An interview of a young reporter, İsmail Saymaz of Turkish mainstream daily Hürriyet on Oct 24 with David Keynes, the owner on paper of a mobile application called ByLock, reanimated the followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher living in the U.S. for their existential fight against the Turkish government.
The application, which was a failure in its original version, was registered under Keynes in 2013 who is also living in the U.S. Keynes was actually a name that he adopted after he adopted U.S. citizenship. His original name according to reports not able to be confirmed yet was Alparslan Demir, formerly a Turkish citizen of Central Asia descent. In the interview carried out with him in New York, he admits that he was raised in the student dormitories called the “Houses of Light” run by Gülenists and graduated from schools established by Gülenists in Turkey, before settling in the U.S.
This is an application supposed to compete with Whatsapp but failed short of it. Despite the words of Keynes saying that the codes were developed by himself and a roommate with the code name “Fox,” Turkish intelligence officials claim the original codes were first cracked and then redesigned by a group of Gülenist computer engineers working for Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Institution (TÜBİTAK) as reported by Hürriyet on Sept 13. Turkish prosecutors have arrested a number of computer wizards from TÜBİTAK and also from the police intelligence in relation with the ByLock investigation in the wake of the bloody military coup attack on July 15.
Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) found out about the use of this application in 2014 when they were looking for common points of a group of police officers, academics, members of judiciary taken into custody allegedly in relation with the Gülenist network, which is nowadays labeled by the government and the prosecutors in their indictments as the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ).” The intelligence soon spotted that the main server of ByLock was not in the U.S. where its owner is living but in the Baltic republic of Lithuania. Cyber spies of the MİT hacked the server and started to steal information in order to understand how it worked and used by whom.
Keynes claims that he wanted to make ByLock a commercial success despite also saying that it was promoted only among Gülenists. It was also a program in its later, redesigned version that could only be used via VPN. And it was not possible to make a search through your phonebook; everyone has a code number and messaging between two people who do not know each other’s code was not possible.
By December 15, the Gülenists realized that the Turkish intelligence had been syphoning information from the server. Before shutting it down in January 2016, the cyber spies managed to copy the entire memory of the server, without being able to crack the codes yet which took another few months. An intelligence source told Hürriyet (Sep 13) that there were more than 280 thousand users, but Keynes told Hürriyet (Oct 24) there were more than 500 thousand, some 100 thousand downloaded it from the internet.
In May 2016, the MİT told President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım that they managed to identify some 40 thousand users, half of them being public employees. Nearly 600 of them were military officers. The Gülenist network learned that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had this information through a computer engineer working for the police intelligence in liaison with the MİT. According to the government theory, fearing that there would be a big scale dismissal of allegedly Gülenist officers in the Supreme Military Council in late July, the network had to kick off the coup attempt prematurely, which resulted in the killing of 242 people and defeated thanks to the resistance by people, their representatives in the parliament and the majority of the military and the police force who are loyal to the democratic system, despite all its faults.
In the Oct 24 interview Keynes said he believed “90 percent” of the users could be Gülenists, but also he “agreed” that the presence of ByLock in somebody’s phone could be counted as evidence showing that person’s link to the Gülenist network.
Actually this point is the basis of tens of thousands of job dismissals and arrests by the government and the courts since July 15; the government also believes that the ByLock is an evidence showing that link, not to the person’s direct involvement in the coup attempt ― since it was shut down in January to be replaced by another application called the Eagle. Numan Kurtulmuş, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister told Hürriyet on Oct 25 that it was partly on ByLock credit the investigators could map the U.S. and the European net, together with the testimonies of those military and police officers and members of judiciary who applied to benefit from the repentance law for reduced sentences.
But Gülenists in Turkey and abroad, especially those who have gone to the US in order did not show much interest to that part of the Keynes interview. They rather stuck with the “90 percent” comment of Keynes. That could open the gate for all accused people to claim that they were in that 10 percent who out of coincidence or not downloaded this program for social messaging. And also could prove their claims that ByLock cannot be used as evidence in the investigations for July 15 coup attempt.
The reanimation and mobilization of the entire Gülenist social media network to discredit ByLock shows the degree of importance that give for the application. There are still bureaucrats, judges, prosecutors, military officers and also politicians believed to have ByLock downloaded to their phones but names are not revealed yet. And the Gülenist campaign is taking place as the Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ, accompanied by opposition MPs as well is in the U.S. to submit files on the Gülenist network to the Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Nevertheless, despite the existential efforts of Gülenists the ByLock records are included in those files.
“We understand that the judiciary is independent of politics” Kurtulmuş said, in order to acknowledge that the extradition of Gülen who lives in a farm house in Pennsylvania could take time. “But we also want to hear their political will” he continues, “We want to see a stance demonstrating that they are against the coup attempt in Turkey and stand for democracy. A temporary arrest would be enough to serve that purpose. There are legal grounds for this. The 10th article of the exchange of criminals’ agreement dated 1981, allows the temporary arrest of people for whom arrest warrants have been issued until legal proceedings are completed.”
Kurtulmuş says such a move would isolate Gülen from his network around the world, which posed a close and immediate threat, you may say an existential threat to Turkey.
The fact that this existential fight is locked up on a mobile application also demonstrates the changing nature of political and diplomatic struggle in a digital world.