turkish courts handed down various sentences to defendants over their links to FETO and their complicity in the July 15 coup attempt.

The question today is whether Turkey’s struggle against this 50-year-old organization, which is half as old as the Republic itself, has reached its conclusion. In order to answer this question, we must provide the following analysis and support the claims mentioned in it.

First of all, FETO has never been a religious organization. Since its formation, the group operated as a terrorist organization. Provided that it successfully disguised itself as a faith community, however, resulted in an overall failure to understand the movement’s true nature until the July 15 coup attempt.

Fundamental qualities of the organization

In order to fully appreciate the challenges that Turkish authorities face in their fight against FETO, it is necessary to understand what kind of organization it really is. At the same time, it is crucial to raise awareness about the threat posed by FETO members, whom certain foreign governments continue to harbor, to host FETO members around the world.

According to many counterterrorism experts who describe FETO as a terrorist organization, the group does not share the organization structure and operational processes with others. Developing a deeper understanding of the organization, whose members are radicalized by Fetullah Gulen’s cult of personality, is also key to the success of ongoing efforts to defeat it. To be clear, it is not possible to argue that FETO is known or has been explained sufficiently.

The first defining feature of cult movements is that their authoritarian leaders are considered sacred by their followers. Since the organization’s establishment, Gulen’s most significant accomplishment was to identify himself as a holy person. As a self-proclaimed chosen person, Gulen repeatedly compared himself to the Prophet Muhammad over the years. At other times, he presented himself as the executioner of His wishes. In doing so, Gulen took necessary precautions to ensure his total control over the organization. As a paranoid individual, he single-handedly decided which of his followers would marry and how they would name their children. Gülen also monitored the communications of his closest associates in an effort to concentrate all powers in his own hands.

FETO is also quite capable of indoctrination, which is the second most important quality of cult movements. As a matter of fact, the entire organization is a reflection of Gülen himself. A closer look at the group would reveal that it shares the personality traits of its leader. As such, the organization shares Gülen’s sinister nature, desire for becoming a legend, fear of death, tendency to alienate others, eagerness to hide his true motives and lack of confidence. Gulen was able to accomplish this goal with the help of a powerful network of indoctrination. Over the years, recordings, preparation schools and educational institutions have been the most significant carriers of Gulen’s messages. It was thereby that the organization’s leader came to control the minds of recruits from their childhood onwards. Those individuals, whose minds came to be controlled, became main players within the ‘parallel state’ in later years. With a sense of absolute devotion, they swallowed all discourse and actions of Gulen and his organization without reservation. Despite the overwhelming evidence against Gulen, for example, many members of the organization continue to turn a blind eye to the criminal nature of its activities out of absolute devotion and the hope of a better future.

To be clear, the nature of FETO was unmistakably shaped by the objectives of its sponsors. For example, many people view the organization’s current state as a deviation from religious principles over time. Quite the contrary, FETO has never been a religious movement. Instead, it has always been a terrorist organization. Instead of undermining state authority through armed struggle like traditional terrorist organizations, it aimed to infiltrate various public institutions to create a ‘parallel state’ which would take over the country’s government when the time came. Almost all sources on FETO, however, lack a coherent analysis of its emergence – – even though Gulen has always been open about his ultimate goal. A careful analysis would reveal that only a handful studies delve into the organization’s relationship with the Peace Volunteers Movement, a product of Washington’s anti-communist campaign that started its activities in Turkey in the early 1960s (just as Gulen was starting out), or how much time Gulen used to spend at the American locale in Edirne and his links to intelligence officers during his military service.

At all stages of its evolution, FETO remained capable of easily adapting to changing political circumstances in Turkey and around the world.  In other words, it assumed the shape of its container. It used religion to conceal its true identity and seized the opportunities it entailed.

At which level is Turkey in its fight against FETO?

The first step taken in order to fight with FETO was to initiate investigations against kumpas davaları (trials that FETO promoted with manipulations and fake evidences) which were used by FETO for the purpose of providing a “legal” dimension to its illegal activities. By these illegal activities, FETO aimed to speed up its organizational structuration in public institutions such as the Turkish Armed Forces.

OHAL (state of emergency) was put into action following the July 15 failed coup attempt. Then, with the help of decree laws issued in this state of emergency, the elimination of FETO members in public officials and breaking their power in various fields mainly including the spheres of education, media and economy, were at the top of the agenda. Dismissal of persons, who take orders from their “brothers” and “sisters” in the organization instead of their chiefs in the public offices, can be understood in this context. In this way, public personnel who have connections with FETO were dismissed and legal proceedings against them were initiated for the reason of abusing the possibilities offered by the state.

