The Historical Blindness of Turkey's Detractors

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not destroying the country's democracy -- he's building it up after an era of military repression that was far worse.

Thirty years ago this month, Ilhan Erdost, a leftist Turkish publisher, was beaten to death by soldiers in Ankara's Mamak military prison. He had been detained by the military regime, which had just taken power in a coup d'état. His crime was publishing a book by communist theorist Friedrich Engels. He was 35 years old.

Erdost's widow, Gul Erdost, marked the anniversary by announcing that she planned to file a lawsuit against those she holds accountable for the killing: the generals who staged the Sept. 12, 1980, coup.

Gul Erdost has Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to thank for the chance to finally challenge the military. Thirty years to the day that tanks rolled through Turkish cities, giving rise to arguably the most brutal and anti-democratic period in the country's history, voters approved a package of amendments to the constitution drawn up by the former military rulers. These changes included removing the article that granted the military rulers perpetual immunity from prosecution.  

Yet to hear many U.S.-based analysts tell it, Erdogan is tearing down Turkey's democracy, not building it up. These critics -- out of either willful disregard or sheer ignorance -- misrepresent what Erdogan has accomplished and why voters continue to support him. They depict Erdogan's government as an ominous departure from Turkey's past -- ignoring the abuses that occurred under the country's previous governments.

The constitutional reforms are only one of many ways that Erdogan's government, now in its eighth year of power, has worked to strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law. The prime minister has successfully implemented legal and economic reforms needed to join the European Union. He has approved changes, however limited, giving Turkey's Kurdish population greater cultural rights. He has also done away with state security courts, whose mix of civilian and military judges ruled on alleged offenses against the state. (Full disclosure: In 1995, as a Reuters correspondent, I was tried before such a court for an article I wrote detailing military attacks on Kurdish villages.)

Turks, clearly, are pleased with Erdogan's efforts. In 2007, they returned Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) to office, five years after the party first swept to power. And with Erdogan's support, the recent referendum on the constitutional amendments passed by more than 15 percentage points.

Anti-AKP critics are not convinced. They portray Erdogan as a power-hungry Islamic radical intent on turning Turkey into an authoritarian, fundamentalist state. They claim that the government has concocted an "elaborate political fiction" that the Turkish armed forces planned a coup in a plot dubbed "Ergenekon." The arrest of some 60 military officers and civilian supporters for allegedly planning this coup, they say, was done solely to harass and stifle their opponents. Allegedly, the evidence against the military officers and civilian backers has been fabricated, creating a "climate of fear" for secular Turks.

In this false narrative being peddled by the AKP's critics, human rights abuses are rampant and Turkey's courts have been turned into pawns of the government's repressive policies. U.S. policymakers, desperate for a moderate Islamic state, are oblivious to the prime minister's true agenda, according to these analysts. Few people are aware of what is really going on because the Turkish media, the story goes, are too blinded by their hatred of the military to investigate Erdogan's abuses, thoroughly cowed by threats of legal action, or under the control of Islamists.

But, in fact, Turkey is more democratic and more respectful of human rights today than it has ever been. Progress is slow and imperfect -- and there are still abuses of power, some quite serious -- but things are much, much better.  

After the 1980 military coup, the junta suspended all civil liberties and then severely curtailed them when it drew up a new constitution that enshrined the military as the ultimate arbiter in Turkish politics. Upwards of 650,000 people were arrested during the period of military rule, many of whom were tortured and killed. Kurds had it the worst: In Diyarbakir Prison, then run by the military, detainees were sodomized with batons, forced to eat their own excrement, left in rat-infested cells, and given water mixed with detergent to drink.

The 1990s were marginally better for the average Turk -- but not for Kurds. More than a dozen Kurdish journalists, at least 62 officials from the Kurdish political party, and hundreds of Kurdish activists were mysteriously murdered from 1990 to 1995. The culprits, in many cases, are credibly alleged to be members of the security forces or allied groups. Thousands of court cases were filed against journalists who wrote about the Kurdish issue, the military's brutal tactics against suspected rebel sympathizers, or human right abuses in general.

The mainstream Turkish media were generally compliant, if not outwardly supportive, of the repression. During my trial, one well-known Turkish columnist, Oktay Eksi, complained that the government should never have allowed the trial to go ahead because it made me famous. Others wrote about my possible hidden agenda or simply claimed I must have been tricked by Kurdish activists. Still, I was lucky: I was acquitted, though forced to leave the country. Turkish and Kurdish reporters fared much worse.

But the current wave of anti-AKP commentators avoid looking back, which is why they get Turkey's present so wrong. Take the so-called mass trial under way in Turkey against 152 Kurdish politicians accused of working for the PKK rebels, as well as the Ergenekon trial. Supposedly, such mass trials are "becoming the norm" -- yet another sign of creeping authoritarianism in Turkey.

