from the history-in-the-making dept
A year ago, we wrote about an interesting new organisation called Bellingcat. Although it’s not clear what kind of project it should be called, it’s easy to understand what it does: it takes publicly-available information from many sources, and tries to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of contemporary events. Its most recent analysis is an extremely topical piece of work:
A group of plotters of the failed Turkish coup attempt used a WhatsApp group to communicate with each other. Bellingcat has transcribed, translated, and analysed the conversation, thereby cross-referencing the messages with photos, videos, and news reports of the evening, night, and morning of July 15-16.
There are two sources for the WhatsApp conversation. One was widely circulated on Twitter soon after the coup, and consists of a video purporting to show messages on the phone of a plotter. The other source is a series of photos obtained by a journalist with Al Jazeera, although no further information on them is given. Naturally, claims that these are authentic need to be treated with caution, and this is where the Bellingcat method of drawing on diverse sources shows its strength. For example, a mention of the 66th Mechanised Infantry Brigade in the conversation is corroborated using other information from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as follows:
By cross-referencing registration plates, military vehicles of the 2nd Armoured Brigade and the 66th Mechanised Infantry Brigade can indeed be spotted on photographs taken during the coup attempt in Istanbul. Number plates from vehicles from the First Army all start with “1” followed by five other numbers, thus “1XX XXX”. While some military vehicles had their number plates covered during the coup attempt, others had not and often showed registration plates starting with “117” and “196”, as Twitter users @Ald_Aba and @AbraxasSpa noted.
These numbers can be specifically attributed to the 2nd and 66th regiments, by looking at older photo and video material of both units, @Ald_Aba tweeted. As with regards to the numbers “196”, photos uploaded to Facebook of the 2nd Armoured Brigade also show vehicles with the number “196”. Similarly, the numbers “117” we also spotted on a vehicle of a YouTube video of the 66th Mechanised Infantry Brigade.
The extensive Bellingcat post consists of the conversation, in the original and in translation, as well as commentary of the kind quoted above. It provides extraordinary insights into the mechanics of a coup in the digital age.
At first, everything seems to be going according to plan, as key Turkish infrastructure is seized, including the state broadcaster. At around about midnight local time, one of the plotters in the WhatsApp group warns: “Privately owned TV stations must be silenced.” But shortly afterwards, Turkey’s President Erdoğan made his by-now famous speech using FaceTime while mid-flight, broadcast by the privately-owned TV stations the plotters had failed to shut down. The Bellingcat post explains:
President Erdoğan’s speech is not mentioned in the group conversation, but the direct results of that speech are clearly noticeable: most units are asking for support as they are being surrounded by large crowd of civilians.
As a result, the plotters give increasingly desperate orders to use lethal force on the growing crowds, but to no avail. The last part of the WhatsApp transcription records the guttering of the short-lived attempted coup:
“Has the operation been cancelled Murat”, Major Aygar asks.
“Yes, commander”, he replies.
Major Aygar: “We’re quitting??”
Colonel Doğan: “Which operation, all of it?”
Major Çelebio?lu: “Yes quit, commander.”
Colonel Doğan: “Meaning?”
Major Çelebio?lu: “Yes, commander, operation aborted.”
Colonel Doğan: “Shall we escape?”
Major Çelebio?lu: “Stay alive, commander. The choice is yours. We have not decided yet. But we have left our position. I’m closing the group. Delete the messages if you want.”
It’s fortunate for us — and for future academics who will pore over them — that the messages were not completely deleted. They survive to provide us with a unique record of a coup as it happened, told in the words of those who tried and failed to seize a major nation. On their own, the short bursts of conversation would be interesting, but hard to parse. With Bellingcat’s characteristic annotations and amplifications, they become a gripping spectacle of history as it was being made, just two weeks ago.