On September 18 the Turkish security forces detained 19 more people as part of the continuing judicial investigations into a shadowy ultranationalist group known to the Turkish media as Ergenekon (see Terrorism Focus, January 29).
The Ergenekon investigation was launched following the discovery of a crate of grenades in a shantytown on the outskirts of Istanbul on June 12, 2007. Over the past 15 months, more than 100 people have been detained on suspicion of links to the group. They include Turkish ultranationalists, former members of the security forces, doctors, lawyers, journalists, and academics (see EDM, July 29).
There is no doubt that Ergenekon is a product of what Turks refer to as the derin devlet or “deep state,” a vast network of individuals and organizations with its roots in the Turkish military which conducted intelligence gathering and covert operations against perceived enemies of the Turkish state. During its heyday in the 1990s, groups and individuals acting, often with considerable autonomy, under the umbrella of the deep state were responsible for numerous deaths and human rights abuses, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
The Ergenekon investigation has been a gift to supporters of the ruling, moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is aware that the rigorously secular Turkish military remains the main obstacle to its hopes of softening the prevailing, often draconian, interpretation of secularism in Turkey. Many Turkish Islamists have also long been in denial about the nature of violence conducted in the name of their religion, particularly inside Turkey; and frequently create impossibly elaborate conspiracy theories in an attempt to shift the ultimate responsibility for acts of Islamist terrorism in Turkey onto “provocations” by unspecified dark forces seeking to destabilize the country (Zaman, April 22, 2007).
Unfortunately, the main motivation of those conducting the Ergenekon investigation appears to be to implicate as many hard-line secularists as possible rather than reveal the truth behind the organization. Worryingly, each wave of arrests of suspects in the Ergenekon investigation has occurred at a time when the domestic news agenda has been dominated by something damaging or embarrassing to the AKP. The detentions of September 18 coincided with conviction for fraud of the directors of a German-based Islamic charity who had close ties to leading members of the AKP (see EDM, September 11).
The 2,455 pages of the initial Ergenekon indictment, which was formally accepted by Istanbul’s 13th Serious Crimes Court on July 25 (see EDM, July 29), contains a bewildering mixture of fact, fantasy, rumor, speculation, and misinformation, much of it self-contradictory. Alarmingly, in their claims to have uncovered the heart of the deep state, the Ergenekon investigators appear to have attempted to impose a conspiracy theorist’s framework of a single centrally-controlled organization on what was always more of a diffuse nexus of like-minded groups and individuals; some of whom even fought turf wars with each other. On September 21 the pro-AKP Sabah daily newspaper, which is owned by a close friend of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published what it claimed was an organizational chart of the Ergenekon leadership drawn up by the public prosecutors. Significantly, the neat diagram had almost as many blanks as it did names (Sabah, September 21).
Both the Ergenekon investigators and the pro-AKP media have also refused to understand that most of the deep state disintegrated in the late 1990s. With the PKK in military retreat, many of the groups and individuals recruited to combat the organization in return for immunity from prosecution shifted their attention to criminal activities, such as protection rackets and narcotics smuggling.
In reality, Ergenekon was a relatively new organization. Less than a decade old, it was patched together by a handful of former deep-state operatives in order to prevent what they regarded as the potential erosion of Turkey’s sovereignty as a result of growing ties with the EU and to combat the threat they believed the AKP posed to secularism.
There is no doubt that some of the members of Ergenekon were prepared to use violence, although it was very limited in scope. Nevertheless, the pro-AKP media continue to claim that virtually every act of terrorism in Turkey attributed to Islamist militants over the last 20 years was actually a “false flag” operation by Ergenekon, including those that occurred before the organization was even formed. On September 22 the pro-AKP Today’s Zaman, which is now Turkey’s biggest selling English language daily, proudly proclaimed that “new evidence in the investigation indicates that Ergenekon leaders used terrorist organizations in Turkey from all backgrounds” (Today’s Zaman, September 22).
More absurdly, the newspaper went on to claim: “The evidence suggests that the group had links with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the extreme-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), the Islamist organization Hizbullah, the ultranationalist Turkish Revenge Brigades (TİT), the Turkish Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army (TİKKO), the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) and the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an extreme group wanting to reinstate the Islamic Caliphate” (Today’s Zaman, September 22).
Not surprisingly, the claims been fiercely denied by the organizations themselves (for example, see DHKP-C Press Release No, 373 of May 18, www.dhkc.org). Indeed, such organizations have traditionally been targeted by various elements in the deep state for intelligence gathering and, on occasion, assassination of the organizations’ members.
The latest round of detentions on September 18 suggests that the Ergenekon investigation may now be moving from the fantasies of conspiracy theorists into farce. Those detained on September 18 included Nurseli Idiz, one of Turkey’s leading actresses, and a transsexual showbiz manager and function organizer called Seyhan Soylu (NTV, CNNTurk, Anadolu Ajansi, September 18). After being held for three days, Idiz and Soylu were released on September 21 without being charged (Milliyet, Radikal, September 22).
No one seriously believes that Idiz and Soylu were actively involved in what the court indictment describes as a “terrorist organization.” Their main offence appears to have been that both were outspoken opponents of the AKP.