In Turkey / Türkiye, USA

Image by Diego González.

Turkey’s exploitation by the U.S. is an overlooked case-study, including its networks of far-right, anti-left militia trained and organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

By T J Coles

Published on CounterPunch, Feb 28, 2021

“The growing pains of modernization”

After the Second World War (1939-45), the U.S. became the dominant global power and fought its rival, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for international supremacy. Many countries became proxy battlegrounds between U.S. and Soviet influence. In addition to beating the Reds, U.S. war planners used secret militias, many of them allied with fascists and the far-right, to crush leftism in third countries. This had the dual purpose of fending off potential (often invented) Soviet advances and also crushing domestic leftism in the interests of U.S. corporations and military installations.

Turkey’s exploitation by the U.S. is an overlooked case-study, including its networks of far-right, anti-left militia trained and organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The events can be divided into three historical phases. In phase I (1940s-50s), the U.S. trained and armed the Turkish forces which banned and frequently rounded up socialist and communist groups. In phase II (1960s-70s), CIA-trained militias waged dirty wars against leftists, and in phase III (1980s-present) they focused their attention on “pacifying” Kurdish groups, many of whom espouse leftist political ideas.

After the war

Turkey’s elite expressed pro-Nazi sympathies, signing for instance the Clodius Agreement 1941 to supply Germany with materials. The CIA notes that the Turkish government “tried to eradicate completely the Communist Party, but only drove it further underground.” But at the Casablanca Conference 1943, Turkey’s President, Gen. İsmet İnönü (1884-1973), agreed to join the Allies, marking an irrevocable change in Turkey’s military structure. A U.S. Navy memo from that year notes that Mehmet Naci Perkel (1889-1969), Director of the National Security Service (Milli Emniyet Hizmeti), “appears to be somewhat confused and bewildered by the growing number of American Intelligence Agencies in Turkey.”

At the Second Cairo Conference 1943 Turkey agreed to allow the U.S. to build what became Incirlik Air Base (İncirlik Hava Üssü), which means “fig orchard.”

With the Nazis defeated, U.S. and British war planners turned their attentions to the USSR, laying the groundwork to send military aid to allies as well as set up clandestine guerrilla networks. The National Security Act of 1947 created many of the mechanisms by which the U.S. attempts to dominate the world: the Department of Defense (which absorbed the War Department, Navy, and nascent Air Force), the National Security Council, the CIA, and more. Partly in reaction to Britain’s termination of anti-Soviet military support to Greece and Turkey, President Truman (in office 1945-53) announced his eponymous Doctrine to accelerate U.S. hegemony by funding allies.

In 1948, the CIA was given the authority to wage clandestine wars by the National Security Council Directive on the Office of Special Projects (NSC 10/2), which created the State Department-funded Office of Policy Coordination within the Central Intelligence Agency. Reporting to the Departments of State and Commerce, the Economic Cooperation Administration was set up to implement the Marshall Plan.

Members of the Turkish National Security Service (Milli Emniyet Hizmeti, MEH) were trained at U.S. camps run by post-War German Nazis, including Gen. Reinhard Gehlen and Klaus Barbie.

A CIA working paper from 1950 breathes a sigh of relief that under President Celâl Bayar’s (1883-1986) right-wing Democrat Party (Demokrat Parti, DP), Turkey’s “domestic and foreign policies will continue without startling changes.” It notes that “Bayar has suggested that an atmosphere be created which will prove helpful to private enterprise.” A preliminary U.S. National Intelligence Estimate from that year describes Turkey as “a tough nut for the USSR to crack” and highlights the people’s “fear and mistrust of the USSR.” Turkey had a “dependence on U.S. aid.” Its geographical location possibly “affords protection to Middle Eastern oil.”

In a book endorsed by the George C. Marshall Foundation, historian Barry Machado notes that in 1950, Turkey’s “victorious Democratic Party promoted private enterprise and improved the climate for foreign investment.” By 1952, 133 members of the largely exiled, 1,500-strong Turkish Communist Party (Türkiye Komünist Partisi, TKP) were rounded up. Many were tortured and jailed.