But these are modest affairs compared with the trials against leftists, Kurds, trade unionists, and others following the 1980 coup. One case against members of the leftist Dev-Yol group opened in 1982 with 700 defendants. Eighteen years later, the trial is still continuing. Two other Dev-Yol trials, since concluded, each had about 900 defendants. The trial against the DISK trade union had more than 1,400 defendants. The fact that Turkish law allows mass trials -- and schedules hearings so that cases drag on for years -- has nothing to do with Erdogan and everything to do with the deliberately imperfect system the former military junta bequeathed to Turkey's current leadership.

These critics profess shock at those who believe the Ergenekon trial may have validity. The real surprise is not that some members of the armed forces might have been planning a coup, but that Erdogan was courageous enough to challenge the military. The military, after all, has made a habit of staging and planning coups -- it seized power in 1960, 1971, and 1980, and engineered a "soft coup" in 1997, when it forced the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Whether those on trial are all guilty is impossible to know. But to claim that the case portends an "ominous future for the country's democracy" ignores the fact that the military itself is responsible for some of the worst abuses of democracy in Turkey's history.

There are good reasons why some still find Turkey's judiciary and policymaking bodies wanting. Erdogan has not fully upended the faulty and easy-to-abuse judicial, civil, and political systems he inherited. And Turkey is not a Western, liberal democracy just yet. But it is moving in the right direction. Over the past eight years, Turkey has improved its civil rights protections, strengthened its free market economy, and moved closer to fulfilling the demands for EU membership. Erdogan has also pushed Turkey's military out of the political decision-making process and pressed the judiciary to investigate military officers implicated in extrajudicial executions of Kurds in the 1990s. These are positive changes, though you'd never know that by reading the new wave of anti-AKP commentators, many of whom seem to think that another military coup is needed to put Turkey back on the right track.

Of course, the situation in Turkey could change. Reforms could stall. Erdogan could become too power-happy. But one thing is for sure: The only real fiction here is that Turkey was a freer and more democratic place before Erdogan's AKP party took office.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images


Death by a Thousand Cuts

See all those security lines? Just because al Qaeda's recent attacks haven't succeeded doesn't mean the terrorist group's overall strategy is failing.

"Two Nokia phones, $150 each, two HP printers, $300 each, plus shipping, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses add up to a total bill of $4,200. That is all what Operation Hemorrhage cost us… On the other hand this supposedly 'foiled plot', as some of our enemies would like to call [it], will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures."

Thus begins the lead article in the latest issue of Inspire, the English-language online magazine produced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadi group's Yemen branch, which was released Saturday. The cover features a photo of a UPS plane and the striking headline: "$4,200." It is referring to the recent cartridge-bomb plot, and specifically the great disparity between the cost of executing a terrorist attack and the cost to Western countries of defending against asymmetric warfare -- costs now numbering in the billions of dollars a year and climbing. The magazine warns that future attacks will be "smaller, but more frequent" -- an approach that "some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts."

The slick packaging may be new, but al Qaeda's emphasis on bleeding the U.S. economy is not. From Osama bin Laden's earliest declaration of war against America, al Qaeda has linked its attacks to the U.S. economy. He and other salafi jihadi thinkers had long believed that economic power was the key to America's military might; they thus saw weakening Western economies as their path to victory. When bin Laden declared war against the "Jews and crusaders" in 1996, he emphasized that the mujahideen's strikes should be coupled with an economic boycott by Saudi women. Otherwise, the Muslims would be sending money to the enemy, "which is the foundation of wars and armies."

In October 2001, just after he put this strategy to work by striking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bin Laden spoke with Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Allouni (who is now imprisoned in Spain, following his controversial conviction for cooperating with al Qaeda). The terrorist leader emphasized the costs that the attacks imposed on the United States. "According to their own admissions, the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16 percent," he said. "The gross amount that is traded in that market reaches $4 trillion. So if we multiply 16 percent with $4 trillion to find out the loss that affected the stocks, it reaches $640 billion of losses." He told Allouni that the economic effect was even greater due to building and construction losses and missed work, so that the damage inflicted was "no less than $1 trillion by the lowest estimate."

In his October 2004 address to the American people, bin Laden noted that the 9/11 attacks cost al Qaeda only a fraction of the damage inflicted upon the United States. "Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event," he said, "while America in the incident and its aftermath lost -- according to the lowest estimates -- more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars."

The economic strategy of jihad would go through refinement. Its initial phase linked terrorist attacks broadly to economic harm. A second identifiable phase, which al Qaeda pursued even as it continued to attack economic targets, is what you might call its "bleed-until-bankruptcy plan." Bin Laden announced this plan in October 2004, in the same video in which he boasted of the economic harm inflicted by 9/11. Terrorist attacks are often designed to provoke an overreaction from the opponent and this phase seeks to embroil the United States and its allies in draining wars in the Muslim world. The mujahideen "bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt," bin Laden said, and they would now do the same to the United States.

