In late August, the Turkish media reported that retired Colonel Arif Dogan had confessed to being the founder of the intelligence wing of the Turkish Gendarmerie, known in Turkish as the Jandarma Istihbarat ve Terorle Mucadele (JITEM – Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terror), a controversial security organization whose very existence has been officially denied for many years (Milliyet, August 16; Sabah, August 25; Zaman, August 27).
Dogan’s claim was alleged to have come during investigations into the so-called Ergenekon ultranationalist gang, which was established by a handful of radical secularists – many of them retired covert operatives – who planned to stage a violent campaign to try to destabilize the moderate Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) (see Terrorism Monitor, January 29).
Although it is based around a kernel of truth, the Ergenekon investigation has become highly politicized. The AKP sympathizers in the lower echelons of the judiciary who are responsible for the investigation have tried to claim that Ergenekon is synonymous with – rather than being established by former members of – the web of covert networks and organizations, many of them with links to elements in the Turkish military, commonly referred to in Turkish as the derin devlet or “deep state”. The 2,455 page indictment in the Ergenekon case, which was presented to the 13th Serious Crimes Court in Istanbul on July 25, contains a potpourri of fact, hearsay and blatant invention; including claims that the Ergenekon gang was directly or indirectly responsible for almost every act of terrorism and political assassination in Turkey over the last 20 years (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 29).
The indictment has reinforced suspicions that the main aim of the Ergenekon investigation is not to uncover the truth behind Turkey’s deep state but to discredit the staunchly secularist military, whom most AKP supporters rightly regard as the main obstacle to the party’s efforts to ease some of current restrictions on the expression of a religious identity in Turkey, such as the ban which prevents women wearing traditional headscarves from attending university. The Ergenekon indictment also attributes numerous acts of terrorism previously blamed on Islamist militants either to groups established by Ergenekon or to false flag operations by the organization itself, thus providing psychological reassurance to the vast majority of the AKP’s supporters, whose genuine horror at the violence sometimes perpetrated in the name of their religion has created a culture of denial and improbably complex conspiracy theories.
As a result, any information which makes its way into the Turkish media in relation to the Ergenekon investigation needs to be treated with considerable caution. This is frustrating not only because the deep state is a reality of modern Turkish history, but because many deep state operations are known to have included elements from JITEM.
The Turkish Gendarmerie is responsible for the maintenance of law and order outside urban areas, which are the responsibility of the Turkish National Police (TNP). In peacetime, the Gendarmerie is under the theoretical command of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) rather than the Turkish General Staff (TGS), which only assumes direct control of the Gendarmerie in time of war. Nevertheless, even in peacetime, the Gendarmerie is attached to the TGS for training and special duties and to the Land Forces for weaponry and equipment. It draws its officer corps from cadets at military academies. Almost all officer-recruits will remain in the Gendarmerie for the rest of their careers. It is very rare for there to be any exchange of personnel with the other services. The one exception is the commander of the Gendarmerie, who is traditionally a four star general on secondment from the Land Forces.
The Gendarmerie Creates an Intelligence Department
In practice, the Gendarmerie has thus enjoyed a somewhat ambivalent status, feeling closer to the regular military than the TNP, but under the complete control of neither the MIA nor the TGS. As a result, when the Gendarmerie began to establish a counter-terrorism capability in response to the first insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), it was able to run covert operations virtually free of any oversight.
Prior to the PKK launching its insurgency in 1984, the Gendarmerie’s intelligence gathering activities were conducted by uniformed officers working with local Gendarmerie units. However, as the PKK began to step up its campaign of violence, the decision was taken – it is unclear when or by whom – to establish specialized units who would not only gather intelligence but also use it to conduct covert counter-terrorism operations.
Dogan is reported to have told Ergenekon investigators that he founded in the mid-1980s what was then known as the Gendarmerie Intelligence Group Command (Jandarma Istihbarat Grup Komutanligi – JIGK), which later became known as JITEM. He added that he handed over the command of JIGK in 1990 to Colonel Veli Kucuk (Milliyet, August 16; Sabah, August 25; Zaman, August 27). Kucuk was later promoted to the rank of general. He is currently in prison awaiting trial on charges of being one of the leaders of Ergenekon. Although he has admitted to serving in JITEM, Dogan has denied any knowledge of, or connection with, Ergenekon (Milliyet, August 16; Sabah, August 25; Zaman, August 27).