Early NATO years

In 1951, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began constructing what later became Incirlik Air Base. A year later, Turkey joined the U.S.-led North American Treaty Organization (NATO). The Turkish branch of NATO’s secret Gladio operation was named Counterguerrilla. The self-professed Nazi, Colonel Alparslan Türkeş (nom de guerre, 1917-97), was a NATO delegate and a key figure in the creation of the U.S.-trained Tactical Mobilization Group (Seferberlik Taktik Kurulu, STK), through which Counterguerrilla operated. Gen. Doğan Güreş (1926-2014) confirmed that the STK was established at the American Aid Delegation Building in Ankara.

Disgraced CIA agent Frank Terpil (1939-2016) told the FBI that Türkeş “went to the CIA for funding … [A]n active-duty CIA officer was hired on a personal basis, while on his annual leave, to train the Gray Wolves” (more about which later). U.S. elites were concerned about the strong left-wing presence in Turkey’s neighbor, Greece, which they equated with Sovietism. STK-Counterguerrilla went to work stoking tensions between Turkish and Greek leftists and Turkey’s dominant right wing.

Many Turkish Republicans revered their founding father, Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), who was born in present-day Thessaloniki (Greece) in what later became the Turkish Consulate. In 1955, STK-Counterguerrilla operatives bombed the Consulate and blamed Greeks. In early September, STK-Countergeurilla forces attacked a Greek pastry shop in faux revenge for the bombing they’d committed. This triggered an anti-Greek pogrom that left several dozen dead. Loyal right-wing media fanned the flames as violence spread across Turkey. President Bayar imposed martial law. Then-Junior Officer, Gen. Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu (1928-2016), confirmed that the events were part of an “excellent special warfare operation that reached its aim.”

Meanwhile, in 1957, CIA Director, Allen Dulles (1893-1969), wrote to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, Gen. Thomas D. White (1901-65) concerning Project Aquatone/Oilstone: the use of Incirlik Air Base (then called Adana) from which to launch the Lockheed U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. Within three years, the Soviets had downed a U-2 with a C-75 (SA-2) SAM launcher.

In 1958, the U.S. Air Force completed tests on its first nuclear-tipped medium-range ballistic missile: the mobile, Rocketdyne-Chrysler PGM-19 Jupiter. President Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) rejected U.S. requests to base Jupiter in France, leaving the U.S. to base the missiles at several sites in Italy and Turkey, turning those countries into targets for Soviet counterattacks.

In 1960, the U.S.-trained fascist, Col. Türkeş, led a military coup that deposed President Bayar and PM Adnan Menderes (1899-1961), who was later hanged. The junta was named the National Unity Committee (Milli Birlik Komitesi) and led by Gen. Cemal Gürsel (1895-1966). The CIA describes the “facade of returning power to civilians.” A pre-coup report states: “There is little known Communist organization in Turkey, and Turkish Communists remain virtually neutralized by the security forces.” The report notes that “Moscow does not appear to be carrying on an active subversion campaign among Turkey’s Kurds.” However, just as the Nazis inadvertently empowered leftists during WWII, the CIA noted a rise in Turkish leftism sparked by the coup. A National Security Estimate from 1962 notes that the military “will remain the ultimate source of power in Turkey.”

Enter the wolves

In 1960s’ Turkey, the political left was thought by the CIA “to be primarily a socialist movement with Communist overtones.” The entities involved included left-wing political organizations, artists, journalists, labor federations, students, and the Socialist Cultural Association (Sosyalist Kültür Derneği). The Turkish Labor Party (Türkiye Emekçi Partisi) is described by the CIA as “the most dangerous of the legal leftist organizations.”

The exiled Turkish Communist Party (Türkiye Komünist Partisi) was also described as “potentially the greatest threat to Turkey,” which offered “an umbrella to Communists who are proscribed by law.” The left-of-center Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) was lumped into the mix. The CIA believed that “these groups do not appear to be under central direction.” It further notes that the left’s self-professed socialists “have little apparent understanding of the meaning of the term.” This internal knowledge contradicts U.S. public propaganda at the time: that all foreign leftists were Soviet stooges or sympathizers.

