Turkey: ‘Deep State’ conspiracy
The Ergenekon investigation deepens distrust between the Turkish military and the country’s police force, as the ruling AKP suspects the ‘Deep State’ of trying to undermine it in the name of secularism, Gareth Jenkins writes for ISN Security Watch.
Turkish anti-terrorism police on 22 January detained 37 people in simultaneous pre-dawn raids in 16 of the country’s 81 provinces as part of an ongoing investigation into an alleged covert organization known as “Ergenekon.”
The operation was the 11th in a series of coordinated early morning raids over the last 18 months in which over 200 people have been detained and more than 120 formally arrested on charges of belonging to the Ergenekon “armed terrorist organization.”
Those currently being held on charges of belonging to Ergenekon include retired high-ranking members of the Turkish military, academics, writers, journalists, businessmen, lawyers and medical personnel. Although a few have a background in covert activities, the only common denominator linking all of them is that they are outspoken opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has described the Ergenekon case as being similar to the Mani Pulite or “Clean Hands” judicial investigation in Italy in the 1990s to purge the state of corrupt elements. Pro-AKP elements in the media have characterized it as a final settling of accounts with the network of covert operatives within the security apparatus known in Turkish as the Derin Devlet or “Deep State.”
However, the government’s political opponents, particularly the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), have dismissed “Ergenekon” as a fabrication created by the AKP as an instrument with which to harass, intimidate and incarcerate its secularist opponents; and discredit the Turkish military, which has long been regarded by both its supporters and opponents as the ultimate guardian of the traditional interpretation of secularism in Turkey.
The Turkish ‘Deep State’
The Turkish “Deep State” has its origins in the Gladio-style networks established in NATO countries during the 1950s in order to create the nucleus for resistance forces in the event of a Soviet occupation.
In Turkey, the core of the “Deep State” was a department in the Turkish military known as the Ozel Harp Dairesi or “Special Warfare Unit,” to which selected members of the officer corps were seconded for specialized training in covert warfare; after which they returned to their units and combined their new clandestine responsibilities with an ostensibly normal military career.
The primary focus of their covert activities was on intelligence gathering against ideological threats, which initially primarily meant communism. However, there is evidence to suggest that some “Deep State” officers also occasionally became operationally active; particularly during the violent clashes between leftist and rightist groups in Turkey in the 1970s in which around 5,000 people are believed to have died.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the focus of “Deep State” activities shifted to the growing threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which in 1984 had launched a violent campaign for independence for Turkey’s ethnic Kurds.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, “Deep State” operatives active in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey not only expanded their intelligence-gathering networks but formed small, self-contained groups to conduct covert operations against suspected PKK supporters and sympathizers; including intimidation, torture and assassination. The criteria for enlistment in what often effectively became death squads were ruthlessly utilitarian. Recruits included large numbers of turncoat former PKK militants, commonly referred to as itirafcilar or “confessors,” and Turkish ultranationalist members of the criminal underworld.
The activities of the different groups were never centrally controlled or coordinated. Indeed, the authorities tended to adopt a policy of willful ignorance, endowing the groups not only with de facto judicial immunity but also with almost complete operational autonomy. No reliable figures are available for the number of people who were killed by the groups, although it is conservatively estimated to have been several thousand and may have been many more.
By the late 1990s, with the PKK in retreat on the battlefield, the always diffuse agglomeration of covert groups began to fragment further. Many of the groups disbanded. Others turned full-time to criminal activities such as extortion and narcotics trafficking. Although some remained in touch with members of the security apparatus, the contacts tended to be personal rather than institutional. There were even turf wars as rival groups fought and killed each other.
Today, although military intelligence continues to target perceived ideological threats to the Turkish regime - whether from Islamism or Kurdish nationalism - the focus of “special warfare” training has shifted to conventional anti-guerilla warfare rather than the destabilization of an alien regime.
The AKP and secular discontents
The victory of the AKP in the general election of November 2002 came as a shock to many Turkish secularists. Most of the AKP’s leaders, including Erdogan, had begun their political careers in parties committed to the abolition of secularism and the creation of an Islamic state. Few hard-line secularists trusted their protestations that they had now abandoned the radicalism of their youth, and the months following the AKP’s victory were characterized by lengthy debates about what could be done to protect secularism.
Yet the discontents remained disparate. There was no attempt to translate their concerns into concerted action. Indeed, when one high-ranking military commander attempted to persuade his colleagues that they should stage a coup, they swiftly quashed the idea, arguing that it was not a solution.
Nevertheless, there were also concerns that frustration in the lower ranks could lead small groups of young officers to try to take matters into their own hands; not by attempting to stage a coup but by stockpiling weapons and carrying out a bombing or an assassination against the AKP government.