The claim that Dogan founded JITEM is currently impossible to confirm. However, it is known that, by the early 1990s, JITEM units were playing a leading role in the fight against the PKK. The structure and chain of command of JITEM both remain obscure. However, individual units appear to have enjoyed a large degree of operational autonomy and almost complete immunity from prosecution (Author’s interviews, southeast Turkey, 1991-99). Indeed, throughout the 1990s, the Gendarmerie high command consistently denied that JITEM even existed.
Recruiting from the PKK
Although JITEM units were usually led by career Gendarmerie officers, from the late 1980s onwards they also recruited heavily from former members of the PKK. Known as “confessors,” most had been captured and agreed to switch sides in return for immunity from prosecution or reduced jail sentences. In addition to gathering intelligence, JITEM units would detain, interrogate, and frequently torture and execute suspected PKK members.  JITEM units also targeted those who were believed to be merely Kurdish nationalists, assassinating journalists and intellectuals and bombing the offices of publishers and NGOs. No reliable figures are available for the number of people killed by JITEM in the 1980s and 1990s, although the number is estimated to be at least several thousand.  Most of the killings occurred in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, where self-censorship and pressure from the authorities ensured that they received little or no coverage in the mainstream national press. Those that were reported tended to be erroneously attributed to “an internal settling of accounts” between rival PKK factions. Although witnesses were frequently able to describe – and sometimes even name – the perpetrators, it was very rare for Turkish authorities even to go through the motions of launching an investigation (see Terrorism Monitor, May 1).
Inevitably, some members of JITEM also used their de facto immunity from prosecution for self-enrichment; this usually occurred through extortion or involvement in the trade in heroin trafficked through eastern Turkey from Afghanistan to markets in Europe. Rivalries between different groups involved in the same activities frequently led to tensions and even violence.
False Flag Operations
During the late 1990s, with the PKK in retreat on the battlefield, the number of extrajudicial executions declined. By the end of the decade, the majority of JITEM operatives responsible for the worst of the abuses had either retired or been killed in turf wars with rival groups. JITEM returned to focusing primarily on intelligence gathering.
However, the resurgence in PKK violence from 2004 onwards led to an increase in accusations of JITEM involvement in “false flag” bombings and shootings of suspected PKK sympathizers, albeit at nowhere near the level of the 1990s. Most notably, on November 9, 2005, one person was killed and six injured when a bomb exploded in a bookshop run by an alleged former member of the PKK in the town of Semdinli in southeast Turkey. The Gendarmerie subsequently issued a report claiming that the bombing had been the work of the PKK. This was contradicted by eye witnesses, who identified three members of the Gendarmerie – including two former PKK “confessors” – as being responsible for the attack. Unlike the 1990s, this time the local prosecutors were prepared to prosecute. But, as has happened with the Ergenekon investigation, the case soon fell victim to the ideological struggle between the AKP and the TGS.
Through early 2006, AKP sympathizers conducted a defamation campaign against the then commander of the Land Forces, General Yasar Buyukanit, who was due to take over as chief of the TGS in August 2006. Buyukanit was a noted hard-line secularist and was expected to be much more assertive in his dealings with the AKP government than the then chief-of-staff, General Hilmi Ozkok. When Buyukanit publicly commented that he had once worked with one of those accused of the Semdinli bombings, a pro-AKP public prosecutor named him in the indictment. Under pressure from the TGS, the public prosecutor was summarily dismissed and Buyukanit’s name removed, triggering a war of words between supporters of the AKP and the military, each accusing the other of abusing the judicial system for their own ends. Although the accused Gendarmerie members were subsequently convicted of carrying out the bombings, the furor over Buyukanit’s inclusion in the indictment meant that critical questions about the attack – not least who in the Gendarmerie command chain was ultimately responsible for authorizing it – still remain unanswered.
Regretfully, the politicization of the Ergenekon investigation suggests that any more information that emerges about JITEM, whether from Dogan or any of the other former JITEM operatives who are currently in custody, is likely to meet the same fate — AKP supporters believing every detail and their opponents dismissing it all as ideologically motivated invention. Yet the truth, as so often happens, lies somewhere in between.
1. For a graphic firsthand account of the activities of one such confessor who worked for JITEM during this period, see Timur Sahin and Ugur Balik, Itirafci: Bir JITEM’ci Anlatti, Aram Yayincilik, 2004.
2. Human rights activists claim that elements in the deep state, most of them with links to JITEM, carried out 17,500 political murders in the 1980s and 1990s (Author’s interviews, Van, August 2008). The real number was probably considerably less.