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The Turkish Deep State: What Life Is Like When the Conspiracy Is Real

Ataturk and the Turkish flag (Image: Segafredo18/Wikimedia)

This past Saturday, two suicide bombers detonated explosives outside an Ankara train station and killed almost 100 people assembled for a peace rally. As news of this criminal act made headlines across the world, the question became—who is responsible?

The Turkish government is provisionally pinning the blame on the Islamic State. But like an incredibly dark murder mystery, the possible suspect list is crowded: Turkey is fighting battles both at domestic and foreign. The rally was in support of peace between the Turkish state and the PKK, the militant Kurdish nationalist organization. Both the Turkish military and the PKK has been in conflict with ISIS, in Syria, as well. Some Kurdish pols are already blaming the Turkish government, and everyone is worried about what this means for the general election on November 1. 

But there’s another player that could be at work here. In the New York Times, professor Kerem Oktem, who studies Turkish politics referred to “periods of deep instability in Turkey’s past.” Each time, he said, tumult hits Turks, it was found to be the work of “a shadowy network of groups with links to the government.” This is the “so-called deep state.”

What exactly is this “deep state”?

Because of its nature as a secret, extra-legal organization supposedly comprised of powerful people, it’s hard to say for sure. Although hints of such a network have been leaking out for decades now, a car crash in 1996, involving a politician, police chief, ultranationalist drug smuggler, and his girlfriend, clued the public into its possible depths. More recently, the government of current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been prosecuting dozens upon dozens of leading military, political and intellectual figures for their involvement in a ultranationalist group called Ergenekon, which some say is coextensive with the deep state.

The consensus about the deep state, to the extent that there is, one is that it’s a combination of people with power in official circles, underground circles or both, who believe that their vision for Turkey is the correct one, that they should take action to protect that vision, even if it means pursuing illegal and violent activities, including extrajudicial killings.

Where did it come from? 

The origins of the deep state are usually traced to two traditions: secret organizations formed by the Turkish military, starting around the end of the Ottoman empire, and “stay-behind” counter-revolutionary forces, trained by Western intelligence agencies during the Cold War to act as a resistance if the Soviet Union ever invaded. Early in the 20th century, a Special Organization, connected to but not always governed by the military, gathered intelligence, fomented rebellions and conducted extralegal killings in the area still under control of the Ottoman empire; this group is linked, too, with the Armenian genocide at that time.

After Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, these clandestine services were broken up and some prominent members punished, but in their wake, a new clandestine network established itself.

The “deep state” that has existed alongside the Turkish republic is said to be dedicated to Kemalism, Ataturk’s vision of a secular Turkish state. It is ultra-nationalist, anti-Islamic, anti-liberal, anti-Kurdish and, ultimately, anti-democratic. In the second half of the twentieth century, a series of military coups deposed Turkish leaders; similarly, the “deep state” is supposed to have acted to keep minorities, reporters, leftists and dissidents of all kinds from furthering any other possible future for Turkey. Through the second half of the 20th century, a number of massacres, assassinations and other incidents, including military coups, have been connected to these secret forces.

How do we know it really exists? 

One of the first hints of this powerful underground came out in the 1970s, when the secret operations branch of the military stopped receiving money from the U.S. and had to ask Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit for additional funds. Around this time, too, in the 1970s and ‘80s, the connections between drug traffickers and the “deep state” started becoming closer too, in part because politics started affecting the narcotics industry more directly, as Ryan Gingeras, a Naval Postgraduate School professor, writes in a 2011 study of drugs and Turkey’s deep state.

In November 1996, though, a scandal that exposed some of these secret relationships began when a car crashed in Susurluk, in northwestern Turkey.

In the car, there were four people who should never have been in a car together: a member of parliament, the former deputy police chief of Istanbul, an ultranationalist assassin and drug trafficker, Abdullah Çatlı, and his beauty-queen girlfriend. They had been traveling with another politician, too—the country’s interior minister. Tipped off that the car would crash, he stayed behind at their hotel. The member of parliament was the crash’s sole survivor. The dissonance of Çatlı, who was a leader in a neo-fascist youth group, who had assassinated leftist leaders, and who was connected to heroin kingpins, riding with high-ranking politicians gave investigators enough grist to start investigating the connections between the state and the very illegal activities that Çatlı had been involved in.

After this incident, the idea of the “deep state” became more firmly rooted in the public’s mind. Then, in the mid-2000s, new information gave another window into this level of political and military operations. In 2007, a store of grenades found in a rental house in Istanbul were linked both to a retired Army general and to an attack on an administrative court. The investigation into the grenades revealed the existence of a group called Ergenekon, which supposedly connects hundreds of high-ranking or well-known people throughout the government, media, and military. As Dexter Filkins reported for the New Yorker in 2012, the prosecutors in charge of the case say that this is the shadow state, and that it even has its own capital building, “a defunct religious building in Istanbul’s Karaköy neighborhood known as ‘the Turkish Orthodox Church.’” The web that prosecutors said they were untangling was so extensive, though, that it began to seem like a way for the party in power to sweep up its opponents.

Whether the “deep state” is a tightly run conspiracy or a loosely connected network of powerful people who share the same aims, there is evidence of a long tradition of using less-than-above-board violence to achieve political aims. If it all seems too absurd to be real, large swaths of Turkey’s population have shared those feelings.

“It is now obvious that the state has from time to time engaged in secret operations to commit illegal acts,” wrote one newspaper columnist wrote in the wake of the 1996 car crash. ”Most of the public believes that these gangs will never be fully exposed. Is that such an insoluble problem? No. But unraveling the tangle would upset so many powerful individuals and organizations that one tends to think maybe it is better kept as it is.”

As for this past week’s tragic bombing, only time will tell. “Recent events do remind some of the sort of false flag operations and murky incidents from twenty years ago (the height of the deep state era, if you will),” Gingeras, the Naval Postgraduate School professor, wrote in an email. “Given the recent visibility of certain individuals and groups related to the nationalist right, people will undoubtedly see a deep state involvement somewhere (regardless of whether it is true or not).”