The Specter of Deep State (Contra-Guerrillas) Still Haunts Turkey

Prof. Bülent Gökay

ince 33 members of Turkish ‘Deep State’ (Contra-Guerrilla), also known as Ergenekon, were seized in a police raid in late January 2008, the story of a Turkish contra-guerrilla organization has set Turkey abuzz with rumour and speculation. What is organization, deep state, and how did it start in Turkey, and why? (1)

During the 1950s, US concerns were that the Soviet Union, through the activities of the local communist parties, would conquer the world. The CIA and the Pentagon came up with a plan to establish secret resistance groups within various countries that would fight back against the predicted communist take-over. These groups were called ‘stay-behind’ organizations, little cells of paramilitary units that would take on the communists behind enemy lines. To coordinate all these clandestine groups, a Super-NATO’ organization was set up under the control of the CIA in all the NATO countries. The headquarters of this organization was in Brussels and was named as the Allied Coordination Committee (ACC). Secret meetings were held annually in which delegates from all the member countries took part. The official purpose of the organization was ‘to organize resistance using irregular warfare methods in case of a communist occupation’. The organization had at its disposal special funds and weapons depots, and was not answerable for its activities under the laws of the individual member states. The organization’s branch in Italy was called ‘Gladio’, in Germany ‘Anti-Communist Assault Unit’, in Greece ‘Hide of the Red Buck’, and in Belgium ‘Glavia’. This ‘Super-NATO also set up branch organisations in non-NATO countries, such as Austria and Switzerland. The United States funded these stay-behind groups for decades, even though there was no communist take-over in any of these countries. However, some of these groups eventually did take up arms against left-wing dissidents and members of the local communist and socialist parties in their own countries. Probably one of the most powerful and deep-rooted of these covert action groups was set up in Turkey, immediately after Turkey’s membership of NATO.

Emblem of “Gladio”, Italian branch of the NATO “stay -behind” paramilitary organizations. The motto means “In silence I preserve freedom”.

Turkey became a member of NATO on 4 April 1952. A secret clause in the initial NATO agreement in 1949 required that before a state could join, it must have established a national security authority to fight communism through clandestine citizen cadres. This ‘stay-behind’ clause grew out of a secret committee, set up at US insistence in the Atlantic Pact, which was the forerunner of NATO. As in all other NATO countries, a contra-guerrilla centre was established in Turkey in September 1952, to work against the threat of a ‘communist occupation’. It was called the ‘Institute for War Research’, and was housed in the same building in Ankara that housed the US aid organization JUSMAAT.
The goal of this organization, especially in the neo-colonial countries, was not limited to ‘combating the external communist threat’. Under these stay-behind programmes, anti-communist elements, often overtly fascist, were recruited, armed and funded, supposedly as a bulwark against Soviet aggression. Some have links to organized crime, and many were involved in terrorist incidents aimed at undermining the left opposition in general. There are also claims that the CIA employed some wanted Nazis and fascists in setting up contra-guerrilla groups in an effort to improve its tactics. And in all NATO member countries, the public and parliament were not informed about the existence and activities of these groups – only the few who took part in setting them up knew about them. The 1959 military accord between the Turkish and US governments envisage the use of the contra-guerrillas ‘also in the case of an internal rebellion against the regime’.

Kenan Evren
The 7th President of the Republic of Tur- key and the leader of the 12 September 1980 military coup

Although it was revealed through the ‘Gladio’ affair in Italy in 1990 that such secret organisations also existed in other member states of NATO, and that they maintained close contacts with these countries secret intelligence services and had been involved in a series of murders and bomb plots, the Turkish military, intelligence, and state authorities continued to deny the existence of any such organization in Turkey. Only after ex-CIA chief William Colby revealed that ‘there is also such an organization in Turkey’ did the Turkish authorities withdraw their claim that there was no Turkish Gladio. On 3 December 1990, General Dogan Beyazit, President of the Hareket Dairesi Operation Department of Turkey’s General Staff – and General Kemal Yilmaz, Commander of the Ozel Kuvvetler or Special Forces, issued a press statement. In it they revealed that the title of the special NATO organization in Turkey was Ozel Harp Dairesi–Special Warfare Department-and that its task was ‘to organize resistance in the case of communist occupation’.

The leader of the 12 September 1980 military coup, Kenan Evren, wrote in his memoirs that Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel had written to him in the 1970s about of his wish to engage the Special Warfare Department to deal with civil unrest. Demirel denied this, but Bulent Ecevit, Prime Minister during the 1970s, revealed that ‘as Prime Minister I first became aware of its existence in 1974 through requests from Semih Sancar, chief of the General Staff, for money for secret payments to the Special Warfare Department. I was shocked’. Investigative journalist Ugur Mumcu, who lost his life as a result of a bomb placed under his car on 24 January 1993, well documented the activities of Turkey’s contra-guerrillas, and it was later claimed that Mumcu was murdered by those elements active in Turkish contra-guerrillas.

