Quest for Turkey coup plot’s ‘disappearing imam’ extends to Germany
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Turkey has formally asked Germany to extradite a key suspect in last year’s failed coup attempt. But the mystery surrounding the “disappearing imam” is not about to disappear.
He has been dubbed the “air force imam”, the “disappearing imam” and the “black box” of the July 2016 Turkish coup attempt, to name just a few of many monikers. As for speculation as to his whereabouts, they have ranged from Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, a London market, the US embassy in Ankara, an unmarked grave somewhere in Turkey or the bottom of the Black Sea.
Germany has now joined the list of likely Oksuz destination spots, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealing on Wednesday that Ankara had sent Berlin a diplomatic note requesting his extradition.
Following reports in the Turkish press that Oksuz was spotted in Germany, Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT Haber that, “If this person is there, we ask that he be located, taken into custody and returned to Turkey.”
According to uncorroborated reports in the Turkish press, Oksuz was sighted in the German cities of Frankfurt and Ulm. Another report claimed he had been granted a temporary residence permit in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.
German officials do not provide information on asylum-seekers, citing international agreements. At a press briefing in Berlin on Wednesday, German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer confirmed that the Turkish request had been received, but he stressed that the government had no information on whether Oksuz is currently in Germany.
‘The linchpin, the connector’
A theology lecturer at a university in the city of Sakarya, near Istanbul, Oksuz was spotted near an Ankara military base on the night of the attempted coup, then was detained and subsequently released. He has since gone missing, making him Turkey’s second-most-wanted man and arguably the most intriguing figure in the coup case.
“He’s the linchpin, the connector in the Turkish government’s version of events, the link between the coup plotters and the Gulen movement,” explained Aaron Stein, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “His story is compelling because he was arrested that night before he went missing and there’s been a manhunt for him since.”
According to Turkish prosecutors, Oksuz made three trips to the US between March and July 2016, when he visited Gulen at his home-in-exile in the Poconos Mountains. Pro-government Turkish media outlets have widely published photographs of a frail Gulen meeting Oksuz and his family at the septuagenarian cleric’s compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.
But in an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24 last month, Gulen dismissed allegations that the visit constituted the smoking gun in the coup investigation. “A few years ago, he (Oksuz) came here once. I later saw in the media this picture with his child with me. This is something hundreds of people do. From taking a picture to making that kind of connection would be jumping to conclusions,” said Gulen.
Alleged links to Turkey’s spy agency
A year and one month after the coup attempt, the fugitive is still at large and the Turkish government’s claim that Oksuz is the connector of all dots in the case is looking weaker than ever.
The Turkish government claims that Oksuz was mistakenly released by local courts in the immediate and confusing aftermath of the coup. But critics remain skeptical, particularly since Turkish authorities have detained more than 50,000 people in a post-coup crackdown. A massive purge has seen around 145,000 people dismissed from their jobs, including opposition supporters with no links to the Gulen movement.
Opposition figures also note that the two judges who ordered Oksuz’s release after the coup attempt have not been arrested – unlike hundreds of their colleagues – feeding Turkish opposition rumours that the coup was part of a power grab by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s revelation about the diplomatic note to Germany came three days after Turkey’s main secular opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said Oksuz was working with the Turkish foreign spy agency, MIT (National Intelligence Organisation).
Kilicdaroglu’s public comments echoed rumblings of rumours in opposition circles that Oksuz worked with Turkey’s intelligence service and was allowed to disappear so that the government’s claims could be circulated without challenge. The rumours tie in with suspicions that elements within Turkish intelligence colluded with a small group in the military to instigate a coup attempt that would provide a justification for Erdogan’s crackdown on the opposition and a constitutional consolidation – and expansion – of his presidential powers.
Gulen himself hinted at the possible involvement of the secretive Turkish spy agency in his interview with FRANCE 24. Noting that current MIT chief Hakan Fidan was among a list of senior Turkish officials who had visited him in Pennsylvania, Gulen said, “When you consider Adil Oksuz, they found him somewhere, I don’t remember where it was, and then they released him, and then there turned out be a tie between him and Turkish intelligence. The chief of the intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, also visited here twice and he ate at my nephew’s house here twice. Everyone came here. There are photos of me with everyone. So, to make claims based on visiting me and taking pictures with me is just senseless.”
