On 22 January, Turkish police arrested 33 individuals, some connected with the military, in the largest concerted action against the "deep state" ‘s that shadowy underworld linking extremists and criminals from the spheres of military, political, judicial and the academy. Some were accused of belonging to an ultranationalist group, Ergenekon, that was allegedly "preparing a series of bomb attacks aimed at fomenting chaos ahead of a coup in 2009 against Turkey’s center-right government, whose European Union-linked reforms are opposed by ultranationalists." The ultranationalists (who also distrust the Erdogan government for its alleged Islamist agenda) were plotting to assassinate prominent cultural figures, such as Nobel-prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, journalist Fehmi Koru, and possibly Kurdish politicians. The deaths of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, two Italian priests and three Protestant missionaries have already been blamed on ultranationalists associated with the Ergenekon group.
The police had been investigating the group for the past few years, compiling in the process a dossier of some 7,000 pages. The current operation was sparked following a police raid in Istanbul this past summer, which recovered weapons (and some low-ranking military men). But the big fish, including two retired generals, were only caught in the recent police operation. While it seems to have been a major victory for the government and for Turkey in general, many have expressed cynicism that a completely thorough investigation will ever be accomplished. Because the case involves high-ranking officials from the military ‘s that self-appointed guarantor of Turkey’s secular, constitutional order ‘s "it remains to be seen whether the cases will be brought to trial," states the Guardian.
But it is not so simple as just a matter of upholding army pride. The activities of the gang, which apparently ranged from false-flag terrorist attacks and assassinations to drug smuggling and espionage, are closely intertwined with the fortunes and affairs of the ruling class in Turkey. As editors and local commentators have been saying, to really act against the deep state is almost unimaginable; no one knows where the trail might ultimately lead.
Deep Background: The Cold War, NATO and the Rise of the Deep State
We do, however, know where it started ‘s and why. Indeed, it is more than a bit ironic that the major recurring threat to society and political stability in Turkey over the past 60 years, the "Deep State," was actually enabled by the country’s Western allies, and first of all, America. After WWII and with the creation of NATO, the military alliance created "secret armies" throughout Europe, consisting of so-called "stay behind" forces, charged with waging sabotage campaigns and resistance in the case of a Soviet invasion. However, they became prone to corruption, interference with domestic politics and society, and were in some cases involved with brutality against Leftists and the citizenry in general. While the most famous of NATO’s secret armies was the Gladio operation in Italy, it was arguable in Turkey that this dangerous policy had the most serious long-term consequences, with the creation of a stay-behind force known as the Counter-Guerrillas.
The core of this covert paramilitary force was made up of right-wing radicals and fascists who espoused a narrative of inherent Turkish greatness and racial superiority, in the context of not only Turkey itself but of the ethnically Turkic republics of Central Asia (then under Soviet control); there were also the fond dreams of the bygone Ottoman Empire which, in its heyday, spread across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans.
The Counter-Guerrillas were officially a part of the Turkish Army’s Special Warfare Department, and housed in the US Military Aid Mission building in Ankara, according to a Los Angeles Times report from 1998. This department received funding and training from U.S. advisors to establish, as in other NATO states,"stay behind" squads of civilian irregulars who would theoretically vex the invading Soviets. Stocking the staff was accomplished partially through a nationwide "youth group," the Grey Wolves, established in 1969 under the aegis of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and its leader, Alparslan T?rkes. This Counter-Guerrilla member and ultranationalist politician dreamed of creating the mythical "Turan" ‘s a pan-Turkic empire which would stretch through the Central Asian republics, and include the Uighur Turks of western China’s Xinjiang province.
Naturally, the Counter-Guerrillas and Grey Wolves also operated closely with Turkey’s intelligence service, the MIT, and were used by right-wing governmen’s to suppress civil liberties. Military coups in 1971 and 1980, and chronic massacres of civilian demonstrators throughout the 1970s, were all led by Counter-Guerrilla/Grey Wolves elemen’s. The American intelligence services at times appear to have been supportive, regardless of the ominous implications for democracy. Immediately after the 1980 military coup that brought General Kenan Evren to power, American CIA Ankara station chief Paul Henze reportedly cabled Washington exulting, "our boys have done it." At that time, the Grey Wolves had 200,000 registered members and one million sympathizers nationwide, though the Turkish Deep State was still in embryonic form compared to the decade that was to come.
