Turkey, Grey Wolves and their tentacles around Europe

It came as a surprise to many when France decided to ban the Grey Wolves, the youth organisation of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party this week, as radical islamist terror reared its head again in Europe. 

The group is called "Loups Gris" in French, as its original name in Turkish would sound a little odd – the “Hearths of Idealists” were founded as part of the anti-communist wave of right-wing politics in the 1960s, by U.S.-trained officials of the Turkish state.

Let’s return to the origin story and talk about today.

The group stepped back onto the public stage with the recent attacks against Armenian communities and monuments in France. A memorial for the 1915 mass killings was covered in bright yellow graffiti, and crowds of angry Turks were seen roaming through Armenian neighbourhoods during the height of the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the biggest flare up of the decades-old conflict in quite some time.

French President Emmanuel Macron could not ignore the demands of the French-Armenian community as the presidential election draws nearer in the country. However, the ban feels like pandering, as there is no official organisation called “the Grey Wolves” to be banned. Whether it will be interpreted to encompass various groups that share the same ideology remains to be seen, especially depending on whether Turkish-Armenian tensions will increase in Lyon and several other key French provinces.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry slammed France over the decision, and in doing so, not only showed support for the youth of the government’s junior partner in parliament, but at the same time, stood up for these people that it clearly sees as part of the state’s organisational scheme, and gave them the message that Turkey is behind them.

The Grey Wolves, the Idealist Hearths, the pro-ideal people… Whatever they are called, this group of people came together as part of Operation Gladio, a clandestine anti-communist initiative backed by the United States during the Cold War. The group emerged as an organisation under the “shadow state,” and continued as the paramilitary tool the state used.

The first Idealist Hearth was founded by law students at Ankara University in 1966. They called their leader Alparslan Türkeş “başbuğ” – or the “head soldier” – inspired by the “Führer.” 

Türkeş stayed in the United States for a while during the 1950s as a young army officer, and trained for special warfare, irregular warfare and guerrilla warfare.

In 1956, he went back as a member of the Turkish representation in NATO, to become the first counter-guerrilla expert of Turkey and head the NATO offices under Turkey’s Chief of Staff.

The anti-communist groups were organising within the state apparatus at this time as civil war/counter-insurgency units.

The U.S. Army Counterguerrilla Operations Manual 31-51, published in 1961, said the following on the workings of irregular forces:

“Overt irregular activities include-acts of destruction against public and private property, transportation and communications systems; raids and ambushes against military and police headquarters, garrisons, convoys, patrols, and depots; terrorism by assassination, bombing, armed robbery, torture, mutilation, and kidnaping; provocation of incidents, reprisals, and holding of hostages; and denial activities, such as arson, flooding, demolition, use of chemical or biological agents, or other acts designed to prevent use of an installation, area, product, or facility.

Covert irregular activities include-espionage, sabotage, dissemination of propaganda and rumors, delaying or misdirecting orders, issuing false or misleading orders or reports, assassination, extortion, blackmail, theft, counterfeiting, and identifying individuals for terroristic attack.”

It also said, “The underground elements of an irregular force normally do not hold legal status.”

What we are talking about is a structure where the state’s security apparatus, political parties and youth organisations intertwine, and continue this complex existence to this day.

The organisation targeted the poor young people in the far reaches of Anatolia, and started to train the rural boys in military camps set up in the western Izmir province after 1968.  Retired army officers were handling the training of these young men.

The state-sponsored rise of this paramilitary force continued throughout the 1970s, and peaked with the centre-left government of Bülent Ecevit at the time. As the country rolled towards the 1980 military coup, mass killings at Istanbul University and Ankara’s Bahçelievler claimed the lives of many intellectuals and even more young people.

The September 12, 1980 military coup was a shock to the Idealists. They believed they had been working for the state, but many prominent members were arrested, imprisoned and tortured.

The Grey Wolves lost their focus in the post-coup 1980s. Out came the mafia, to lure the Idealists fresh out of prison. 

The group had touched elbows with the mafia back in the 1970s already, to procure weapons and to gather resources. The state also had firm control over the mafia groups, like the movement.

As the 1980s continued, the Grey Wolves Mafia started to take shape, with Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu, Abdullah Çatlı, Mehmet Gül, Mehmet Şener and Yalçın Özbey among big players. The chairman of the European Turkish Federation and the man who started the relations with the mafia, Lokman Kondakçı, said as part of his confessions in later years that the easiest way to find money was through heroin trafficking.

This nationalist mafia started to partake actively in Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish political movement at large in the 1990s, further complicating its relations with the state. The group came to fully control the drug route from Afghanistan to Europe and the Americas.

Apart from their involvement with the mafia, members of the group were also working for the state still. In the post-coup era, Turkey thought it was a good idea to utilise the Grey Wolves against the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia – or ASALA, a group designated as terrorists by Turkey for the targeting of Turkish diplomats and bureaucrats over many years as retaliation for the exile and mass killing of Armenians from their ancient homeland of Anatolia under the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.

ASALA targeted many Turkish interests and diplomatic missions, including in France. Turkish national intelligence service MİT’s chief at the time, Mehmet Eymür, said in a much later trial that the Grey Wolves were used against ASALA, the Kurdish-separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Left (DEV-SOL). “It is not possible to carry out these activities with normal people,” Eymür said in a testimony. “We need men who can break things.”

Alaattin Çakıcı, one of the leaders of this nationalist mafia, led these efforts to target Armenians, including allegedly killing ASALA leader Agop Agopyan. Long story short, the use of Grey Wolves against Armenians in Europe is nothing new for Turkey.

There are unconfirmed reports that say the marches against Armenians in Lyon were organised by Turkish officials, but it’s only a rumour - at least for now.

Another trafficking connection was when MHP Senator Kudret Bayhan was caught smuggling 146 kilograms of morphine base to France using his diplomatic passport as cover in 1972.

MHP’s current leader Devlet Bahçeli had been caught with Kalashnikov machine guns in his car in the lead up to 1980. His relationship with the intelligence service has been an open secret for years.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has an extensive intelligence  network in Europe over mosque congregations and the followers of National View, an Islamist-conservative tradition that the president and his ruling party emerged out of. The Grey Wolves were not needed in the field, per se, but when the Armenian issue had a flare up, the state once again came to “need men who can break things.”

Turkey pursuing a constantly more hard-line foreign policy, and demonstrating that it would not hesitate to use the Turkish community in Europe to advance its interests, has sounded the alarm in Germany as well. Germany’s Greens, left-wing Die Linke and far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have all called for similar precautions

Turkish-German Greens deputy Cem Özdemir is among those who called for a ban on the group. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re Turkish or German or anything else,” Özdemir said in a tweet. “The ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves deserve to be banned!”

Ankara has shown that it can create unrest in France any time it wants, especially for a up-for-re-election Macron, who in turn showed that he can push for the harshest measures to counter. Still, there are deep connections that go back quite a long time between the two countries. Both intelligence services have a relationship that goes beyond their respective governments. 

According to columnist Doğan Özgüden, the most dramatic example of France turning a blind eye to Turkish intelligence activity was in 2013, when three representatives of the Kurdish national movement were gunned down in the Kurdistan Information Bureau in Paris by a MİT hitman. “It has been seven years, but France has not uncovered the Turkish state’s role in these vile murders,” Özgüden said.

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