However, the only concrete plan to stage a campaign of violence to destabilize the AKP government was formulated by a small group of retired covert operatives who had been active in southeast Turkey during the 1990s. Acting on their own initiative, they attempted to create a completely new group, recruiting a small number of other former covert operatives and hard-line secularist nationalists. It is unclear whether the group, which the Turkish media has dubbed “Ergenekon,” carried out any attacks. If it did, they are likely to have been relatively small in number and in scale.
The existence of Ergenekon became public when police followed up on the discovery of a cache of 27 hand grenades in an Istanbul shantytown on 13 June 2007. The finding of the grenades and the subsequent arrest of retired members of the security forces was a gift for AKP supporters. The vast majority of Turkish Islamists are genuinely appalled by the bloodshed that is sometimes perpetrated in the name of Islam, and frequently try to distance their religion from violence by ascribing it to improbably complex conspiracy theories and false-flag “provocations” instigated by mysterious dark forces.
Unlike the still staunchly secularist Turkish military, in recent years there has been a rapid increase in the number of AKP sympathizers in the Turkish police force. Through late 2007 and 2008, as the number of those detained as part of the Ergenekon investigation continued to rise, the pro-AKP media gleefully quoted anonymous police sources as claiming that they had discovered evidence linking Ergenekon to almost every act of political violence in Turkey over the previous 20 years. They claimed that Ergenekon had effectively controlled not only the numerous violent indigenous Islamist groups but radical left-wing organizations and - perhaps most bizarrely - even the PKK.
Suspicions that the Ergenekon investigation was becoming politicized were reinforced by the seemingly incongruent identities of many of those detained. For example, on 19 September 2008, the police detained one of Turkey’s most famous actresses, a transsexual concert organizer, some military cadets and several alleged Turkish members of the transnational radical Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir - all on suspicion of being active members of Ergenekon.
Nor were the doubts assuaged by the opening of the trial of 86 suspected members of the organization on 20 October 2008. The 2,455-page indictment presented to the court included an extraordinary mixture of fact, fantasy, rumor, speculation and frequent self-contradiction, but no concrete evidence of Ergenekon’s involvement in any acts of violence.
After a lull in late 2008, the waves of detentions resumed on 7 January this year, when 37 people were taken into custody in simultaneous pre-dawn police raids in 12 provinces. They included Professor Kemal Guruz, the former head of the Supreme Electoral Board which oversees university education in Turkey. Guruz had been an outspoken opponent of the AKP’s attempts to lift the ban preventing women from wearing headscarves to university.
Other detainees included three retired high-ranking military commanders, all of whom had played a major role in forcing the government of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP), a predecessor of the AKP, from power in 1997. Police also spent five hours painstakingly searching the home of former Chief Public Prosecutor Sabih Kanadoglu, who had unsuccessfully filed a case for the closure of the AKP when it first came to power in 2002.
Although the pro-AKP media trumpeted the raids as another victory in the government’s campaign against the Ergenekon terrorism organization, to most impartial observers they looked more like revenge.
On the evening of 7 January, Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug called a five-hour meeting of the military high command. The following day, Basbug demanded and was granted an emergency meeting with Erdogan. Although the contents of their 75-minute meeting have not been leaked to the media, Basbug is believed to have warned Erdogan against allowing government sympathizers to use the judicial process to pursue a vendetta against the military.
Over the next few days, Gurel and the retired military commanders were all released without charge. But the detention of serving members of the armed forces in the raids of 22 January suggested that the AKP sympathizers overseeing the Ergenekon investigation were still prepared to target military personnel; even if those detained were of relatively low rank.
From politicization to polarization
Both the police investigators and the pro-AKP media have tended to regard Ergenekon as being virtually synonymous with their pre-conceived notion of the “Deep State” and intent on destabilizing the AKP government. Indeed they see the group as anchors for a conspiracy theorist’s template of a vast, centrally coordinated clandestine organization which includes virtually all of the AKP’s most outspoken opponents. The paucity of hard evidence to support such a theory, and the many contradictions and absurdities in the indictment presented to the court in October 2008, have been ignored.
However, the manifest flaws in the Ergenekon investigation have enabled the AKP’s political opponents to dismiss it all as politically motivated fabrication; including the handful of genuine plots to use violence against the government.
Perhaps more dangerously, the Ergenekon investigation has deepened the distrust between the Turkish military and the country’s police force, which it now suspects of tapping its telephones and trying to undermine its public prestige as part of a power struggle over the future of secularism in Turkey.
The Ergenekon investigation has also exacerbated the already dangerous social polarization between the pro-AKP Islamists and Turkey’s traditional secularist elite, and it has shaken the latter’s trust in the forces of law and order.
“If the police can arrest the most important professor in the country, throw him in jail and accuse him of being a terrorist, what can they do to someone like me?” said a 51-year-old schoolteacher who asked not to be named.
Gareth Jenkins is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul and specializing in civil-military relations, political Islam and security issues. His is the author of Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).