In order to block activities of FETO in the field of education, nearly 2.000 schools, student dormitories and various courses in connection with the organization have been closed by the Ministry of National Education.

Also, precautions were taken against the economic power of FETO by dealing with companies such as Bank Asya and Group of Koza Ipek, who act as intermediaries for money laundering. Trustees were appointed to these companies and suspicious past activities of them were examined by ministries, institutions and organizations.

The process of removing the effects of FETO from the state, as the most important part of the fight against FETO, is not an individual-centered approach but rather it aims to remove groups whose activities were infected with terrorism/crime. Up to now, 287 lawsuits were filed against the coup attempt and 171 cases reached at decisions. In these cases, 2.140 people were sentenced.

Turkey continues to struggle with FETO even in the international arena. Various information and documents have been forwarded to interlocuters in order to struggle with the manipulations initiated by the terrorist organization. In this context, authority in FETO schools in many places, especially in the Balkans and African countries, were delivered to the Republic of Turkey.

FETO isn’t just a threat against Turkey

Starting with the judiciary and law enforcement, the officials conducting Turkey’s fight against FETO, along with the political leadership behind the agenda, cracked down on the organization’s network at unprecedented levels. Keeping in mind Gulen’s character traits, it is important to highlight that the organization cannot be completely incapacitated in a short period of time. After all, FETO isn’t limited to its public profile. Since April 2017, the Turkish National Police has identified the organization’s undercover cells within the state apparatus and security operations concentrated on those specific targets. In light of newly available evidence, the Turkish authorities concluded that FETO was an extremely potent covert organization. It is possible to argue that each visible component of the organization has a ‘parallel’ or hidden counterpart. For example, it became clear that all FETO members within the Turkish Armed Forces reported to other, ghost-like members (known as hidden imams within the group). Regardless of their ranks, those operatives received orders and instructions from individuals other than their superiors within the military hierarchy. This specific arrangement meant that FETO became a ‘parallel state’ par excellence and was indeed a terrorist organization seeking to seize control of the state apparatus.

In addition to generating revenue for the group, FETO schools across the world served as a source of new recruits who would be trained to become part of the ‘parallel state.’ For the sake of presenting itself as a peaceful movement, FETO used its educational institutions as a front. Although Turkey ended the group’s activities in the area of education, it is important to note that Gulen’s school network became the organization’s backbone in recent years. Gulen-affiliated schools in the United States, Europe, Central Asia and Africa carry on supporting the survival of the organization. According to information obtained from individuals, who were captured in Ukrain, Sudan, Kosovo, Azerbaijan and Gabon in recent months by the Turkish intelligence servcices, they served as principals or teachers at FETO schools.

FETO schools outside Turkey must be considered serious national security threats in host countries. After all, those institutions formed the backbone of the group’s presence in other countries. First and foremost, countries harboring identified FETO members are now the new centers of the organization. These countries violate international law and diplomatic norms by supporting a terrorist organization, which attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government in 2016, to seem unreliable. At the same time, they render themselves defenseless against potential attacks by FETO members. It is no secret that the children of local elites in many countries, where the group operates, are enrolled in schools affiliated with Gulen. As a matter of fact, it is possible to argue that political elites in countries, where FETO launched educational institutions relatively early, are graduates of those schools. In this regard, the group forms ‘parallel states’ in those countries as well.

On July 15, 2016, Turkey encountered the single greatest act of rebellion in the history of the Republic – which it overcame thanks to the sacrifice of the ordinary people. In the wake of the coup attempt, the country launched an all-out offensive against FETO. Although significant progress has been made within the country, members of the organization, who fled Turkey ahead of the failed coup, continue a smear campaign against the country. In this regard, many countries, including Turkey’s self-proclaimed allies in the West, do not pay the due attention to the steps taken by Turks in the international arena. Although there is irrefutable evidence linking Gulen to the coup attempt in Turkey, those countries are unwilling to extradite senior leaders of the organization to Turkey. We must not forget that FETO is the product of an ‘intelligence thinking’ and the group’s structure and activities were shaped by the same line of thinking. As such, the organization poses a security threat not just to Turkey but also other countries where it remains operational. Let us hope that those who ignore the FETO threat today can see the group for what it really is before it is too late.

Serdar Gülener received his graduate and MA degrees from the Public Administration Department at Sakarya University. For his PhD research he investigated the democratic legitimacy problem of the Turkish Supreme Court and focused, as a case, on the Constitutional Judiciary and Parliament Relations. As an Assoc. Prof. he currently teaches at the Faculty of Political Science at Sakarya University.