Followers of U.S.-based Fetullah Gülen slowly organized in business, education and media while infiltrating into judiciary, military, police and other state institutions.
Throughout this time, Gülen remained untouched and able to maintain good relations with coup-lead governments, even praising top generals after the 1971, 1980 and 1997 military interventions
Fetullah Gülen, the founder of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), the perpetrator of the failed July 15 coup attempt, was born on April 27, 1941, in Erzurum. Gülen began primary school in 1946, in Erzurum and studied at the Kurşunlu Mosque madrasah in 1954.
In 1966, when he was 25, he was assigned to İzmir as the main imam. It is thought that the Gülen Movement was founded in that year in the western province.
Nurettin Veren, the man who built the structure in 1966 together with Gülen and remained close friends until 1996, says about the year that "Gülen came to İzmir from Edirne as a man who had not even finished primary school. His diploma was faked so that he could be an imam as a public servant. He used to take shelter in a small mosque. This is where our paths crossed."
Veren parted ways in 1996 due to Gülen's "cult-like leadership" and his supposed "deep ties with U.S. intelligence."
Gülen served in İzmir until 1971, formalizing his operations and meeting some of his senior operatives.
That year, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) issued a military memorandum to "restore order," and Gülen was arrested by the post-coup junta and spent seven months in prison on charges of reactionary activities. However, he was found not guilty and remained untouched later thanks to his anti-communist propaganda. Gülen was the founder of the Anti-Communist Association in his hometown of Erzurum at the time. After that, Gülen benefited from this anti-communist discourse.
He started to make state propaganda through religious means in the western province of Balıkesir. Despite the oppressive military atmosphere that hindered any political activity, Gülen benefited from protection and tried to win the favor of state authorities.
Gülen started to write for the monthly Sızıntı (Leak) Islamic magazine in 1979, which was published by his followers.
In the wake of the bloody 1980 coup led by Chief of General Staff Gen. Kenan Evren, who toppled the coalition government of center-right Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel, Gülen wrote an editorial for Sızıntı in which he praised the overthrow of the government.
After the coup, the Constitution was suspended, people were tortured to death, political parties were closed and their leaders were questioned, prosecuted and imprisoned.
In the editorial titled "The Last Outpost," Gülen praised the coup. "This is a victory by which the enemy is captured, the body [the government] is cleansed of viruses and has returned to its roots," he wrote in the article, implying that the military intervention somehow helped Turkey protect its democracy. "A deeper move was needed to eliminate the cancer the body was suffering from," Gülen added.
On March 20, 1981 he resigned as an imam from the Presidency of Religious Affairs and focused on his own network with his close associates. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gülenists geared up interest in business, education and media.
The followers, with interest in industry, education and media, along with operatives in the judiciary, military, police and other state institutions, mobilized all their resources, including newspapers and television stations they owned to attack all that they perceived as opponents.
Gülenists founded the Zaman newspaper in 1986 and Samanyolu Television in 1993. They began to build a media empire from scratch as a tool to increase their political influence. At the same time, Gülen's sermons and articles were distributed across the nation.
In November 1991, the first protocol was signed for Gülenists to open a high school in Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. The network eventually included hundreds of schools around the world in the 1990s. His charter schools in the U.S. became one of the main funding sources for the illicit organization.
Funds collected from disciples were channeled into schools, media organizations and other projects to help recruitment and expand its influence.
Later evidence and testimonies also show that followers began to recruit to infiltrate state institutions, such as the military, bureaucracy and judiciary at this time. Due to Turkish bureaucracy, particularly the military, branding almost all religious movements as reactionary, excluding them from state institutions in the name of secularism, Gülenist figures were stationed within the military using "taqiyya," a form of religious dissimulation mainly emphasized in Shiism, based on hiding one's true identity to achieve a goal or remain safe, and seemed to be nonreligious to avoid exclusion.
In line with this, Gülen urged his followers to infiltrate the state in a sermon that was captured on video in the early 1990s. "You have to penetrate the arteries of the system without being noticed," he said. "You have to wait for the right moment, until you have seized the entire power of the state," Gülen says in a video.
Another military intervention into politics that Turkey suffered was the postmodern coup of Feb. 28, 1997, and Turkey's democratically elected government was forced to resign. However, Gülen once again had an opportunist approach and tried to benefit from the coup, blaming the government for its failure to justify the coup.
He gave interviews to pro-coup media and said: "You [The government] have failed, now quit," and: "The military is more democratic."
Gülen openly commended the intervention that led to the most severe oppressive conservative society Turkey has ever faced, and called on his followers to respect the will of the military.
Regarding the headscarf ban, he said the obligation for women to wear a headscarf is among the nonessentials of the religion. He also sent letters and a salute to Çevik Bir, the 1st Army commander and a symbolic figure of the coup who described it as "a balance adjustment" to democracy.
In 1999, he fled to the U.S. for health reasons and since then, has been living in self-imposed exile on a 400-acre property in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.
After eight years, Gülen applied for a green card, and two former CIA officers, Graham Fuller and George Fidas, were among his personal references on his application.
Gülenists took advantage between 2007 and 2013 of the instability of the state system that occurred after the Balyoz (Sledgehammer), Ergenekon and military espionage trials, which were filed against high-ranking military officers and judges not loyal to the group, by assigning the movement's own judges, prosecutors and academics instead of those suspended as result of the cases. It was later revealed that most of the suspects were imprisoned on evidence Gülenists had fabricated. These cases allowed the group quicker infiltration of the state.