The Impact of the Ergenekon Investigation on Turkish Counterterrorism Operations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19

The judicial investigation into a shadowy ultranationalist group known to the Turkish media as Ergenekon has become increasingly characterized by a mixture of incompetence, paranoia, politicization and willful disinformation. Supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) in the judicial system and the media have jettisoned any attempt to uncover the truth behind the gang in favor of salving their own insecurities and attempting to discredit the government’s hard-line secularist opponents.

Since the investigation was first launched in June 2007, more than 100 anti-AKP activists have been taken into custody on the grounds of their alleged links to the gang. AKP sympathizers in the Turkish media have published a string of stories claiming the investigation has uncovered “evidence” that Ergenekon was responsible for virtually every act of political violence committed in Turkey over the last 20 years. The 2,455 page Ergenekon indictment, formally accepted by the Istanbul 13th Serious Crimes Court on July 25, contains an extraordinary mixture of fact, fantasy, rumor, speculation, and blatant invention – much of it self-contradictory (Turkish Daily News, July 26; see also Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 29). On September 18, the investigation finally descended into farce when a well-known transsexual concert organizer and one of the country’s most famous actresses – both of them opponents of the AKP – were detained on suspicion of belonging to a covert Ergenekon terrorist cell (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 22)

Such absurdities have inevitably raised serious concerns about the efficacy and impartiality of the Turkish judicial system. More dangerously, there are indications that the Ergenekon investigation and the accompanying disinformation campaign in the pro-AKP media have degraded Turkey’s ability to counter the activities of terrorist groups in the country and, particularly in the case of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK), even unwittingly fuelled support for them.

Ergenekon and the Turkish “Deep State”

The Ergenekon investigation was launched following the discovery of a crate of grenades in an Istanbul shantytown on June 12, 2007 (Turkish Daily News, June 15, 2007). It soon became clear that the grenades belonged to a group with links to what Turks call the derin devlet or “deep state,” a network of individuals and organizations with its roots in the Turkish military which conducts covert operations against perceived enemies of the Turkish state (see Terrorism Focus, January 29).

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the deep state network was expanded in response to the growing threat from the PKK. The new recruits included ultranationalist members of the Turkish underworld and former PKK militants who conducted a campaign of violence against suspected PKK sympathizers and Kurdish nationalists, including several thousand extrajudicial executions.

Although some elements were in contact with each other, the deep state was always more of an umbrella of judicial immunity for disparate – and often virtually autonomous – groups and individuals pursuing a common goal rather than a single tightly structured and centrally controlled organization. By the end of the 1990s, with the PKK in retreat on the battlefield, the links between many of these groups became increasingly attenuated. Several broke up as their members either retired or focused exclusively on criminal activities such as narcotics smuggling, protection rackets and the manipulation of state contracts, confident that their past activities on behalf of the state would provide a measure of protection against prosecution by law enforcement authorities.

Ergenekon is a relatively new organization. It was formed, on their own initiative, by a handful of retired former deep state operatives who were alarmed initially by what they regarded as the erosion of Turkish sovereignty – as exemplified by Turkey being named as an official candidate for European Union (EU) accession in December 1999 – and subsequently by the perceived threat to secularism posed by the rise of the AKP. There is little doubt that some members of Ergenekon were prepared to try to destabilize the AKP government through the use of violence. Even though some its founders had received training in covert operations, Ergenekon was poorly organized and badly equipped. By the time it was dismantled it had only managed to conduct a handful of relatively small operations.

The AKP, the Deep State and a Culture of Denial

The AKP and its supporters have long regarded the Turkish military as the main obstacle to their goal of softening the often draconian interpretation of secularism in Turkey (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 18). Many Turkish Islamists have long been in denial about Islamist terrorism, allowing their personal abhorrence of the violence that is sometimes conducted in the name of their religion to persuade them that it has been perpetrated by mysterious forces intent on discrediting or provoking pious Muslims.[1] Even before June 2007, it was common for Turkish Islamists to attempt to shift responsibility for any act of Islamist terrorism in Turkey onto someone else; usually non-Muslim foreigners or elements within the Turkish security apparatus (Jamestown interviews, 1995-2007).

As a result, the discovery of Ergenekon was a gift. Not only did the gang’s existence appear to confirm all the conspiracy theories, but – in a major embarrassment for the Turkish military – one of those taken into custody in the first wave of arrests last January was Veli Kucuk, a retired Gendarmerie general.

By the end of January, 13 of those detained as part of the Ergenekon investigation had been formally charged with membership of a terrorist organization (see Terrorism Focus, January 29). There is considerable reason to believe that some of the arrested were actively involved in Ergenekon. The same could not be said of the majority of the more than 100 people who were detained over the following months. The main criterion for their detention appeared to be an outspoken antipathy to the AKP. Disturbingly, each wave of arrests coincided with the AKP coming under pressure – initially at critical stages in the closure case against the party filed with the Turkish Constitutional Court (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 31) and most recently in response to a string of corruption scandals involving close associates of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 11).