When domestic political fortunes changed, important figures such as Colonel T?rkes, and other Grey Wolves were arrested. However, those who volunteered to fight against Kurdish and Armenian groups were often released. With the outbreak of war against the Kurdish PKK (Partiya Karker?n Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers Party) in the 1980s, the covert force turned to "black ops" such as torturing and killing Kurds while disguised in PKK uniforms. Further, an Islamic terrorist organization, Turkish Hizbollah (not related to Hizbollah in Lebanon) was reportedly created by the Turkish military and the MIT in the 1980s, to divide the rebelling Kurds in the southeast. In all, up to 20,000 Islamic fighters, most of them Kurds, were indoctrinated and organized into proxy terrorist and assassination squads. Throughout the 1990s, Turkish Hizbollah murdered over 3,000 businessmen and ordinary civilians in assassinations and bombings. This monstrous creation was modeled on America’s apparent success in Afghanistan, where it had created bin Laden’s mujahedin to fight the Soviets.
The state’s role with Turkish Hizbollah was confirmed in February 2000, when former Prime Minister Tansu ?iller admitted publicly that she had ordered the military to arm the group six years earlier. ?iller justified the jihadis as a necessary part of Turkey’s own war on terror. In his book Crescent and Star: Turkey between Two Worlds, the former New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, Stephen Kinzer, recounted Ms ?iller’s scandalous statemen’s. "Yes, it was my signature on the order to deliver those weapons," she said. "We met and made a decision. We decided that terror was the main issue and that whatever was necessary to stop it would be done… The military chief of staff, the governors, the police ‘s everyone worked together on it."
The deep state also played a major role in heroin smuggling from Afghanistan through Turkey, a route which now accounts for around 90 percent of heroin smuggled into Europe. Like everything else, there were no clear-cut lines of control between political parties, ethnicities, or services. By 1998, for example, at least 15 MIT officers had been killed in the vicious internal battle between the intelligence service and the police over control of the drug trade. "Only criminal networks working in close cooperation with the police and the army could possibly organize trafficking on such a scale," concluded Le Monde Diplomatique. The celebrated former FBI translator and whistleblower Sibel Edmonds writes that "the Turkish government, MIT and the Turkish military, not only sanctions, but also actively participates in and oversees the narcotics activities and networks."
One such network was discovered in 1998, when Turkish police were accused of using their European embassies to aid smuggling. Huseyin Baybasin, known as "Europe’s Pablo Escobar," masterminded the drug flow to Britain. According to the Guardian, the Kurdish kingpin was granted asylum there in 1995, in exchange for informing the British Customs & Excise service about Turkish officials involved in heroin trafficking. After his arrest in Holland soon thereafter, Baybasin disclosed that he had received "the assistance of Turkish embassies and consulates while moving huge shipmen’s of drugs around Europe, and that Turkish army officers serving with NATO in Belgium were also involved. "The government kept all doors open for us," he said for the Guardian. "We could do as we pleased." A senior UK Customs officer stated that the drug barons evaded arrest, as they were "protected" at a high level.
The one single incident that encapsulates what the Turkish deep state is all about for many Turks occurred on November 3, 1996 near the town of Susurluk, on the Izmir-Istanbul road. A car crash there killed what would seem an unusual group of friends: the counterterrorism police chief, a Turkish beauty queen, and her lover, the former Grey Wolves leader and drug smuggler Abdullah Catli. Pistols with silencers and machine guns, plus false diplomatic passports, were found in the mangled car’s trunk. The only survivor, Kurdish parliamentarian Sedat Bucak, was a tribal chief who administered a swathe of land in the Kurdish southeast as a liegeman of the government. He guarded it with his private army, and "thus acquired the power of life and death over the area’s inhabitants," reported the French newspaper. For his part, Catli "was a heroin trafficker on Interpol’s wanted list [and] was carrying a diplomatic passport signed by none other than the Turkish Interior Minister himself."
Catli’s team of hired assassins were alleged to have worked from a "list" kept by Prime Minister ?iller. According to Le Monde Diplomatique, she hailed him as a "great patriot" at his ignominious funeral. Catli was known for racketeering people by warning them that they were on "?iller’s list"; if they paid up, he could get their names removed. However, "having pocketed the money, he then went on to have them kidnapped and killed, and sometimes tortured beforehand."
Signs of Continuity: Activities, Ideology and Personnel
The dramatic recent arrests of the Ergenekon gang show that the descendents of NATO’s secret army in Turkey remain serious threats to internal stability ‘s the extent to which seems to have surprised many Turks, judging from the tone of recent media reactions. Yet it also seems that there is now a popular will to oppose them, stronger perhaps than in years past. This week, across the Turkish media, the cry has gone out to slay the beast once and for all. While the American media seems content to not follow the story through to its logical conclusion, the Turks know better. Respected Turkish columnist Ali Bayramoglu sums it all up:
";one looking for Ergenekon need not go too far. This is the story of Ergenekon ‘s the Turkish Gladio ‘s from the assassination of [journalist] Abdi I.pek?i [in 1979] to ‘the massacre of March 16’ [in 1978, when seven students at an Istanbul university were killed in a bomb attack], then peaking in Susurluk and possibly involved in the Council of State shooting [of a senior judge in 2006]."
