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NATO’s Secret Armies: Cold War Paramilitaries and Turkey’s Security State

October 15, 2006

NATO’S Secret Armies

By Daniele Ganser

Frank Cass (2005), 315 pp.

Reviewed by Ioannis Michaletos

Over the past few years, more and more researchers have delved into the mysterious events that shaped the world during the Cold War era and which have resulted in the most important global political developments. This is the case with Daniele Ganser, who in NATO’S Secret Armies vigorously lays out the evidence relating to NATO’s secret operations, through the establishment of paramilitary forces within its member states.

The book’s structure is such that its 18 chapters cover each country, from Great Britain and the United States to Norway, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Belgium and Holland. Essentially, the book retells the recurring story of how clandestine military groups, often comprised of right-wing belligerents, including former Nazis and other Fascists, were recruited to form a line of defense in case of Soviet attack, while also to keep potential subversives and Communist sympathizers under the thumb of the NATO security apparatus.

Perhaps the most interesting focus of NATO’S Secret Armies for our readers is how it unveils hidden dimensions of modern Turkey’s history, issues that still haunt the country and have shaped its collective political identity.

Before discussing the Turkish contribution to NATO’s “secret armies,” the Grey Wolves, one has to first devote some attention to the creator of the organization, Arpaslan Turkes. A colonel who played a decisive role in promoting the Contra-guerrilla forces in Turkey, Turkes came into contact with the CIA back in the early 1950’s. The main objective of their cooperation was to manage the creation of a paramilitary force that would operate inside Turkey in case of a Soviet attack. This force would be equipped with the necessary arms and capabilities to initiate a full-scale guerrilla war against the Soviet army, if necessary.

The original plan as devised by NATO and the USA promoted the use of special forces, which would become expert in guerrilla techniques. Similar “black armies” were also witnessed in Italy’s Gladio affair, and in Greece. Those forces gained tremendous unofficial power and were constantly operated as a state within a state in relation to numerous criminal activities such as provocation and terrorism.

In Turkey, the first secret army was called Seferberlik Taktik Kurulu (STK). Its headquarters was situated in the same building where the American military mission to Ankara resided. It is interesting to note that NATO’S Secret Armies is very thorough in its reference of sources, names and locations, leaving no room for any accusations that there is any case of fabrication or misplacement of events. A rough summary of those recounted follows.

In 1959 an agreement between the CIA and the Turkish government placed the Turkish contra-guerrillas as the forefront against internal enemies of the Turkish state. These mostly included members of the political left. However, the original remit of the special team was soon forgotten, and personal ambitions, leading to meddling within the political system; soon appeared. In 1960 a coup d’etat by 38 officers — including Turkes — resulted in the imprisonment of the then-Prime Minister Menderes, and subsequently his condemnation to death, along with other leading political figures.

The Menderes government was considered very liberal at that time and the Turkish secret army, fearful of losing its newly established power, abruptly challenged and defeated the existing political order. In 1965, Turkes established the “party of nationalist action,” Millietsi Hareket Partisi, which operated as a quasi-fascistic party. It was armed with a paramilitary force called the Grey Wolves (Bozkurt). When he died in 1997, Turkes was remembered tearfully by the former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, whose vast and ill-begotten wealth ironically has its basis in the social and political upheaval he caused.

The ranks of the contra-guerrillas would soon be swelled by the more hot-blooded representatives of the Grey Wolves, as a civil component in the then-fully military secret army. Their role included domestic counterintelligence and support in case of provocative actions within Turkey. In parallel, other factors of the Turkish state such as the intelligence service (MIT) cooperated closely with the contra-guerrillas, so closely that in fact there was often little to distinguish between their respective operations.

In NATO’S Secret Armies, Ganser moreover reveals the deep connections between the political violence that swept Turkey in the 1970’s and the provocative role of the contra-guerrillas in this unrest. It is assumed that around 5,000 murders were committed by this infamous secret organization, including the 1st of May massacre in Istanbul in 1977, when 38 people were killed in the center of the city by unknown snipers. The author also reveals the inability of the Turkish political class to deal with the issue because of extreme military pressure and the chronic inability of the government and the members of Parliament to exercise control over the state security structure.

In 1980, the time of yet another Turkish coup d’etat, there were around 200,000 members of the Grey Wolves in Turkey, as well as 1,000,000 sympathizers, all playing a pivotal role in establishing military rule in the country. Even though a lot of military leaders were skeptical of their relations with international terrorism, it was too late for an effective action to take place. That period also coincided with the beginning of the Kurdish PKK guerrilla war in 1984, a conflict which ironically gave plentiful of opportunities for the paramilitary force — never having been required for its original, anti-Soviet purposes — to excel on its natural turf.

At the same time, this conflict also presented the opportunity for the expansion of heroin smuggling, an age-old practice in the tri-national borders between Turkey, Iraq and Iran. This to some extent complicated relations between Turkey and the West, since the bulk of the narcotics were exported into Europe via numerous channels, all more or less controlled by the Turkish secret services.

That said, it is worthwhile to mention the complexity of the contra-guerrillas’ activity within the international criminal network that in essence was connected with international terrorism. A network of gigantic proportions was created based around contra-guerrilla activities, which resulted in a plethora of criminal activities around the world.

The 1990’s, and the crumbling of the Soviet bloc, meant a sort of apocalypse for NATO’s secret armies. European paramilitary forces quickly disbanded along with the Soviet threat. In Turkey, however, as Ganser explains, this was not the case. It would take the infamous “Susurluk” incident for Turkey to reveal the widespread network that encompassed organized crime, terrorists and the paramilitary force that had outlived its ostensible purpose. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that the contra-guerrillas’ simply continued to operate under new branding is plausible.

On the whole, NATO’S Secret Armies can be considered a milestone in the history of “black operations” in post-war Europe, and especially in light of its focus on Turkey. The wealth of resources and references that are annotated in the pages of this engaging book will persuade even the most critical of researchers to spend substantial time in retrieving these little-known facts and figures that have shaped vital parts of our modern history. Most importantly, in the big picture, is that NATO’S Secret Armies reveals a world where ideology and national interest are used in order to cover up something much more important in our civilized society — profit, whether legal or illegal.

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