More perniciously, the transparent absurdities of many of the claims in the Ergenekon indictment have been compounded by the pro-AKP media, which has alleged not only that the gang is synonymous with the deep state but that it was ultimately responsible for almost every act of political violence in Turkey over the last 20 years.

Many of the claims in the pro-AKP media are attributed to anonymous sources or vague rumors. Others demonstrate an extraordinary creativity. For example, although few of them had any connection with Ergenekon itself, some of those of those detained during the investigation are active or former deep state operatives who were engaged in the gathering of intelligence on terrorist groups. As a result, when their homes were searched, police recovered documents related to organizations the operatives were targeting. These documents are now being cited by the pro-AKP media as evidence that the organizations were controlled by Ergenekon (Zaman, September 25).

On September 22, the pro-AKP Today’s Zaman informed its readers that “new evidence in the investigation indicates that Ergenekon leaders used terrorist organizations in Turkey from all backgrounds.” It then listed the organizations which it claimed Ergenekon was controlling. They included: “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)” (Today’s Zaman, September 22).

The revelations will probably come as a surprise to the organizations concerned, particularly the PKK. During the 1990s, two of the deep state operatives who later founded Ergenekon were involved in running death squads which killed suspected PKK sympathizers.

The Repercussions for Counterterrorism Operations in Turkey

The counterterrorism department of the Turkish National Police (TNP), which comes under the authority of the Interior Ministry and bears the brunt of counterterrorism operations in the country, is divided into three branches. Two of them focus on leftist and separatist (i.e. Kurdish) organizations respectively. The Turkish authorities have always been reluctant to associate Islam with terrorism. As a result, the third branch of the counter-terrorism department is officially designated as being responsible for “rightist” organizations, which includes both Islamist and Turkish ultranationalist groups. When the Ergenekon investigation was initiated, the Interior Ministry instructed the “rightist” branch to devote as many of its resources as possible to the group, which effectively meant reducing the resources deployed against the much greater threat posed by Islamist organizations (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 10).

Leftist and separatist terrorism in Turkey is dominated by well-established groups, such as the DHKP-C and PKK, which have long been targets for surveillance and penetration. Although there are a small number of established organizations, the main Islamist terrorist threat in Turkey comes from ad hoc groups which have been newly formed for a specific attack. But before they can attempt to thwart the attack, counterterrorism officers must first be aware a group is being formed to carry it out; information usually comes in a tip-off from a member of the same social milieu as the would-be terrorists. Yet potential informants are often reluctant to believe that someone who appears to be a fellow pious Muslim is a potential terrorist (Jamestown interviews with TNP officers, Istanbul, Bingol, November 2003; Milliyet, Radikal, July 11). It goes without saying that a disinformation campaign which holds Ergenekon ultimately responsible for all the violence previously attributed to Islamist groups is unlikely to encourage those who are best-placed to identify potential Islamist terrorists to be more vigilant.

During its first insurgency in 1983-1999, the PKK often deliberately targeted non-combatants. Since resuming violence in June 2004, it has become reluctant to be associated with causing civilian casualties for fear of losing popular support, but it has also been unwilling to relinquish the political leverage that civilian deaths can bring. As a result, from 2004 to 2007, it conducted an urban bombing campaign in western Turkey under the cover of a completely fictitious organization, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (Teyrebazen Azadiya Kurdistan -TAK) (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 7, 2007). More recently, when civilians have been killed in PKK attacks, the organization has tended either to remain silent or blame the casualties on a “false flag” operation by elements in the Turkish state (see Terrorism Focus, January 8). Although few PKK supporters are naïve enough to suppose that the organization is controlled by Ergenekon, the claims published in the pro-AKP media have undoubtedly made them even more willing to believe that elements in the Turkish state are responsible for attacks on civilians which the Turkish authorities blame on the PKK. Many PKK supporters genuinely believe that the organization never targets civilians (Jamestown interviews with PKK supporters, eastern Turkey, August 2008). It is a misperception that the pro-AKP media is now unwittingly helping to reinforce.

It is unclear whether it is a coincidence that the highest ever civilian death toll in a bombing attributed to the PKK – the 17 people killed in Istanbul on July 27, 2008 – occurred at a time when the pro-AKP media was full of allegations of false flag attacks by Ergenekon (see Terrorism Focus, August 5). What is clear is that the claims made it easier for PKK supporters to convince themselves that elements in the Turkish state carried out the attack in order to discredit the PKK. Some supporters recently told Jamestown that the Istanbul bombing and other attacks attributed by the pro-AKP media to Ergenekon were further justification for the PKK’s own campaign of violence (Jamestown interviews with PKK supporters, eastern Turkey, August 2008).


1. See, for example, the reaction of exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, an outspoken advocate of interfaith dialogue and opponent of violence, to the murder of three Christian missionaries by a gang of Islamist youths in Malatya in April 2007 (Zaman, April 22, 2007).