The first significant action carried out by the Turkish contra-guerrilla after its foundation was the bombing in 1955, in Thessalonica, Greece, of the building where Ataturk was born. Claiming that the house had been bombed by Greeks, the government, with the assistance of its supporting press and the contra-guerrilla, tried to incite the Turkish public against Greek and other non-Muslim minorities living in Turkey. Between 6 and 7 September, hundreds of houses, shops, schools and churches, mostly belonging to Greeks, were burned and looted in Istanbul. Similar though rather less uncontrolled disturbances occurred elsewhere in Turkey wherever there was a Greek presence, especially in Izmir where the families of Greek officers serving at NATO Regional Headquarters were evacuated. Three people were killed and 30 injured. The attacks were conducted in an extremely organized and well -prepared manner.

Bulent Ecevit
Four -time Prime Minister of Turkey

In 1955, the Cyprus problem was the most important ‘national issue’ in Turkey. At the end of August 1955, a conference was arranged in London between Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom the other parties involved – to determine the status of Cyprus. Turkey’s security and intelligence leaders planned an activity to demonstrate the sensitivity of this issue within the Turkish community. The newspaper Istanbul Express on 6 September 1955 published the news of the bombing of Ataturk’s birthplace in Thessaloniki. Student protests started the same day and the pro-tests spread: the Turkish police not only tolerated the destruction, but also discriminated in how they protected various Western embassies. In some cases, guards were stationed around some European legations even before the violence began. However, only a single policeman appeared at the British residence, and he shortly drifted off. Army troops meanwhile remained on the side streets, and when they entered the main avenues, did nothing to restrain the looters. The brunt of the damage was sustained by Greek business premises and residential areas in old Istanbul, but the damage also extended to Greek centres along the Bosphorus, and Greek churches, with the Panayia, one of the oldest Byzantine structures, being gutted.

The government immediately declared that com- munists were responsible for the violence, and a witch-hunt against them began. Many people known to be close to the Turkish Communist Party were arrested or placed under police supervision. Years later, however, it was discovered that the events had been planned by elements controlled by the Turkish contra-guerrilla, and that the bomb had been planted by 21- year old Oktay Engin, an agent who was later the Governor of Nevsehir in 1992. The contra-guerrillas played an important role during the 1971 coup. Ziverbey House in Erenkoy-Istanbul was rumoured to be a contra-guerrilla interrogation centre, and generals working with the contra -guerrillas who took people to this centre told their victims for the first time that they were prisoners of the Turkey’s contra-guerrilla. Interrogations were carried out by contra -guerrilla specialists, most of whom had been trained by the CIA, who murdered or permanently injured hundreds of people. Journalist Ugur Mumcu, who was ar- rested shortly after the coup, wrote later that his torturers told him, ‘we are the contra-guerrilla. Even the President of the Republic cannot touch us’. General Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 military coup, acknowledged that the contra – guerrilla were involved in clandestine activities in that period, including the murder of Mahir Cayan and other left -wing militants in Kizildere in 1972.

“Susurluk revealed weird connections between state officials and those who operate outside the limits of the law. It happened at a time when we had a lot of extra-judicial killings inTurkey,”

Bulent Ecevit, Prime Minister in the 1970s, broke the silence on the deep state in the 1970s, acknowledging that there were secret paramilitary operations working “within the government”. He later admitted that even in office he was in the dark about what some of them were. In 1987, former Deputy Prime Minister Sadi Kocas answered questions put to him by journalists regarding the May Day 1977, where snipers fired at the crowd and altogether 36 people were killed: ‘It was not one incident which occurred on May 1, 1977. Ever since 1968-69 and the 1970s, there were a series of at least seven to eight incidents a year. There were those contra -guerrillas who arranged/ organized these The contra-guerrillas are an organization made up of a number of people who say “We are contra – guerrillas against guerrillas”.’
In 1996, many suspicions of a “deep state” were confirmed when a car crashed in the town of Susurluk, near Ankara. Inside were a senior police chief, a prominent politician and a wanted assassin. ‘Susurluk revealed weird connections between state officials and those who operate outside the limits of the law. It happened at a time when we had a lot of extra -judicial killings in Tur- key,’ Cengiz Candar, a prominent newspaper columnist, claimed.

‘But the investigation stopped just as there was speculation it was reaching very sensitive spots, even the military establishment. That only confirmed the existence of these networks in the public consciousness.’


* Bülent Gökay is Professor of International Relations at Keele University.

1) Most of the data for this topic has already been analysed in my book, Soviet Eastern Policy and Turkey, 1920-1991 (Routledge, 2006), chap- ters 5, 6 and 7.



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