The historical roots of Turkey’s clandestine networks and Erdoğan’s authoritarianism (II)

In my previous article I argued that one of the key elements in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s achievement in shattering any sources of potential resistance and consolidating his regime lay in his success in co-opting clandestine networks. Before zooming into the mechanisms of this co-optation process, I would like to take a brief look back at the history of these networks.

The contemporary Turkish deep state has its origins in NATO’s attempts to create clandestine “stay-behind” forces in member states during the early years of the Cold War. In Turkey, those forces were formally formed within Seferberlik Tetkik Kurulu (Mobilization Inspection Board, or STK) in 1952 under the Turkish General Staff. This name was to give the impression that it was related to a wartime civil defence. The STK was renamed the Özel Harp Dairesi (Special Warfare Unit) in the mid-1960s. In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its name was changed this time to the Özel Kuvvetler Komutanlığı (Special Forces Command) and its focus shifted from covert warfare to counter-insurgency operations. 

Bülent Ecevit, who served as prime minister of Turkey four times between 1974 and 2002, was the first politician to make this clandestine body public. He wrote in his memoirs that he became aware of ÖHD in 1974 when was approached by then Chief of General Staff General Semih Sancar to approve a fund allocation from the prime minister’s discretionary budget for the ÖHD.

This, he was told, was due to the fact that the United States had recently stopped funding it as a response to Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus. After receiving a briefing, he attempted to inquire deeper into the nature of this organisation. But he was told that there is “no need for him to look too closely at the situation.” He was given the information that there were a certain number of volunteer patriots, whose names are kept secret and are engaged for life in this special department.


Ergenekon is the name given to a clandestine, secularist, ultra-nationalist organization with alleged ties to members of the country’s military and security forces. The would-be group was, by some, believed to be part of the “deep state”.

Though its relation to the formal body of ÖHD or STK is unknown, the initial public reference to Ergenekon arrived in 1997. During a TV talk on the political implications of Susurluk accident, Erol Mütecimler, a former naval officer and a conspiracy analyst, claimed that former general Memduh Unluturk once told him that he was once a member of a covert organization called Ergenekon. Unluturk added that Ergenekon actively cooperated with right-wing militants in the factional fighting of the 1970s. He maintained that Ergenekon consisted of a wide network comprised not only of military officers, but also of members from the police, the judiciary, academia and rightist political formations.

In 2007, an official investigation about Ergenekon started with the allegation that it intended to oust Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. In the trials that started in 2008, hundreds of suspected individuals, including not only many retired and active military generals and senior officers, but also journalists, politicians and academics were charged with attempting to trigger social turbulence in order to lay the groundwork for a military coup. 

The first investigation drew alleged links between an armed attack on the Turkish Council of State in 2006 that left a judge dead, a bombing of a secularist newspaper, Cumhuriyet, threats and attacks against people accused of being unpatriotic and the 1996 Susurluk incident, as well as links to the plans of some groups in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to overthrow the present government.

According to the investigation, Ergenekon had also a role in the murder of Hrant Dink, a prominent journalist of Armenian descent, Italian priest Father Andrea Santoro in February 2006 and the brutal murders of three Christians, including a German national, killed in the province of Malatya in April 2007.

According to the official Ergenekon indictment, the “Ergenekon network” was at the intersection of three historical processes: The first is the role of the military in Turkish politics and its direct or indirect interventions in the political spectrum backdating to the revolution in 1908 and the military’s self-assigned role as the ultimate guardian of “secular” Turkish democracy after the foundation of the republic in 1923.

Secondly, Ergenekon was rooted in the tradition of creating “deep-state” networks, the oldest being the Fedayi (Bodyguard) groups of 1905 that were later organized under Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization) in 1914. Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa was founded by Ottoman military officer and a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, Enver Pasha, as a secret paramilitary organization under the control of the Committee of Union and Progress’ inner circle  under the Ministry of War. It was a key actor in the Armenian Massacre of 1915-1916.

Finally, this network should be understood from the perspective of NATO: since Turkey’s membership to NATO in 1952 and the establishment of the Turkish branch of NATO’s “secret armies,” clandestine networks operating within the state and security apparatus were engaged in paramilitary combat in case of a communist invasion.