Quasi-democratic reforms were introduced by the junta in the mid-1960s. A heavily-redacted CIA report notes that Turkey’s urban elite “is frustrated by its inability to maintain itself in power through democratic processes and, therefore, has become vulnerable to political exploitation by the left.” The remedy was the CIA-NATO Counterguerrilla. In 1965, the National Security Service (Millî Emniyet Hizmeti, MEH) was replaced with the National Intelligence Organization (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT). Turkey’s Special Warfare Unit (Özel Harp Dairesi, ÖHD) was found in 1965 out of STK.

The Joint American Military Mission for Aid to Turkey (JAMMAT) was set up via the CIA’s OPC and incorporated in the U.S. Armed Forces. JAMMAT and its successor funded the ÖHD. MİT Director, Sabahattin Savaşman, said that the CIA had 20 personnel at high levels offering training of agents in a “building constructed by the CIA.” Supreme Court of Justice, Emin Değer (1927-2018), also documentedhow the U.S. Military Aid Mission building housed the ÖHD-Counterguerrilla, which sanctioned the wave of terror and provided weapons to the Gray Wolves (Bozkurtlar, officially Idealist Hearths (Ülkü Ocakları)).

The Gray Wolves are a paramilitary unit founded in 1969 by the CIA-trained fascist Türkeş to serve his National Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi). Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu, Chief of the ÖHD (1974-76), acknowledged that the goal was to: “Use ‘open’ as well as ‘covert’ activities, murder, bombing, armed robbery, torture, kidnapping; encourage incidents which invite retaliation; take hostages; use sabotage and propaganda; disseminate disinformation (and) use force as well as blackmail.” With U.S. training centers in Panama, Turkish thugs were used in what CIA officer Ralph McGehee (1928-2020) later described as the “mass arrests of opposition figures similar to the pattern followed in Thailand, Indonesia and Greece.”

The global, progressive protests of the late-1960s spread to Turkey and included university students who organized a protest against the U.S. Sixth Fleet. CIA officer, Duane Clarridge (1932-2016), was in Istanbul at the time and watched the events unfold, hinting that provocateurs were present. “[A] crowd of university students (and undoubtedly others masquerading as such) … attacked the [American] sailors.” Turkey’s “Bloody Sunday” (Kanlı Pazar) occurred on February 16th 1969 and led to the deaths of two protestors. Thousands had gathered in Beyazıt Square to protest U.S. imperialism and were set upon by Counterguerrilla forces as they marched to Taksim Square, an hour’s walk away.

Waves of violence

Throughout the 1970s, U.S.-Turkish intelligence faced the confluence of Kurdish nationalism and secessionism, as well as increasingly militant leftism among non-Kurdish Turks. To make matters worse for the state, the traditions of Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey are rooted in localism. The peoples, therefore, have a strong leftist tradition. The Turkish juntas and quasi-democracies denied Kurdish identity, designating them “eastern Turks” and banning the Kurdish language. “These measures did not eradicate the Kurds’ sense of separate identity,” says the CIA.

A January 1971 CIA memo noted rumors of an impending military coup against the civilian government, highlighting “[r]ecurrent student disorders, involving clashes between rightists and leftist groups … The civilian regime has found it difficult to handle these outbreaks.” From the viewpoint of the junta, U.S. arms supplies to Greece “demonstrates once again that Washington does not oppose military regimes per se.” CIA officer Clarridge confirms: “I received evidence of an impending military coup,” namely a letter sent from the U.S.-trained Army to the civilian government which translates as: “Step down. We are taking over.”

In 1976 under military rule, 200,000 supporters of the proscribed Workers Party of Turkey (Türkiye Isçi Partisi, TIP) and the Confederation of Trade Unions (Türkiye Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu) publicly celebrated May Day in Istanbul for the first time. The 1977 Taksim Square celebrations attracted one million leftists. But military snipers began shooting the revelers from the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT)-owned Hotel International. The ITT had previously been instrumental in the Chile coup 1973. CIA-linked Gladio provocateurs attacked attendees on the ground, while right-wing media blamed leftist insurgents. Hiram Abas Directed the MİT Director (1976-80) and was reportedly present. CIA Station Chief in Ankara (1968-73), Clarridge, referred to Abas a close personal friend.

The Taksim Square massacre (Kanlı 1 Mayıs or Bloody First of May) left several dozen leftists dead. Turkish intelligence hired the young Gray Wolf, Abdullah Çatlı (1956-1996), as a hitman. During the 1970s, Çatlı was a suspect in the murder of leftists in Ankara. By 1979, the connections had led him to work with Turkish intelligence. In the early-1980s, he visited Miami under CIA protection.

