A Cyber Crackdown on Gulen Media?

On 28 March 2014, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made a rather sweeping policy statement regarding cyber warfare. In response to a leaked audio recording that allegedly captured Turkish policymakers debating whether or not to use a “false flag” attack to create casus belli for a Turkish assault on the Sulyeman Shah tomb – a small swath of Turkish territory on the right bank of the euphrates river some 20 miles from the Turkish border town of Kargamis – Anadolu News Agency reported:

everybody and everything will be investigated to find the “pawns and the mastermind” responsible for the eavesdropping of a high-level security meeting. “This is not an attack on the AK Party. This is an attack on the Turkish Republic,” said Davutoğlu. “Because we were talking about the security of the Turkish army and land in the meeting.” Speaking to reporters, Davutoğlu said the “cyber-attack” was no different from a military attack, and the meeting room had already been jammed for security. The foreign minister said Turkey is a state of laws and there will be a response made accordingly.

The statement certainly gave me whiplash. Davutoglu’s rather blunt statement would appear to indicate that Ankara is prepared to use military force to respond to any further cyber attacks on Turkish territory. The Foreign Minister’s sweeping statement is sure to get Turkey in trouble and reflects a troubling trend in Turkish declaratory policy in recent years. In response to the Syrian crisis, for example, the Foreign Ministry:

intentionally and misleadingly leaked the news that the Patriot interceptors deployed under the aegis of NATO were part of a broader plan to enforce a no-fly zone, partly to deter Syrian military action near the border by generating further ambiguity over the status of Turkish airspace and the risk of escalation, but also to force NATO’s hand by creating a diplomatic fait accompli. Turkey’s efforts to portray a no-fly zone as inevitable and forthcoming were therefore part of its diplomatic strategy to bind its allies closer, an effort that has been only partially successful.

In making such definitive cyber policy statement – with, what I suspect is no real intention to follow through on the threat  – Ankara is setting itself up for political failure. Yet, I suspect that Turkey’s rather broad declaratory policy on cyber warfare may be part of what Hakan Fidan describes as information warfare. Fidan describes this concept in his PhD thesis:

Defensive information warfare seeks to keep the value of the information resources in tact or recover lost value when experiencing a successful attack. Defenses fall in six general areas: prevention, deterrence, indications and warnings, detection, emergency preparedness and response, although, specific operations and technologies may fall in more than one area. Defensive information warfare is closely associated with information security. While defensive information warfare address non-owned resources, including broadcast and print media in the public domains however, it is not concerned with unintentional acts.

Thus, if one were to analyze Davutoglu’s statement more closely, he may in fact be trying to “deter” future aggressors from using similar tactics in the future. But who is he deterring?

To date, no one knows who leaked the “false flag” tape, and who exactly Davutoglu was talking about when he said, “everything will be investigated to find the ‘pawns and the mastermind’.” According to Reuters, Prime Minister Erdogan responded to the tape at a pre-election rally, saying, “They even leaked a national security meeting … This is villainous, this is dishonesty … Who are you serving by doing audio surveillance of such an important meeting?”

Again, who is Erdogan talking about?

The assumption is that Davutoglu and Erdogan were speaking about the Gulen movement, which has, since 17 December, been leaking audio recordings that purport to show the Prime Minister, his family, and his closest allies in government to be involved in graft. After the 30 March election, Erdogan abandoned all pretense and identified the Gulenists as the source of the leak (This may or may not be true, by the way.) According to his post-election speech, Erdogan said:

I have filed criminal complaints about some of them; I said they can also flee. As I have said, from now on, we’ll walk into their dens. They will pay for this. How can you threaten our national security? Syria is in a state of war with us. They are harassing our planes. They have martyred our 74 brothers and the Süleyman Şah Tomb is our lands. An attack against there is an attack against 780,000 square kilometers. Can we remain silent about such a thing? But these traitors wiretapped this meeting and leaked it to the world. They are worse than Assassins [of the Middle Ages]. They are beyond them. My brothers; there is a very important message conveyed by our people through the polls. Our people have made their objection and their stance against attempts to change the direction of Turkey through non-political ways.

The “they” is the Cemaat and the Prime Minsiter’s words suggest that a much larger crack down on the Hizmet is coming. But has it already started?

During the election, Zaman, Today’s Zaman, Cihan News Agency, and Taraf all came under cyber attack. While Taraf is not a Gulen owned paper, its reporters have been used by the Hizmet as an outlet to leak documents for the Ergenekon, Balyoz, and recent graft allegation investigations. The others are all Gulenist owned, or Gulenist allied. During the election, Today’s Zaman reporter Abdullah Ayasun tweeted:

Our websites under intense cyber-attack. The website and system for uploding news stories do not function properly. Hell. At this day.

To date (I wrote this post on 1 April), I still can’t access any of the sites. What should one make of this? And, what are the implications of a cyber campaign against opposition media in Turkey?

While nothing is definitive, the the timing, scope, and intensity of the current cyber campaign against the Cemaat raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Fidan notes, “the spread of internet across the world provides governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as terrorists and criminals with capabilities that used to be the privileges of the most powerful governments.” As I noted in this piece before the election, the main thrust of the the AKP’s pre-election moves to block twitter and youtube were to, in the words of Fidan, strengthen “the government’s role as a disseminator of information.”

Yet, in doing so, the AKP actually implemented policies that Fidan warns about in his dissertation. According to Fidan:

Information warfare being an important outcome of information revolution, is defined as ‘information operations conducted during time of crisis or conflict to achieve or promote specific objectives over a specific adversary or adversaries.’Some argue that offensive information warfare which is likely to be a new mode of terrorist activities aimed at damaging user’s perceptions regarding the  trustworthiness of the Internet. By doing so they may accomplish two objectives. First they hamper the effectiveness of governments’ policies for electronic commerce. Users will feel uneasy in engaging e-commerce transactions because of the perceived threat to their financial assets and privacy. The second consequence is that provoking governments for counter-Internet measures. In order to counter disruptive activities over the internet commercial institutions, governments and military organizations may have stringent precautions which can have direct effect on open democratic societies. (Author added emphasis)

Thus, in closing down youtube and twitter, the AKP did, in fact, succumb to the potential political pitfall that Fidan outlined vis-a-vis a heavy-handed response to a rogue use of the internet to attack a state. The government has, however, shrugged of the international condemnations of its actions and, in an even more draconian attempt to track who does what online in Turkey, appears to have directed Turkish telecom companies to intercept traffic sent to public Internet address. The preponderance of social media restrictions raises very serious questions about the extent to which the government remains committed to ensuring individual rights.

And, more broadly, the Prime Minister’s recent tone suggests that more assertive measures to control who does what online may be in the works. Given this worrying trend of populist politics trumping all else, one has to seriously question what type of tactics the AKP will take to crack down on the Gulen movement. And, if the AK does so, what will the repercussions be for other news outlets who may differ with the Prime Minister’s politics.

More broadly, the tactics suggest that the AKP now regards the Cemaat as a terror group, and is using an “all of the above” approach to hit back at what may now be perceived as the media mouthpiece of an illegal coup plotting entity. And, if this includes the use of cyber shenanigans, does that mean that Turkey is at war with itself? And, when viewed in tandem with way in which the government has effectively sought to neutralize any criticism by saying, “the ballot box” has spoken, one has to ask the much larger question: Where is all of this going?

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About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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