Indeed, the similarities are striking, and not only in the use of strategic and deceptive organized violence for political ends. The very name of today’s troublemakers, Ergenekon, is rhetorically loaded: as the Turkish Daily News reminds,
";the name ‘Ergenekon’ implies an ideological link to the Turkish far-right, as in Turkic genesis mythology, it is believed that a gray wolf showed the Turks the way out of their legendary homeland, [the valley of] ‘Ergenekon.’ Turkish ultranationalists have used the name ‘Grey Wolf’ for decades."
Recent reports have also attested to a continued reliance on heroin smuggling for funding false-flag terrorism within Turkey. Turkish newspaper Zaman reports:
";Germany’s Niedersachsen State’s anti-drug department, the LKA, which tapped the phones of some of the Ergenekon members as part of a narcotics investigation, proved that Ergenekon members were indeed in the drug business as well. The records of a Nov. 20, 2003 phone conversation between retired Capt. Muzaffer Tekin, arrested in June of last year as the owner of the munitions depot found in an Istanbul shantytown that started the Ergenekon operation, and Yilmaz Tavuk?uoglu, an alleged drug trafficker, shows that Ergenekon used drug money to fund its activities."
Together with the continuity of violent activities intended, as in years past, to presage a military takeover, the Deep State’s rumblings continue to be fuelled by drug profits and enlivened by the old fascistic brand of nationalism. An example is the professor and intellectual figurehead of the movement, ?mit Sayin, who in November urged followers to stage a coup d’?tat, describing himself "as being anti-Semitic, saying that Jewish people were fanatical, racist and in favor of religious law. ‘Hitler was right about certain things,’ he said."
In addition, the same cast of characters, some with direct connections to events of years past such as the Susurluk scandal, have been targets of the latest police action. The ringleader of the Ergenekon group, according to the Turkish media, is Veli K???k, "a retired general who is also the alleged founder of a secret intelligence unit in the gendarmerie," a man who had hovered on the periphery of previous Deep State investigations; though K???k’s surreptitious squad, the JITEM, allegedly "carried out bombings and killings for which other groups were widely blamed," he somehow always managed to not be implicated (a Kurdish former informant quoted by Zaman charges that the general is covering for figures even higher-up sympathetic to the coup attempt).
Another former military man, retired army colonel Fikret Karadag, "also heads the Association for the Union of Patriotic Forces (VKGB)," one of several activist groups that have followed in the footsteps of the 1960s-era quasi-political organizations that fed the original Grey Wolves movement. Sami Hostan, another suspect, was "a key figure in the Susurluk investigation." Also arrested was Sevgi Erenerol, a former political ally of Alparslan T?rkes, and spokeswoman for the so-called "Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate," a church without a congregation, simply a front and meeting place for nationalist agitators.
The most recent reports claim that Gen. K???k "had tried to ring ‘influential friends’ just before his arrest on Jan. 22." Aware that police were closing in, the former general "made eight phone calls to ‘influential friends,’ telling them that the police were waiting at the door to take him into custody, and asked for help ‘s but his pleas for help were rejected."
However, despite this eleventh-hour setback, other new information reveals the intricate web of plotters, from low-level assassins to high officials, involved in the plot. Zaman adds:
";a plot to kill Turkey’s only Nobel Prize-winning author, Orhan Pamuk, was also among Ergenekon’s plans. Newspapers printed transcripts of recorded phone conversations between Spc. Sgt. Muhammed Y?ce, Ret. Col. Fikri Karadag and Selim Akkurt, the trigger-man hired to do the job, whose phones were tapped with a court order. Officials say that Y?ce, who was also arrested for being part of the Ergenekon organization, said in a phone conversation with the hit-man that he had spoken to Karadag about the planned Pamuk assassination. Y?ce told Akkus, that an Istanbul businessman would financially support them as would a prosecutor and a judge in Istanbul’s Kadik?y district.
Akkurt, who spoke in a worried tone, is quoted as saying he was concerned he might end up like Mehmet Ali Agca, a deep-state assassin who also shot the pope in the ’70s. Akkurt expressed a desire to be like O.S., the teenager who shot Dink in January of last year, saying: ‘He has trillions of lira in his account. Plus, those around him have become heroes.’ In response to these words, Y?ce was quoted as having said: ‘You, me and Fuci will take care of Orhan Pamuk. We will have YTL [New Turkish Lira] 2 million in our accounts. Are you with me on this one?’ Akkurt is heard giving an affirmative response to Y?ce’s question in the recordings.
