Susurluk and the Legacy of Turkey’s Dirty War

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 9

On April 23 the Turkish Council of State ordered former Interior Minister Mehmet Agar to stand trial for allegedly “forming a criminal organization” in the dirty war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) during the 1990s, a period most Turks refer to as the “Susurluk” era (Turkish Daily News, April 23; Sabah, April 23; Today’s Zaman, April 22). It will be the first time a former government minister has faced charges related to one of the darkest chapters in recent Turkish history, the repercussions of which still haunt Turkey today.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the PKK’s first insurgency was at its peak, there were frequent rumors that the Turkish state was conducting a campaign of torture and assassination against suspected PKK sympathizers, including the formation of death squads and the recruitment of ultranationalist hitmen from the Turkish underworld. No unequivocal evidence could ever be produced and the claims were routinely dismissed by the Turkish authorities as PKK propaganda.

However, in the early evening of November 3, 1996, a truck pulled out of a gas station into the path of a speeding Mercedes just outside the town of Susurluk in western Anatolia. Three of the four passengers in the car were killed instantly and the fourth seriously injured. When local journalists arrived at the scene to cover what they had assumed was another traffic accident, they discovered that the three dead were Huseyin Kocadag, a prominent police chief; Abdullah Catli, a wanted Mafia hitman and convicted heroin smuggler who was carrying six different sets of identity documents issued by the Turkish authorities; and Catli’s mistress, Gonca Us, a former beauty queen. The injured passenger was Sedat Bucak, a member of parliament for the ruling True Path Party (DYP) and the leader of a Kurdish clan which was one of the main contributors to the pro-state militia known as “Village Guards,” used by the government in its war against the PKK. In the trunk of the Mercedes the journalists found a small arsenal of weapons, including several handguns fitted with silencers.

On November 8, 1996, Agar resigned as Interior Minister following allegations that he had provided false documents for Catli, including signing his gun permit. But his parliamentary immunity meant that Agar was able to avoid prosecution. Under intense public pressure, the government grudgingly agreed to a parliamentary inquiry. In the 350-page report published in April 1997, members of the parliamentary committee conducting the investigation repeatedly complained that they were prevented from having access to documents and interviewing state officials believed to have been involved [1]. The inquiry nevertheless uncovered enough evidence to demonstrate that the victims of the traffic accident in Susurluk were just part of a vast matrix of security and intelligence officials, ultranationalist members of the Turkish underworld and renegade former members of the PKK.

During the course of the parliamentary inquiry, officials from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) admitted that they had started recruiting ultranationalist members of the Turkish underworld in the early 1980s. In return for immunity from prosecution for their other activities—such as trafficking heroin through Turkey into Western Europe—ultranationalists in the Turkish Mafia had been used first to assassinate members of the militant Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and then, particularly from the late 1980s onward, suspected PKK members or sympathizers. Sometimes they clearly had an additional motive. In the early 1990s, after then Prime Minister Tansu Ciller warned that the Turkish state would punish those who financed the PKK, several leading ethnic Kurdish heroin traffickers were murdered, and their routes taken over by members of the ethnic Turkish underworld.

But “Susurluk” was more of a culture of immunity than a single network controlled by a specific power center. In addition to MIT, other branches of the security services were also running assassination campaigns. They included elements in the military, particularly those associated with what Turks call the “deep state,” the Gladio-style covert networks originally established by NATO as stay-behind forces trained to conduct insurgent operations in the event of a communist takeover (see Terrorism Focus, January 29). One of the most active was Gendarmerie intelligence, officially known as Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terror (JITEM). The Interior Ministry also ran covert organizations, either on a local level or through specially formed units controlled from Ankara. Much of the funding for covert operations came from extra-budgetary funds which were free from any oversight. Similarly, many of the weapons used in covert operations were purchased and distributed secretly, often from the international black market.