From Georgia to a London market
Adding to the intrigue, Turkey’s heavily censored, pro-government press has published numerous conflicting reports of Oksuz’s whereabouts.
While some media reports claimed the theology lecturer had fled to Georgia and from there to Kyrgyzstan, others claimed Oksuz was hiding at the US embassy in Ankara.
Turkish media seized on the fact that the US embassy made a call to Oksuz’s mobile phone on July 21, 2016. The call was not answered, according to a report on a private US national security website, War on the Rocks. However US officials have clarified that the call was made to inform Oksuz of the cancellation of his US visa following a Turkish government request, in keeping with US visa cancellation procedures.
Yet another report of an Oksuz sighting at London’s Portobello Market turned out to be a doppelgänger.
“The Turkish press gets conspiratorial about this,” explained Stein, adding that the latest diplomatic note to Germany was yet another case of Turkey’s “domestic politics” at play. “Germany has given asylum to a number of Turkish military officers wanted in the coup case and there has been considerable Germany bashing in the Turkish press.”
‘A populist cul de sac’
Relations between Ankara and Berlin have been strained since the post-coup crackdown began, with Germany protesting the arrest of several of its citizens in Turkey. German authorities have also warned its citizens against investing in Turkey.
But Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), said there were signs that Ankara was trying to ease bilateral relations. “I don’t think Turkey, in my view, is trying to up the ante in its conflict with Germany,” he said. Noting that Germany was Turkey’s main trading partner, Eissenstat observed that, “Turkey needs Germany a lot more than Germany needs Turkey.”
Turkey remains a deeply divided country and a recent slump in economic growth, along with rising unemployment rates, have added to the pressure on Erdogan. An April 16 constitutional referendum aimed at consolidating presidential powers handed Erdogan a razor-thin victory, which was contested by the opposition and criticized by the international community.
Given the pressures on Erdogan, Stein believes the Turkish government’s anti-West rhetoric is not about to cease. “Turkey is still in a populist cul de sac. Erdogan has to continue to whip up populist sentiments because his political margins are slim,” he explained.
Germany unconvinced by official Turkish case
While the ruling AK Party remains invested in keeping up the nationalist, anti-Western rhetoric decibel levels, the government’s case on the coup attempt is looking increasingly feeble.
A year after the failed putsch, Western intelligence agencies remain unconvinced about the Turkish administration’s case. German spy chief Bruno Kahl revealed that Ankara has failed to convince the BND foreign intelligence agency that Gulen was behind the ill-planned and -executed coup plot. “Turkey has tried to convince us of that at every level, but so far it has not succeeded,” Kahl told the German weekly Der Spiegel in March.
A leaked report by Intcen, the EU’s joint intelligence service, concluded that Erdogan had planned a purge before July 2016 and that an array of soldiers, fearing the upcoming mass firings, hastily launched a coup.
When it comes to Oksuz, his uncharacteristic release following the coup attempt has raised several questions. “It may either be a case of judicial incompetence or that the judges involved were Gulenists, or something more nefarious,” said Stein.
But Stein played down opposition suggestions that the events of July 15, 2016, were a “controlled coup” that Erdogan’s government abetted in a bid to consolidate power. “I tend to discount that theory because the elements don’t add up. Getting together and collating a controlled coup is difficult even for the most lean and well-run institution – and that’s not the Turkish government,” he said.
A series of contradictory statements by Erdogan and his senior aides about the chronology of coup night, along with questionable testimonies by suspects provided obviously under duress, has seriously undermined the credibility of the government’s case.
The latest Turkish request to Germany to extradite Oksuz is not expected to yield results, according to Eissenstat. “It would require Turkey to provide direct evidence of individual action that would be relatively free of the fabulist properties we have seen in the public prosecutions so far,” noted Eissenstat.
Given the Turkish government’s recent track record on human rights, most experts do not believe Berlin would extradite Oksuz even if they found him in Germany. In other words, the mystery of “the disappearing imam” at the heart of the July 2016 coup is not about to be revealed.