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Coup Attempt Highlights Jacksonville Connections To Turkey

Krisit O'Daniel
Demonstrators in Isnatbul during Friday night's coup attempt

Two years ago, Jacksonville native Kristi O’Daniel sold her possessions, gave away her cat and bought a one-way ticket to Turkey.

The University of North Florida international relations alum was in search of adventure, but may have gotten more than she bargained for.

O’Daniel, 33, who was also a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense while in Jacksonville, was in Turkey Friday night as factions of the military mounted an unsuccessful coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. O’Daniel said there was an eerie feeling in Istanbul for some time before a single shot was fired. 

“A couple of days before we started noticing special forces — special forces like army, fatigues walking around Istanbul — and it wasn't really normal and there was kind of a very tense vibe in the air already because that there was a rumored, possible ISIS attack,” she told WJCT via Skype Monday afternoon.

O’Daniel, who is also a freelance journalist, said there are more than a few rumors flying around about what might have led to the attempted takeover and who’s responsible.

Erdogan has publicly blamed former ally, exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, for fomenting the movement that led to the deaths of more than 200 people. O’Daniel said it would just be the latest in a history of bad blood.

“When the power structure started changing, Erdogan was kind of going to a power grab; it just didn't work after that between them. Erdogan accused the Gulenists and the Gulen movement of forming a shadow government. He calls it the parallel state,” she said amid the sound of the evening’s call to prayer.

O’Daniel said both Erdogan and Gulen had more theocratic views of how Turkey’s government should function, but Erdogan’s consolidation of power was a non-starter for the slightly more moderate and democratic Gulen.

Gulen has publicly stated Erdogan manufactured the coup, which O’Daniel said is not farfetched.

“The newspapers and the banks and the schools and basically anything else in the Turkish society that’s associated with the Gulen movement are always under a careful government eye,” she said. “Under watch, you know?”

As of Tuesday morning, the count of the arrested stood at more than 7,000, including members of the government, judiciary and private citizens.

River City Science Academy

Gulen is currently living in the Pennsylvania Poconos in self-imposed isolation.

His connection to a vast network of more than 160 charter schools in the states, receiving more than $150 million a year in taxpayer money, has drawn scrutiny from the FBI and Department of Labor. Former teachers said the schools were a front to funnel cash to Gulen’s political movement back in Turkey, according to a 2012 60 Minutes investigation.

One network of schools tied to Gulen is in Jacksonville — the River City Science Academy. One of the founders of the school Akif Aydin told First Coast Connect’s Melissa Ross Tuesday there’s no basis for those charges and the academy has no direct connection to the exiled imam.

“First of all, all of the activities of the school are under the scrutiny of the local district – all financial reports, everything," he said. "Several times a year, they come and inspect everything financially ... and (if) there was ever any such thing detected, definitely our local district would not allow that operation.”

The cleric’s group of followers, referred to as the Hizmat or “service,” adhere to Gulen’s philosophy of secular, science-based education and many of the teachers at these schools are from Turkey, including English instructors, according to the 60 Minutes report.

Aydin said the suggestion 60 Minutes made that the schools exist primarily to help naturalize more Turkish immigrants in America is ludicrous. He says the schools are closely monitored by regulators.

“Having Turkish-American teachers in these charter schools — there’s no problem with that. ... Everything is under the legal process. Everything is under the law system,” he said.

Aydin also echoed statements made by Secretary of State John Kerry, saying there’s no evidence Gulen is involved with the coup attempt. However, Aydin said he’d renounce his support of Gulen’s philosophy if it was proven he had a hand in the unsuccessful revolution.

Meanwhile, O’Daniel said there’s an uneasy calm for Turkish citizens and foreigners alike as Erdogan’s government continues arrests of thousands of political opponents.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.