Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 144

On July 25, the 13th Serious Crimes Court in Istanbul formally accepted the indictment in the 13-month investigation into the shadowy ultranationalist group known to the Turkish media as Ergenekon (see EDM, July 24) and set a date of October 20, 2008, for the first hearing in the trial. The 2,455-page indictment charges 86 defendants—of whom 47 are currently in custody and the remainder, mostly allegedly minor figures, free pending their trial—of membership of a terrorist organization.

The indictment was immediately hailed by the pro-government media as a historic milestone which would finally reveal the nefarious activities of a network of covert organizations with its roots in elements in the security forces and which Turks traditionally refer to as the derin devlet or “deep state.”

The fiercely anti-military Taraf daily trumpeted the indictment as heralding “the cleansing of the century” (Taraf, July 26). Meanwhile the pro-government Islamist daily Zaman seized on the allegations in the indictment that the Ergenekon gang had been responsible for virtually every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 20 years. “All the dark moments of Turkey’s recent history could be the result of a deliberate attempt by a central network to create a state within a state,” it reassured its readers (Zaman, July 26).

There is little doubt that the Ergenekon investigation is rooted in fact. But what is alarming about the indictment is that it extrapolates from a kernel of truth through rumor, hearsay, unsubstantiated supposition and simple invention into the realms of fantasy.

One of the most startling claims in the indictment is that Ergenekon was cooperating with—and in many cases had both created and subsequently controlled—the entire range of terrorist groups in Turkey, ranging from leftists and Kurdish nationalists through to violent Islamists; and was responsible for almost every political assassination in the country since the early 1990s.

The claim is a fiction, albeit a convenient one for conspiracy theorists and those non-violent Turkish Islamists whose own horror at the atrocities committed in the name of their religion by militant groups invariably results in them attempting to shift responsibility for them to other—usually mysterious—forces.

Writing in the Islamist daily Today’s Zaman, columnist Bulent Kenes proclaimed that the indictment proved that Ergenekon had “played a major role in the formation of the pro-Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the religious fundamentalist Hezbollah, Marxist-Leninist terror organization the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C) and the fundamentalist Islamic Great East Raiders Front (İBDA-C)—and it still has the power over them to direct and manipulate” (Today’s Zaman, July 29).

Even if such claims were true, it would still leave questions such as how an organization which the indictment suggests was run by just a handful of men—who were so incompetent that they left diagrams detailing the names and roles of the leadership hierarchy lying around on tables in their offices and apartments—managed to create and control organizations which grew to be as powerful as the Turkish Hezbollah or the PKK. When the Turkish police seized Hezbollah’s archives in the late 1990s, they found 20,000 CVs from people wishing to become members and hundreds of videotapes showing the organization’s victims being tortured and murdered against a backdrop of quotations from the Qur’an. Perhaps more bafflingly, the alleged leaders of Ergenekon are known to have been actively involved in covert operations—including assassinations—against the PKK and DHKP-C in the 1990s and been targeted in return.

In reality, the truth behind Ergenekon is considerably more complex. The Turkish “deep state” has its origins in what are commonly called “Gladio” operations, the creation during the 1950s of indigenous stay-behind forces in NATO countries which were trained to conduct insurgent operations in the event of a communist takeover (see Terrorism Focus, January 29). There is evidence to suggest that Turkish Gladio forces were involved in covert operations during the clashes between leftist and rightist groups that brought the country to the brink of civil war during the 1970s. However, the heyday for the “deep state” in Turkey came in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the war against the PKK.

Contrary to most Turks’ assumptions, the “deep state” was never a single, centrally coordinated body. The emphasis of Gladio training was on serving as a catalyst rather than membership of a hierarchical structure. As a result, as it expanded to try to counter the PKK, the “deep state” was more of a web of networks and organizations—some linked, some semi-autonomous and some virtually completely autonomous—consisting not only of members of the security forces but also civilians, bureaucrats, journalists, academics, political organizations and even members of organized crime groups. The defining characteristic was not central control but legal immunity as the result of recruits in the judicial system. In addition to intelligence gathering, some elements in the “deep state” ran death squads, targeting members and sympathizers of the PKK.

By the late 1990s, with the PKK in retreat, many of the “deep state” groups became moribund. Some members retired. Others returned to their previous lives. A few turned exclusively to organized crime. There were even turf wars and assassinations as rival groups fought over lucrative activities such as access to state contracts and the narcotics trade.

One small group of former members of the “deep state” decided to establish a new group, initially to counter what it regarded as the increasing erosion of Turkey’s sovereignty as a result of its application for EU membership and more recently to combat what it saw as the anti-secularist policies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. They tried to recruit both from other former members of the “deep state” and ultra-nationalists and hard-line secularists who had previously had no involvement with it. There is little doubt that this new organization, which has become known as Ergenekon, planned to use violence. There is evidence to suggest that it was responsible for a handful of violent incidents, though nothing like as many as alleged in the indictment. But the claim that this new grouping was responsible for acts going back to the early 1990s, when it had not even been formed, is simply absurd.

In truth, Ergenekon is a hangover from the heyday of Turkey’s “deep state,” which was much larger and complex than in the simplistic conspiracy theories now being pedaled by AKP supporters. But, contrary to the claims of many of the AKP’s opponents, it was also as much a reality as the organizations which continue to resort to terrorism in Turkey in the name of socialism, Kurdish nationalism or Islam.