The detention in Istanbul last week of alleged members of a shadowy Turkish ultranationalist group has revived charges that elements within the Turkish security apparatus have long tried to destabilize the country through a campaign of bombings and assassinations. These allegedly include false flag operations that have been attributed to Kurdish separatists and violent Islamists.
By January 28, the Turkish authorities had formally charged 13 of those detained with forming an armed terrorist group in order to provoke members of the public into armed revolt against the government. Those arrested include retired Gendarmerie General Veli Kucuk, ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who is famous for taking intellectuals to court under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 8) and Sami Hostan, who is frequently alleged by the Turkish media to be a leading member of the Turkish underworld (Radikal, Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, Milliyet, January 28). The Turkish media have claimed that the latest arrests follow intelligence reports that the gang was planning to carry out a series of high level assassinations, including killing Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, Islamist journalist Fehmi Koru and Kurdish politicians Leyla Zana and Ahmet Turk (Yeni Safak, CNNTurk, January 25).
Turkey has long been rife with conspiracy theories. Most recently they have been strongest in the Islamist community. The vast majority of pious Turks are genuinely appalled by the violence that is perpetrated in the name of their religion and are loathe to accept that their coreligionists could be capable of terrorism. The result is often a combination of denial and willful ignorance, in which violence in the name of Islam is attributed to powerful hidden forces. For events that occur inside Turkey, the responsibility is usually attributed to what Turks call the derin devlet (deep state). The problem is that, even if it is not as active as it was in the early 1990s, the deep state really does exist in Turkey. Moreover, some of those recently arrested in Istanbul were connected with the deep state in the 1990s and there have been times when groups associated with the deep state have engaged in violence.
The 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. In Turkey, the main Gladio force was what is known as the Special Warfare Unit (SWU) in the Turkish military. Officers selected for the SWU were seconded from their units to receive specialized training in insurgent techniques and tactics. The training was highly secretive. In many cases, even the commanding officers of those selected for the SWU were only told that their subordinates have been chosen for a special assignment. After their training had been completed, the SWU officers returned to a normal unit. However, throughout their careers they would effectively have a dual function, combining their normal duties with their responsibilities as SWU officers.
Until 1980, the primary target of SWU activity was the Turkish leftist movement. In addition to staging operations and gathering intelligence themselves, SWU officers also established a network of contacts amongst the bureaucracy, the judiciary, other elements of the security apparatus and society at large—including like-minded organizations whose networks provided cover for intelligence work. During the 1980s, the primary focus of SWU activities shifted to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had launched a violent insurgency in 1984 in an attempt to establish a Marxist state in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Turks tend to regard the deep state as being a controlled, highly centralized organization. In fact, its defining characteristic is not centralized control, but immunity. Members of the SWU were trained to use their own initiative in the knowledge that they would not face judicial sanctions. By the late 1980s, however, the deep state was not so much a single organization, as a huge network in which different agents and groups had themselves recruited their own agents and groups, including ultranationalist members of the Turkish underworld. The result was a number of different powerbases, many of which had become virtually autonomous and were only united by their common opposition to the PKK. Some of the elements formed death squads to assassinate PKK members and sympathizers. Others were prepared to ignore the activities of radical groups opposed to the PKK, such as the Turkish Hezbollah (see Terrorism Monitor, January 24). The southeast of Turkey also lies on one of the main heroin trafficking routes into Europe. Inevitably, some of the elements recruited by the deep state began to take advantage of their de facto legal immunity to engage in extortion and narcotics trafficking.
With the military defeat of the PKK in the mid-1990s, the already tenuous links between the center of the deep state and its periphery became so attenuated that in many cases they disappeared altogether. Some of the elements used their contacts and de facto immunity from prosecution to focus almost exclusively on making money. There were conflicts of interest and turf wars, which were often settled by violence. The highest profile assassination occurred in December 2002 when a prominent judge, Necip Hablemitoglu, was killed by a car bomb (BBC, December 19, 2002).
Since the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002 and the PKK resumed its insurgency in June 2004, there have been instances when elements, which were associated with the deep state during the 1990s, have detonated some small improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Unlike some of the attacks carried out by violent Islamists and the PKK, the explosions caused relatively little damage and were primarily designed to increase social tensions.
There is as yet no evidence linking the group recently rounded up in Istanbul to these explosions, although there is no reason to doubt that the group was capable of violence. It appears, however, to be not so much a part of the deep state itself as a recently formed organization consisting primarily of deep state has-beens and wannabes. There is no indication that they were still in close contact with, much less controlled by, elements within the Turkish military such as the SWU. Indeed, while SWU-trained officers are still active in the Turkish military, in recent years the focus of SWU training seems to have shifted to counter-insurgency, rather than Gladio-style operations.
Nevertheless, the recent arrests are a gift to conspiracy theorists in Turkey and will doubtless reinforce the policy of denial common not only in the Turkish Islamist community, but also among Kurdish nationalists, many of whom have attempted to absolve the PKK of responsibility for some of its more brutal attacks by blaming the deep state. Unfortunately, such denials create the space in which Kurdish and Islamist perpetrators of violence can organize and grow in strength. In much the same way the de facto immunity granted to elements on the periphery of the deep state has allowed violent Turkish ultranationalists—such as those recently arrested in Istanbul—to form their own organizations.