During the investigations, it was then-Prime Minister Erdoğan who was outspoken in declaring himself the prosecutor of these cases. A large spectrum of Turkish society was in general convinced that the Ergenekon trials represented a powerful blow against the elements of the deep state and meant the “cleansing of the century”, just like the Italian mani pulite. In August 2008, 300 intellectuals from Turkey declared their support for the investigation and called upon all civil and military institutions to deepen the investigation in order to reveal the rest of the people tied to Ergenekon. 

However, this initial wave of optimism eventually weakened and many people started to criticize the manner in which the Ergenekon investigation was being conducted, citing in particular the wiretapping in breach of privacy laws, and illegal collection of evidence. The alleged involvement of a religious group accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt, the Gülen movement, in the Ergenekon plot has always been an issue of debate, which critics have characterized as “a pretext” by the government “to neutralise dissidents” in Turkey.

In March 2011, for instance, seven journalists were arrested, including Ahmet Şık, who had been writing a book, “Imamin Ordusu’’ (The Imam’s Army), which alleged that the Gülen movement infiltrated the country’s security forces. Upon his arrest, drafts of the book were confiscated and its possession was banned. 

Furtherance of the investigation depicted that the case was instrumentalised by Erdoğan to cement and grab more power. It became apparent years later that Erdoğan was using Gülenist cadres to that end, while the latter were hoping that they would be given a lion’s share of his power.

In 2014, however, a local criminal court released most of the detainees, after the Constitutional Court ruled that their ongoing detention violated their rights. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeals annulled the Ergenekon decision due to “not being able to submit concrete evidence to prove Ergenekon’s existence, and on procedural grounds due to unlawful wiretapping and searches as well as declarations of anonymous witnesses.’’ Almost all of the convicts were acquitted.

Some critics, like human rights advocate and lawyer Eren Keskin said, this showed “ confused, how unprincipled, how worthless the mentality of power in Turkey is. The person who is currently the president of this country, once upon a time, had declared himself to be ‘the prosecutor’ of this case and, now, all of them are saying how correct and just these acquittals are.”

Encümen-i Daniş

Another group called “Encümen-i Daniş”, or Privy Council, came to public attention in 1995 when then Prime Minister Tansu Çiller leaked to the press a letter she received. The letter contained harsh warnings to her government.

“For a long time, we have observed declarations, actions and behaviours which aim to destroy our constitutional democratic and secular order, and to replace it with an Islamic Sharia rule. We urge you to take severe legal, administrative and judicial measures against them,” it said.

The letter was coming from a group called Encümen-i Daniş. 

The group recruited top-level military and political figures. According to the head of Susurluk Parliamentary Investigation report, the Encümen-i Daniş had close ties with the Batı Çalışma Grubu (West Working Group), which was another clandestine formation within the Turkish military, allegedly set up in 1997 by general Cevik Bir, aiming to classify politicians, military personnel, journalists and other key figures according to their ethnic background, religious affiliation and political leanings, and to monitor those regarded as a potential threat to secularism in Turkey.

Encümen-i Daniş’s second public appearance was in 2008 during Ergenekon trials. It is worth noting that some high level Ergenekon defendants were members of Encümen-i Daniş; namely, secretary of National Security Council, Gen.Tuncer Kılınç and former Gendarmerie Commander Gen. Sener Eruygur.

Responding to the suspicions that the group functioned as the supreme body of Ergenekon, former Chief of General Staff general Ismail Hakkı Karadayı, a member of the group, explained that they conducted bi-weekly meetings, discussed several national issues, wrote down their findings and delivered them to the president and the prime Minister “only to record our thoughts, humbly to serve our country.” 

The president of the council, and the former speaker of the parliament, Necmettin Karaduman, said in an interview on CNN Türk in 2009 that “the deep state exists and will always exist. It exists everywhere in the entire world. It exists today, it will be there tomorrow. It aims to protect us and our state.”

All in all, Turkey’s Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials gave impetus to more uncertainty and instability, rather than paving way to the resolution of the issue of military’s tutelage over politics and society.

After the Ergenekon and Balyoz convicts were released by a politically oriented decision in 2014, a new question arose: What kind of a relationship would Erdoğan engage in with these individuals and groups, or their like-minded cadres? Or was he already in a relationship with them?