Cyberpower Crushes Coup

Rewriting the rulebook on coups, time to add cyberpower

thaddeus t. grugq
6 min readJul 16, 2016
Turkish Tank Man is what a failing coup looks like.

Mere hours after the putsch in Turkey has failed, it is still too early to understand exactly what went on. Given those constraints, I still want to discuss something which has altered “the game” so much that the existing guidebook needs to be significantly revised.

I am not a military strategist, but I have lived through a couple coups in Thailand, so I have some first hand experience of what they look like. The guide book to running a coup is still Luttwak’s Coup d’État, but it needs to be revised to reflect the use of cyberpower. In the same vein, people who talk about cyberpower need to understand what it actually is (hint: it isn’t a stockpile of exploits, it’s the ability to create and maintain advantage.)

The Good Coup Guide

A coup is basically a sucker punch. The trick is to end the fight before it even begins. The members of the coup are in the minority and a long drawn out fight, even if they win, will not have the trappings of legitimacy or stability. The goal is to have a rapid attack against the existing leadership and replace them before anyone knows what happened. At the same time, the general population needs to be kept out of the way, because large groups of civilians complicate things to no end.

Essentially, the existing leaders need to be removed from positions of power and their ability to coordinate and organise a resistance must be blocked. This is easier when there are only a few means of mass communication (e.g the TV station, or the radio station.)

Keys To A Successful Putsch

The basic process is something like the following, preferably all at the same time:

  • Detain the existing leadership (failing that, act when they are unable to mount an effective defence, e.g. outside the country)
  • Seize the mass communication channels, such as TV and radio stations (to prevent any elements of the leadership coordinating an effective defense)
  • Restrict freedom of assembly, speech, and movement, to hinder the ability of the opposition to mount an effective defense
  • Finally, keep troops on the street to maintain “order” while everyone gets used to having a new ruling class

Everything has to be done quickly to minimize the period of vulnerability — from when the coup begins until it has achieved mission success (the majority of people accept them as the new rulers.)

Coups I Have Known

Coups I have experienced that “worked.”

Thailand, 2006

The prime minister was out of the country giving a talk at the UN. The military rolled in at night, seized Bangkok and attempted to lock down the TV stations. The PM called in to some stations in an attempt to tell the population that the coup would fail, he was still in charge, etc. The military, unable to capture all the possible means of communication, simply cut off power to the city. A night in Bangkok without AC (or knowing what is going on) is not much fun, let me tell you.

Unable to coordinate a resistance, the next week or so had a heavy military presence on the street. It was very nice and quiet, Thais called it “smooth as silk.”

Thailand, 2014

In 2014, the Thai military gathered the political leaders together for several days of talks, and then detained them en masse. The army was already on the streets, but they also took over all the TV stations, briefly shut down Facebook, and began detaining people for week long “attitude adjustments.” The Bangkok population was mostly eager for the coup to finally happen, because it ended the political turmoil (“mobs”), and brought the implied promise of a quick transition to civilian government not controlled by the PM ousted in 2006 (see above.) Again, the coup itself was very smooth, there wasn’t much organised resistance and the opposition leadership was neutralized while the population accepted the new leaders.

Mobile Messengers, What Can’t They Do?

The coup in Turkey was organized and coordinated using an end to end encrypted messenger (WhatsApp), and the call to defence was sent out via an end to end encrypted messenger (FaceTime). The future is amazing.

Opening Gambit

Classic Coup Opening Move

The putsch takes over the main TV station (TRT) has the news reader read a statement announcing the coup is “to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country, for law and order to be reinstated.” They also order the people to stay indoors.

This is very standard stuff. Take over the means of mass communication and keep the civilians out of the way so they can’t interfere.

Don’t Forget The Cyber

But, this is the era of cyberpower. Simply taking over the TV stations is not enough. The Internet is a more powerful means of communication than TV, and it is more resilient — especially with a sophisticated population. The Turks are experienced at handling attempts to cut their access to social media, and the putsch never even took over the ISPs.

The failure to block the Internet meant that the coup was battling a leadership that still had a very powerful capability: cyberpower. The ability to push out information that allowed them to coordinate a defence. In addition, both Twitter’s Periscope and Facebook Live allowed civilians to share their experiences, disseminate information, and build moral support for direct action.

It is an Intelligence service axiom that intelligence is of no value if not disseminated. Facebook Live, Twitter, and Periscope, provide a means of real time raw intelligence collection and dissemination. The civilian population is able to stay informed and make individual decisions, that collectively, can alter the course of events.

That’s Not a Cyberweapon

This Is A Cyberweapon

Erdogan left his holiday hotel and boarded a jet. This kept him out of the clutches of the putsch, and therefore free to organize and coordinate a defense. However, without access to the TV stations (he was on a plane, after all) he turned to cyberpower as a means to deliver his message and organise a resistance.

This Is What Using Cyberpower Looks Like

Erdogan’s call to the people to take to the streets and protect democracy and their country was successful. He was able to rally support using FaceTime (video calling) to TV stations, all from his jet above Turkey.

His calls where shown live on at least two channels, and later the mosques took up the call and were used to help organize resistance.

Update: the coup did attempt to throttle the Internet, but Erdogan ordered the throttling removed. This happened even before the mosques took up the call to the squares.

Cyberpower is structural

Today, the TV and radio are not the only means available to get information to people. The Turkish putsch took over some TV stations and did the standard coup style announcement: “we’re doing this for you, blah blah blah.” But they failed to eliminate the Internet, and any blocking that they were able to do was ineffective. In no small part because the Turkish people have spent years learning how to circumvent the social media blockades that Erdogan has put in place at various times. This made the population resilient against attempts to mitigate the cyber weapons they deployed.

FaceTime Is A Cyberweapon

The Turkish people turned out in droves, watching what was happening over Twitter and Facebook and then flooding the streets to stop the tanks. Videos of Turks fighting the putsch were circulating online less than an hour after the FaceTime call.

The putsch’s “sucker punch” had failed — they failed to neutralize the leadership (Erdogan was alive and free), and they failed to undermine his ability establish a counter narrative and organise a resistance.

A coup succeeds when people believe it has succeeded. The video call from Erdogan calling for active resistance and the videos of people successfully resisting the tanks were the beginning of the end.

And Scene…

Lessons Learned

What should we learn about taking over a country with a coup in the modern age? Don’t ignore the cyber. Here are a few key things to consider which can effectively neutralize cyberweapons during a putsch:

  1. Cut power to the city
  2. Neutralize the leadership immediately
  3. Capture the: telephone companies; the ISPs, and all the TV stations
  4. Have a political party for support