Shortly after his conversation with Akkurt, Y?ce sent a text message to a relative in which he wrote: ‘We will take care of Orhan after the conference. They will put in [YTL] 5 billion into our account. They will give us a gas station and a villa. Sedat Peker will take care of us while we’re in jail.’ Peker is an ultranationalist mafia leader with apparent links to deep-state figures."
For Turkish sociologist Cem ?zatalay, a wide consensus of powers had grown concerned enough to instigate the recent action: "it is clear that the USA, the General Staff and the AKP [Turkey’s ruling party] have agreed to break the back of Ergenekon." Indeed, it is interesting to note that the robust action against the ultranationalist group unfolded not long after Turkish President Abdullah G?l returned from meetings with US President Bush in the White House. And, despite the significant participation of disgruntled elemen’s in the army and former military officials in the plot, it seems clear that the Turkish military as an institution would prefer to keep the uneasy peace with the allegedly ‘Islamist’ government of Prime Minister Erdogan, rather than engage in old adventures that would diminish Turkey’s standing abroad and quite possibly affect its ability to access Western military technology at a time when Turkey is trying to create an independent defense industry of its own. In denying army support for the coup attempt, Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit recently stated that "at every opportunity, there have been in the past and there continue to be efforts to link the armed forces with these kinds of things."
Aside from keeping foreign policy leverage and ensuring defense industry cooperation, there might be a third reason why there was not wide support in the Turkish establishment, either civilian and military, for a coup, though at bottom it does have import for watchers of Turkey’s deep state activities. This is the planned participation of Turkey (along with other American allies in the Middle East and North Africa) in an American-led program, GNEP, to create nuclear power plants as a means for alleviating energy strain and dependence on oil. On 22 January, as the Ergenekon arrests were going down in Turkey, Washington announced that the country would get the green light to go ahead with the program.
Aside from the rather alarming possible implications of juicing up, say, Saudi Arabia, there are other items of interest here, the most relevant being the question of why an agreement on nuclear technology transfer to NATO-ally Turkey had not been achieved long ago. Indeed, why not? As the AFP reported:
";the deal stalled shortly after being signed in July 2000 because US agencies received ‘information implicating Turkish private entities in certain activities directly relating to nuclear proliferation,’ the White House said; ‘the pertinent issues have been sufficiently resolved.’"
Whether through a remarkable harmonic convergence of events or just plain coincidence, the GTEP deal is peaking just at the moment Turkey appears to be gaining the upper hand in the struggle against the deep state ‘s and, not to mention, at just the same moment that London’s Sunday Times has come out with a serial investigation on what would seem to be exactly this subject: the role of Turkish deep state figures in the theft of American nuclear secrets, at precisely the moment American security agencies were stumbling across "information implicating Turkish private entities in certain activities directly relating to nuclear proliferation."
Some have speculated that legalizing the nuclear trade with Turkey is the Bush administration’s way of retroactively legalizing the activities of any of the shadowy governmental figures that the Times alleges were involved with the illicit commerce, so that they cannot be touched in the event that their alleged misdoings are exposed. I do not know enough about how such legislation works to be able to comment on the likelihood of this or not, but even if so, it would seem a rather small element of what is a global program with objectives beyond securing the legacies of a few bad apple bureaucrats.
However, it certainly is remarkable that none of the Western media bodies reporting on the GNEP developmen’s, or on the recent arrests in Turkey, have examined these events in the larger context of the historic US/NATO role in creating the Turkish deep state, and of what the Times alleges, not to mention attempting to put all the pieces together.
Maybe the pieces fit; maybe they don’t. Yet unless the mainstream media (the only media well-funded enough to undertake a proper investigation) starts to take an interest, we will never know. After all, no one in officialdom is talking about the Times’ allegations and yet, somehow, "the pertinent issues have been sufficiently resolved," says the White House. In other words, Turkey’s proliferation violations have been solved ‘s even though they have never been properly explained, or even admitted, by the powers that be.
Christopher Deliso is an American journalist, travel writer and author concentrating on the Balkans and Southeast Europe, where he has lived and traveled for almost a decade. His criticisms of interventionist foreign policy can be found in his writings for Antiwar.com. Deliso directs the Balkan-interest news and analysis website, Balkanalysis.com and is also the author of a travelogue, Hidden Macedonia (Haus Publishing, London). He holds an MPhil with distinction in Byzantine Studies from Oxford University.