Next, bin Laden turned to what he saw as America's greatest vulnerability: its reliance on oil. He had not always seen attacks on oil as part of his war: In 1996, he said oil was not part of the battle because it was "a great Islamic wealth and a great and important economic power for the coming Islamic state." But as al Qaeda elevated the importance of economic warfare, attacks on the oil supply became more attractive. One indication was a March 2004 book by Rashid al-Anzi, who has been described as al Qaeda's "minister of propaganda," titled The Laws of Targeting Petroleum-Related Interests and a Review of the Laws Pertaining to the Economic Jihad. Al-Anzi argued that oil wells should be off-limits as a target (because oil wells represent supplies that may be exploited under a caliphate), but that attacks against other facilities, such as pipelines and refineries (so long as they are not privately owned by a Muslim), are "a legitimate means of economic jihad," which is "one of the most powerful ways in which we can take revenge on the infidels."

Bin Laden reached the same conclusion in a December 2004 audiotape in which he finally told his followers to focus their operations on oil production, "especially in Iraq and the Gulf area," because lack of oil would cause the infidels "to die off." Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, similarly called for al Qaeda fighters to "concentrate their campaigns on the stolen oil of the Muslims" in December 2005.

Al Qaeda-linked militants responded almost immediately. The most significant attempt occurred in February 2006, when AQAP terrorists attacked the refinery at Abqaiq operated by Saudi Aramco. Local news sources played down the incident, but it may have been a nearer miss than official rhetoric allowed. Written evidence submitted to Britain's House of Commons claimed that the terrorists -- who wore Aramco uniforms and drove Aramco vehicles -- managed to enter the first of three perimeter fences. They were only fired upon as they approached the second perimeter fence. Thus, the terrorists either "had inside assistance from members of the formal security operation of the state-owned energy company" in acquiring the vehicles and uniforms, or else "security was sufficiently [lax] that these items could be obtained and entry to the site obtained," the report reads. Neither possibility would be reassuring. A catastrophic attack on the oil supply would have a tremendous economic impact on the United States, which imports roughly 11 percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda's strategy took another turn following the September 2008 collapse of the U.S. economy (for which Zawahiri and other spokesmen promptly claimed credit). Even before AQAP gave that strategy a name and outlined its defining feature -- smaller but more frequent attacks -- a careful reading of key jihadi documents suggested that this was where the strategy was already heading.

To al Qaeda, America's weakened position makes it seem mortal. "How much more can the U.S. Treasury handle?" radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki asked this March, months after a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. "9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then operations such as that of our brother Umar Farouk which could not have cost more than a few thousand dollars end up draining the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars… For how long can the U.S. survive this war of attrition?"

In a March 2010 video, al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn praised Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and encouraged Muslims to follow his example. Although Hasan's target was not economic, Gadahn portrayed Hasan as a model to "further undermine the West's already struggling economies with carefully timed and targeted attacks on symbols of capitalism which will again shake consumer confidence and stifle spending."

In that address, Gadahn put his finger on an important insight that AQAP is now reiterating: Even failed attacks can help the jihadists by "bring[ing] major cities to a halt, cost[ing] the enemy billions, and send[ing] his corporations into bankruptcy." Failed attacks, simply put, can themselves be successes. This is precisely why AQAP devoted an entire issue of Inspire to celebrating terror attempts that killed nobody.

A message making this point at length was posted to the Al-Fallujah Islamic forums in December 2009. The author mockingly addressed the security services monitoring the website, asking them to write the following in their reports:

A Very Serious Threat

Source: A Radical Islamist Forum

Warn them that they must protect every federal building and skyscraper, such as: Library Tower (California), Sears Tower (Chicago), Plaza Bank (Washington State), the Empire State Building (New York), suspension bridges in New York, and the financial district in New York.

Nightclubs frequented by Americans and the British in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia (especially our dear Bali Island), the oil company owned by the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Sumatra (Indonesia), and US ships and oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, Gibraltar, and the Port of Singapore.

Let us not forget any airport, seaport, or stadium. Tell them to protect [these places] no matter the cost, day and night, around the clock.

The point is clear: Security is expensive, and driving up costs is one way jihadists can wear down Western economies. The writer encourages the United States "not to spare millions of dollars to protect these targets" by increasing the number of guards, searching all who enter those places, and even preventing flying objects from approaching the targets. "Tell them that the life of the American citizen is in danger and that his life is more significant than billions of dollars," he wrote. "Hand in hand, we will be with you until you are bankrupt and your economy collapses."

Unfortunately, the author, and the editors of Inspire, are all too right: The economics of this fight favor the terrorists, not those seeking to defend against terrorism. Although there is a tone of triumphalism to al Qaeda's latest statements -- and a clear attempt to spin its recent failures -- we would be foolish to ignore the group's warnings and its clearly articulated strategy.

John Moore/Getty Images