For 20 years, Turkish security agencies sponsored ultra-right-wing death squads and narco-criminal gangs that were involved in bombings, kidnappings and other terrorist attacks. Described in a leaked, 120-page parliamentary report, this sordid sub rosa alliance waged a dirty war against Kurds and Turkish dissidents.
Confirming what human rights activists long suspected, the report concluded that security forces were responsible for many of Turkey’s 14,000 unsolved murders and disappearances in recent years.
Much of the parliamentary inquiry focused on Abdullah Catli, a convicted fugitive who was wanted for murder and heroin trafficking. His role as state-sponsored hit man was exposed in November 1996, when Catli, his gangster girlfriend and a top police official were killed in a car accident on a remote highway near Susurluk, 100 miles southwest of Istanbul. A Kurdish warlord in cahoots with Turkish security forces survived the crash.
Strewn amid the roadside wreckage was evidence of Catli’s collusion with the Turkish secret service. Along with several handguns, silencers, a cache of narcotics and a government-approved weapons permit, Catli was carrying six photo ID cards, each with a different name, and special diplomatic credentials issued by Turkish authorities.
Catli’s secret police ties are all the more scandalous given his well-known role as a leader of the Gray Wolves, a neo-Nazi terrorist organization that had stalked Turkish society since the late 1960s. A young thug who looked somewhat like Elvis Presley, Catli graduated from street gang violence to become a brutal enforcer for the Gray Wolves. Rising quickly in the ranks, he emerged as second-in-command of the group in 1978. That year, Catli ostensibly went underground after police linked him to the murder of seven Turkish trade union activists.
The Gray Wolves gained international notoriety when one of Catli’s close collaborators, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot and nearly killed Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. Catli previously had helped Agca escape from a Turkish jail, where he was serving time for killing a newspaper editor. Catli supplied him with a fake ID and directed his movements for several months leading up to the papal attack. During this period, according to the parliamentary report, Catli was secretly on the Turkish government’s payroll.
In a glaring omission, the report makes no mention of Catli’s sensational confession in September 1985, when he testified as a witness at the trial in Rome of three Bulgarians and four Turks charged with complicity in the papal death plot. Under oath, Catli (who was not a defendant) admitted he gave Ali Agca the pistol that wounded the pontiff. Catli also testified he had been approached by the West German BND spy organization, which allegedly offered him a large sum of money if he implicated the Bulgarian secret service and Soviet KGB in the attempt on the pope’s life.
Additional evidence that the Bulgarian connection was a Cold War deception came from ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee that his CIA colleagues, under pressure from agency higher-ups, skewed reports to try to lend credence to the notion that the Soviet KGB and its Bulgarian proxy were behind the papal shooting. “The CIA had no evidence linking the KGB to the plot,” Goodman asserted in 1990. Former CIA director Robert M. Gates has denied that the agency slanted intelligence information, including reports on the assassination attempt.
In the late 1970s, armed bands of Gray Wolves launched a wave of bomb attacks and shootings that killed hundreds of people, including public officials, journalists, students, lawyers, labor organizers, left-wing activists and ethnic Kurds. During this period, the Gray Wolves operated with encouragement and protection of the Counter-Guerrilla Organization, a section of the Turkish Army’s Special Warfare Department. Working out of the U.S. Military Aid Mission building in Ankara, the Special Warfare Department received funds and training from U.S. advisors to establish “stay behind” squads of civilian irregulars who were set up to engage in acts of sabotage and resistance in the event of a Soviet invasion. Similar Cold War counter-guerrilla units were created in every member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But instead of preparing for foreign enemies, these operatives often set their sights on domestic targets.
Such was the case in Turkey, where shadowy paramilitary units were involved in the surveillance, persecution and torture of Turkish leftists, according to retired army commander Talet Turhan, author of three books on Turkish counter-guerrilla activities. The Counter-Guerrilla Organization supplied weapons to the Gray Wolves, who were responsible for much of the political violence that culminated in a 1980 coup by the Turkish military.
Despite his status as a wanted fugitive, Catli was employed by the Turkish secret police before and after the military coup. As payment for services, the Gray Wolf commander and several of his colleagues were allowed to smuggle heroin and commit other lucrative crimes. Catli’s drug trafficking landed him in jail in France and Switzerland during the mid-1980s. After escaping in 1990, he became a key operative in the Turkish government’s brutal anti-Kurdish campaign. Turkish Army spokesmen have admitted the Counter-Guerrilla Organization (renamed the Special Forces Command in 1992) played a pivotal role in anti-Kurdish operations.
For more than four decades, Turkey’s strategic importance to the United States and NATO derived from its status as the easternmost bulwark against Soviet communism. Cold War Realpolitik compelled the Gray Wolves and its Turkish parent organization, the National Action Party, to cultivate a discreet alliance with NATO and U.S. intelligence. Led by Catli’s mentor, Col. Alpaslan Turkes, the National Action Party espoused a militant pan-Turkish ideology that called for repatriating whole sections of the Soviet Union under the flag of a reborn Turkish empire. “The Turkish race above all others” was the Nazi-like credo of Turkes and his revanchist colleagues, who had been enthusiastic wartime supporters of Adolf Hitler. Although the National Action Party has been outlawed, its hard-right ideology continues to influence Turkish politics.
During the Cold War, the CIA supported these would-be Turkish roll-backers in an effort to incite anti-Soviet passions among Muslim Turkic minorities in the Soviet Union. Although this strategy became anachronistic when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, U.S. policy unintentionally had set the stage for aggressive Gray Wolf encroachments in Central Asia after the Cold War ended. In 1995, Catli was among a group of Turkish extremists who traveled to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, where they tried unsuccessfully to topple the government and install a leader who would permit them to use a new drug-smuggling route to the West.
Thus far, however, Turkish officials aren’t talking about the most controversial aspect of Catli’s nefarious career--his ties to Ali Agca and the papal shooting.
In all likelihood, the plot to kill the pope was not hatched by a foreign government. Rather, it appears to have been the work of renegade Turkish extremists who operated under the protective umbrella of Turkey’s secret service but did not always take their orders from Ankara.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, which played a major role in promoting the spurious Bulgarian link, won’t discuss Catli’s ties to the papal plot or his long relationship with Turkey’s corrupt security forces. Nor has Washington acknowledged any responsibility for the Turkish Frankenstein it helped create. A State Department spokesperson described Catli’s activities as “an internal Turkish matter” and declined further comment.