In March 1978 when investigating Turkey’s connections to the CIA and NATO, prosecutor Doğan Öz (1934-78) was murdered by Gray Wolves. Haluk Kırcı was a main suspect. At least seven students died on March 16th 1978 when Gray Wolves bombed the University (later known as the Beyazıt Massacre, 16 Mart katliamı). In October of that year in Ankara, Gray Wolves Çatlı and Kırcı murdered seven unarmed student members of TIP (the Bahçelievler Massacre, Bahçelievler katliamı). In December (the Maraş Massacre, Maraş katliamı), more than one hundred Alevi people were murdered in Kahramanmaraş city after the Turkish intelligence agency, MİT, reportedly ordered right-wing Sunnis and Gray Wolves to avenge a cinema bombing blamed on leftists.

A 1979 CIA memo notes: “Political violence–back to pre-martial law levels–has become significantly more destabilizing.” It adds: “The strife in Turkey is essentially the result of a rightist reaction to the relatively recent emergence of a left.” It concludes: “The West would of course be better off in its dealings with Turkey were there a stronger government in Ankara.”

A National Intelligence Estimate referred to these as “the growing pains of modernization,” which include “a high level of social unrest and acrimonious politics.”

Turkey’s Supreme Court of Justice judge, M. Emin Değer (1927-2018), documented how the U.S. Military Aid Mission supported the wave of terror via Counterguerrilla.

War against Kurds

By 1980, “the growing pains of modernization” had led to the near-collapse of the economy. The junta used the political violence it created to declare martial law in the country’s third coup. Leftist parties and trade unions were banned and 30,000 people arrested. Some 50,000 fled the country and 500 people were executed. Articles 141 and 142 of the penal code that attempted to justify these actions were cut and paste from fascist Italy’s constitution.

Founded two years before the coup by Kurdish leftists, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (Partîya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK) was described by the CIA as “a rural-based insurgency that uses terrorism as one of its tactics.” Unlike other Kurdish groups in Turkey, the PKK was secessionist. Their targets typically included the militarized Turkish village police and armed forces. Turkish government figures acknowledge4,500 dead in the first eight years of war (1984-92); a likely underestimation.

U.S. arms supplies to Turkey during its domestic war on the PKK (1984-present) are extensively documented. Less well known are U.S. covert support operations.

A CIA report notes that the PKK “does not pose a threat to the Turkish government’s control of southeastern Turkey.” The PKK was one of the “first separatist groups to [advocate] autonomy for a Turkish ‘Kurdistan’ in federation with a socialist or communist Turkish state.” At the time, the U.S. was backing Iraq’s Kurds as a proxy against Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). The CIA acknowledged that “Turkish governments have attempted to assimilate the Kurds by suppressing their cultural identity and theoretically offering equally opportunity … In practice, opportunity and reward have been the province of select groups.” In 1984, the PKK formed the Kurdish Liberation Force (Hêzên Rizgariya Kurdistan) to “undermine Turkish control of the Kurdish areas.”

Recall that the CIA trained the ÖHD, which in turn trained the MİT. MİT intelligence officer, Yavuz Ataç, confirmed that in the late-1980s, the organization recruited a gangster and Gray Wolf named Alaattin Çakıcı. Specifics have not emerged, but intelligence files suggest that into the 1990s, Çakıcı worked for the MİT to assassinate PKK members abroad. The LA Times reports: “Turkish Army spokesmen have admitted the [U.S.-led NATO] Counter-Guerrilla Organization … played a pivotal role in anti-Kurdish operations.” Counterguerrilla was renamed the Special Forces Command in 1992 (Özel Kuvvetler Komutanlığı, OKK).

The U.S. exploitation of Turkey as a military base continued into the 1990s, when Incirlik Air Base was used to attack Iraq in various operations. As Iraq’s Kurds experienced some protection from the U.S., Turkey’s Kurds remained under assault.

