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As the one year anniversary of last summer’s coup attempt in Turkey nears, many problems remain with the narrative of events put forward by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish media which he tightly controls. Among the most important questions yet unanswered, however, revolves around the activities of SADAT, a private paramilitary group which emerged from the shadows on the evening of the coup: Eyewitnesses say SADAT members fired into crowds and Turkish military officers suspect SADAT snipers to be responsible for at least some of the casualties that occurred on the trans-Bosporus bridge.
Adnan Tanriverdi, a former general dismissed for his Islamist leanings after the 1997 coup, founded SADAT in 2012. After the coup, Erdogan brought Tanriverdi into his office as chief military counselor. Thanks to a rule change made at Erdogan’s direction, many Islamists dismissed from the military who found refuge in SADAT subsequently re-joined the military with retroactive credit for promotions they did not receive in the military because of early termination.
That I have written about Tanriverdi and SADAT sporadically over the past year is a reflection of the degree to which they are a conversation among current, retired, and purged Turkish military officers; eyewitnesses who say SADAT was firing indiscriminately at civilians during the coup; NATO defense attaches stationed in Turkey; as well as officials stationed at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. The conclusion is the same: SADAT appears increasingly to act as Erdogan’s personal militia or a Turkish equivalent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
SADAT should raise eyebrows. Its website says it both provides conventional and unconventional military training and can supply weapons, explosives, and other equipment to its clients, but it appears to do much more than that. Even inside Turkey, suspicions about the group run deep. Ali Riza Ozturk, for example, a member of parliament from the center-left Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), officially queried the Turkish government about SADAT’s involvement in training and equipping extremist and terror groups including the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria. Ozturk also asked whether the government’s refusal to allow members of parliament to inspect a camp in the Hatay province was related to SADAT’s presence and training in that camp. The government did not respond substantively to the question, and has even removed the transcript of Ozturk’s questioning from the record.
Turkish officers and counterterror officials also raise concern about SADAT’s recruitment and training in Central Asia and Europe. Prior to Russia’s recent rapprochement with Turkey, the Russian government included SADAT in a report to the United Nations about Erdogan and his family’s support for terror organizations in Syria. Turkish analysts also believe SADAT aids both in recruitment in Chechnya, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan for Syria’s most radical Sunni Islamist groups, and the transfer through Turkey of those recruits. Indeed, when in 2015 Russia investigated nearly 900 people traveling to fight in Syria and Iraq, Russian authorities found that 25 percent had connections to SADAT. Nor is the problem one rogue group operating under the radar. According to fighters captured by Russian security forces as they sought to return to Russia, Turkish consulates in Russia evidently provided Turkish passports for the fighters from the Caucasus trained by SADAT to fight with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Perhaps the Russian penchant for fiction masquerading as news disqualifies Russian-sourced investigations, but in this case the Russian conclusions coincide with those of European counter-terror authorities. In Europe, many politicians assume online recruiting is the main mechanism by which young Europeans radicalize and volunteer to fight for the Islamic State but, increasingly, it appears that SADAT might be engaging in a more low-tech approach. Reportedly utilizing the assistance of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), a pro-Erdogan lobby group, SADAT has identified and recruited a number of European national foreign fighters for terror groups like the Islamic State and Nusra Front. Again, the Turkish government appears more deeply involved as SADAT apparently enabled nationals from Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, and Sweden to acquire current Turkish passports.
On March 22, 2017, Erdogan declared, “Europeans across the world will not be able to walk the streets safely if they keep up their current attitude towards Turkey.” Later that day, a terrorist mowed down several tourists in front of the British parliament. That was likely coincidence, but recent kidnappings of Turkish dissidents in Malaysia, Turkish spy rings in Europe, self-described Turkish civil society organizations in the United States reporting on dissidents and opponents, and the recent assault on protesters in Washington, DC, should all raise concerns about what Erdogan and his proxy organizations and militias are up to, for they are certainly escalating.
It is clear that SADAT follows and enforces Erdogan’s agenda without the constraints of being a government entity.
It is clear that SADAT follows and enforces Erdogan’s agenda without the constraints of being a government entity. Such a conclusion makes sense not only because of circumstantial evidence, but rather because Erdogan has made SADAT’s leader one of his top aides on par with if not more influential than the commander of the Turkish General Staff. Certainly, this raises questions about their activities in the run-up and during the coup, but it should also raise questions about Turkey’s growing role as a terror sponsor. It seems that Erdogan envisions SADAT in the same way that the supreme leader of Iran views the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as a force to ensure political loyalty at home and as a means to conduct terrorism abroad while maintaining plausible deniability in order to avoid accountability as much as possible for its actions, blaming them on rogue elements when necessary.
Despite Erdogan’s bluster and bombast, Turkey is weak. Erdogan risks presiding not over a great Ottoman resurgence, but rather Turkey’s collapse. Against this backdrop, he is pursuing the strategy of the weak—utilizing terrorism in pursuit of ideological goals and to kneecap those who stand in the way of further power or wealth consolidation. It’s all well and good for NATO officials to talk about Turkey’s military with all the diplomatic niceties of decades past but, alas, the face of Turkish power today is increasingly SADAT rather than the Turkish army.
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