Turkey’s deep state never one structure, more a culture of impunity

A decade ago Turkish prosecutors sought to pin all manner of crimes on a shadowy group called Ergenekon made up of military officers and staunch secularists bent on overthrowing the state, but a court this month acquitted more than 200 defendants accused of being part of the conspiracy and some experts say the group probably never existed. 

Now members of the secretive Gülen movement are being pursued by legal authorities with equal vigour, but experts say the deep state, a term coined in Turkey in the 1990s, was never a single entity, but rather a series of sometimes competing groups operating on behalf of elements of those in power, protected by a culture of impunity that goes back decades.

Though the Ergenekon trials depended on unreliable evidence and were used by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their then-allies in the Gülen movement to go after political rivals, experts say many of the defendants were likely involved in crimes for which they have never been held accountable.

“There were certainly lots of people in those indictments who should have been prosecuted for misdeeds, especially against the Kurds in the east, for murders, for assassination, maybe even the Hrant Dink assassination,” said Henri Barkey, international relations professor at Lehigh University and senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, referring to the 2007 murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist.

“But one never got the chance to do those things because ultimately those indictments were the fruits of a poisoned tree,” Barkey said.

Prosecutors claimed a single organisation - Ergenekon - was behind nearly every act of political violence in recent Turkish history, leading many to believe that a powerful, clandestine network dubbed the ‘deep state’ would finally be exposed and brought to justice.

But scholars say the real deep state has always been widely misunderstood, and was never a single organisation.

“At the time [of the Ergenekon trials] there were charts being published in newspapers with a kind of hierarchical organisation, with a Mr. Big at the top, etc. The actual deep state was never like that. It was never highly structured. It was more of a culture of impunity,” said Gareth Jenkins, an analyst at the Institute for Security and Development Policy. “An organisation called Ergenekon never existed.”

The so-called deep state was actually a number of often competing legal and extralegal groups preoccupied with maintaining Turkey’s national security at any cost.

“Institutionally, a deep state can be parts of the police, intelligence or military, as well as groups outside of [the state], whether it’s business interests or organised crime,” said Ryan Gingeras, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

These types of structures and practices have a long history in Turkey. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) that ran the Ottoman Empire in its final years included clandestine elements, some of which helped carry out the Armenian genocide that began in 1915.

Some claim that deep state practices emerged from the Turkish offshoot of an alleged NATO stay-behind programme called Gladio in preparation for a potential Soviet invasion. The Turkish version was allegedly called Counter Guerrilla, and its existence was confirmed by former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. But Gingeras says NATO has never acknowledged Gladio and evidence is very sparse.

“We have virtually no documentation that it ever existed,” he told Ahval.  

But by the 1970s, organised crime groups were working with elements of the Turkish state.

“It’s clear that there were organic connections made between elements of the Turkish security services and the Turkish underworld very early on,” Gingeras said. “Especially those who had right-wing sympathies found a kind of natural place within the country’s growing counter-terrorism, counter-dissident policy by the early to mid-seventies.”

In November 1996, an incident occurred which brought the deep state into the public eye. A car carrying a member of parliament and head of a Kurdish paramilitary unit, a hit man and member of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves, a former deputy police chief of Istanbul and a beauty queen crashed in the town of Susurluk. Only the member of parliament survived.

An official commission exposed links between the government, paramilitary groups, and the criminal underworld for the first time, and Turkey’s National Intelligence Service (MİT) admitted to recruiting ultranationalist underworld figures to carry out assassinations. Fourteen police officers were convicted of being part of a criminal gang, but no senior government officials were put on trial.

Saturday Mothers, a group that gathers in Istanbul’s Taksim square weekly to protest the disappearance of people in recent decades as Turkey saw important regime changes. (AFP Photo/Ozan Köse)
Saturday Mothers, a group that gathers in Istanbul’s Taksim square weekly to protest the disappearance of people in recent decades as Turkey saw important regime changes. (AFP Photo/Ozan Köse)

One of the most notorious groups associated with the so-called deep state was JİTEM, the intelligence wing of Turkey’s gendarmerie founded in the 1980s that is allegedly responsible for many atrocities committed during the 1990s as part of what is referred to as the dirty war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) armed militant group. The gendarmerie is a rural police force left over from Ottoman times that often operates with little accountability.

“What has long been the case is that the gendarmerie has maintained this sort of weird autonomy, partially part of the military, partially part of the Interior Ministry. As a force it has at various times burglarised the authority of both the military and the urban police force,” Gingeras said.

JİTEM has been officially acknowledged, but information about the organisation is based mostly on personal accounts that are often unreliable.

“We kind of have an idea that it was this group that had a lot of autonomy [and] a lot of authority in prosecuting this anti-PKK agenda. But we don’t really know how it interacted with the military [and] how it operated and interacted with regular elements of the police force,” Gingeras said.

Activists say the government has never properly investigated or been held to account for JİTEM’s actions, but as Gingeras says, “that’s very typical of virtually anything dealing with Turkish government malfeasance. That’s the rule and not the exception.”

The two people who allegedly founded JİTEM – Veli Küçük and Arif Doğan – were both defendants in the Ergenekon trials. Küçük was amongst those recently acquitted, and Doğan died in 2014. 

The overwhelming majority of JİTEM and other groups’ atrocities, including many thousands of enforced disappearances, were committed in the largely Kurdish southeast in the 1990s. Many human rights activists were furious that Ergenekon defendants suspected of involvement in those crimes had escaped justice after their acquittal.

“There’s almost no Kurd in the southeast who hasn’t been touched by this culture of impunity. At least one member of everyone’s [extended] family has been killed,” said Mustafa Gürbüz, an expert on Kurdish issues at the American University and the Arab Center in Washington.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to power partially based on a pledge to root out the deep state culture, a narrative that many Kurds tentatively believed. 

“Certainly it’s a big part of the story of how and why Erdoğan was elected. His candidacy and the formation of the AKP was built around the idea of counteracting the culture that produced Susurluk,” Gingeras said.

For a while it appeared as though the government was starting to investigate state-perpetuated human rights abuses, but trials seemed to go nowhere, and Gürbüz says in the end Erdoğan did not fulfil his promises and has more recently been courting ultranationalists.

“Most Kurds believe that the perpetrators are still protected by Turkish state bureaucracy, and that extrajudicial, arbitrary measures have been revived from their ashes with a Turkish nationalist fervour against the perceived enemies of the Turkish state,” Gürbüz said.

Gürbüz also pointed out that abductions were once again on the rise in Turkey, especially after the 2016 failed coup attempt the government says was carried out by member of the Fethullahist Terror Organisation, its name for the Gülen movement.

“Various human rights organisations have documented that extrajudicial abductions and interrogations are rampant once again, reminiscent of the early 1990s,” he said.

Gingeras said that after the Ergenekon trials and violent split between the AKP and Gülen movement, conceptions of the deep state splintered along partisan lines.

“The deep state as a concept still has resonance, but it’s very partisan. Like everything else in Turkey, it’s become an open interpretation within your partisan read,” he said. Former journalist and current opposition parliamentarian Ahmet Şık, said Gingeras, “says AK is the deep state. If you look at the Good Party hard right … it’s the United States. If you’re AK … it’s FETÖ.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.