Although the command structures of the covert organizations were usually staffed by long-serving security or intelligence officials, the assassinations themselves were often carried out by former members of the PKK. Known in Turkish as “confessors,” they were offered immunity from prosecution or reduced jail sentences in return for switching sides and targeting their former comrades. In recent years, several former confessors have published accounts of their activities, relating how they would abduct, interrogate, torture and then execute suspected PKK sympathizers [2].

No reliable figures are available for the number of people who were killed or disappeared as the result of such operations, but it is conservatively estimated to be several thousand. Most of the killings occurred in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, where self-censorship and pressure from the authorities ensured that most of the assassinations and disappearances received little or no coverage in the mainstream national press. The assassins were often imprisoned PKK militants, who had been released for a few hours to carry out the murder in return for a promise of early release from jail. Many of the killings occurred in broad daylight in front of witnesses, who were sometimes able to identify the assailant. Although relatives of the slain were frequently able to name the assassin, it was very rare for the Turkish authorities to investigate. Even today, the murders of thousands of suspected PKK sympathizers during the 1990s remain officially classed as “unsolved.”

However, not only did the Susurluk accident occur in western Turkey—where it was much more difficult for the authorities to control the media—but it came at a time when the PKK was already in retreat on the battlefield. As the perceived threat from the PKK diminished, what had always been a very tenuous central control over the various groups and individuals recruited for the assassination campaigns declined still further. Many began to concentrate more on making money—particularly through extortion and narcotics trafficking—than on combating the PKK. The result was the emergence of rival factions and turf wars, which frequently descended into violence as competing groups started to target each other. But, even if they were now more criminal rather than covert organizations, they could still usually rely on the protection of the state to keep them out of jail. Although there were a number of prosecutions in the years immediately following the Susurluk accident, most of the accused were relatively low-level operatives and were either acquitted or received very light prison sentences.

Nevertheless, the arrests in January of an ultranationalist gang called Ergenekon demonstrated that Susurluk still has the ability to cast a shadow over Turkish politics (see Terrorism Focus, January 29). Several of the leading members of Ergenekon were among those named in the parliamentary investigation into Susurluk in 1997, even if they have recently started targeting what they regard as the anti-secularist Justice and Development Party (AKP) rather than the separatist PKK. However, unlike in the 1990s and despite the claims of many in the Islamist media, rather than being a product of elements in the Turkish security apparatus, Ergenekon appears to have been born of frustration at the perceived failure of the same forces to confront the AKP; prompting a handful of remnants from the Susurluk era to try to take matters into their own hands.

The presence in the Ergenekon gang of so many figures familiar from Susurluk has underlined the extent to which the majority of those responsible for the darkest chapter in what remains the largely untold story of Turkey’s war against the PKK have escaped judicial retribution. For several years, it appeared as if Agar would avoid ever having to appear in court. It was only when he failed to retain his seat in the general elections of July 22, 2007, that he lost his parliamentary immunity and became vulnerable to prosecution. No politicians have yet been convicted for their role in the Susurluk scandal. But it is unlikely that all were unaware of what was being done with the extra-budgetary funds and clandestinely acquired weapons that they channeled to the covert operations. It would be ironic if Agar now faces the prospect of a prison sentence when it was Tansu Ciller, the former DYP leader and prime minister from 1993 to 1995, who, on hearing of Catli’s death, declared that those who killed for their country were as deserving of praise as those who died for it.

Apart from the human cost of the dirty war of the 1990s, perhaps the most pernicious legacy of Susurluk is the damage it is has done to the Turkish people’s trust in their leaders. Before a careless truck driver proved otherwise, many would have dismissed as absurd the suggestion that their government could be recruiting Mafia hitmen, running death squads and releasing convicted terrorists to conduct extrajudicial executions. But, in a country which is always awash with improbable conspiracy theories, it is now so much more difficult to dismiss even the most outlandish; after all, at least one of them is known to have been true.


1. Fikri Saglar and Emin Ozgonul, Kod Adi Susurluk, Boyut Kitaplari, 1998.

2. For example: Timur Sahin and Ugur Balik, Itirafci: Bir JITEM’ci Anlatti, Aram Yayincilik, 2004.