In 1998, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi (Kenya) was bombed, supposedly by “al-Qaeda.” Over one hundred intelligence officials arrived to investigate. U.S. diplomats, meanwhile, were pressuring nations to deny the PKK’s founding member, Abdullah Öcalan, refuge. This left Öcalan little choice but to try the Greek Embassy in Kenya, where he was captured by the MİT with assistance from the CIA which had bugged the Embassy. Öcalan was brought to Turkey and after a commuted death sentence, imprisoned on İmralı Island in the Marmara Sea, where he remains. Psychological warfare units have attempted to further discredit the PKK by circulating photos purporting to show Öcalan enjoying sports with Gray Wolf Çatlı in the grounds of the MİT.

Recall that the NATO-CIA Counterguerrilla was renamed OKK. The U.S.-trained OKK directed Turkey’s 2nd Commando Brigade (Bolu Brigade) and an associated, far-right organization called the Turkish Revenge Brigade (Türk İntikam TugayıTİT). Operative, Adil Timurtaş, acknowledged that the TİT carried out a number of terror attacks against Kurdish civilians that were blamed on the PKK in an effort to undermine Kurdish support for secession. For instance, in 2006 a bus stop bombing in Kurdish-majority Diyarbakır murdered ten people: seven of whom were children. The terror was blamed on the PKK, but high-grade explosives were used, along with military walkie-talkies.

U.S. operations today

After 9/11, Turkey’s strategic usefulness to U.S. war planners solidified as the military sought to launch operations from its Turkish bases, including the anti-Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom (2001) from Incirlik Air Base.

In 2003, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) took over and has been in power ever since. Led by the dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the AKP initially won approval from the global anti-war movement by refusing to go along with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A couple of years later, “the growing pains of modernization” had halted from the U.S. financial viewpoint because Erdoğan was refusing to implement the privatization “reforms” demanded by the IMF.

U.S. officials called this change in relations with Turkey “the drift.” Secret Embassy cables state: “The drift may well continue until the next crisis creates new political alternatives in a day of reckoning.” But Erdoğan weathered numerous political crises, including a 2016 coup attempt.

U.S. elites would prefer Erdoğan to be a compliant puppet, but they have not broken diplomatic ties because not only is Turkey a NATO member, the U.S. use of Incirlik Air Base is a priority. In addition, Turkey is part of the U.S. missile system in Eastern Europe pointed at Russia. According to the Congressional Research Service: “In September 2011, Romania agreed to [station] of 24 interceptor missiles … and Turkey agreed to accept sophisticated U.S. radar.” A Congressional Research Service report notes that growing Russian-Turkish relations are “situational rather than comprehensive in scope.” The big controversy was Erdoğan’s decision to cancel purchases of U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

A 2014 U.S. Air Force magazine article notes that the 39th Air Base Wing is based at Incirlik and is an “[o]perational location for deployed US and NATO forces.” The State Department notes: “Incirlik… has been critical in the effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS in Syria and Iraq.” The U.S. continues arming Turkey and integrating with the armed forces, as anti-Kurdish violence persists. For instance, a 2015 U.S. Special Operations Command report notes the presence of Special Operations Liaison Officers in Turkey.

It is likely that the failed 2016 coup, which killed 200 people, was secretly sponsored by the U.S. It is widely reported that individuals connected to the political Islamist, Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, were behind the coup.

Gülen lives on a farm (often intelligence code for training camp) in Pennsylvania and runs the biggest chain of charter schools in America. Globally, the Gülen schools indoctrinate some two million children. FBI raids on the schools appear to be linked to financial not political concerns. In 1991, the MİT documented links between Gülen and the CIA. Documents allege that Gülen used the Turkish police to do the CIA’s bidding. Ten years later, state prosecutor Nuh Mete Yüksel claimedthat Gülen’s CIA alias was “Hodja Effendi” and that he was under the protection of the FBI. U.S. Embassy cables from 2005 note America’s “extensive and continuing contacts with Gulenists.” After singing Gülen’s praises and helping him with visas applications, former CIA officer Graham Fuller, strenuously denied being Gülen’s handler after Turkey issued a warrant for Fuller’s arrest, following the failed coup.

The Turkish people have suffered from the U.S. military presence. With Russia and China refusing to obey U.S. orders and charting an independent course in world affairs, the U.S. military continues to use Turkey, despite tensions with Erdoğan, as a pillar of its global empire.


T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).


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