Sometimes trying to follow the news in Turkey is just as confusing as reading a John le Carré spy thriller or watching an action packed movie set during the Cold War.
With names like Sledgehammer and Ergenekon and an alleged cast of thousands ranging from retired top military generals to newspaper editors, the plots being investigated are incredibly complex. Just when you think you have sorted out who is who, and have got straight in your mind what they are supposed to have done, there are further revelations that make the whole thing muddy again.
It seems that with each passing week it is getting harder and harder to sort out who are the good guys and who are the bad. Listen to one side and the army are defenders of freedom and democracy. Listen to the other and the army is subverting democracy by plotting to overthrow an elected government. Listen to one side and three Christians in Malatya were brutally murdered by a few young nationalistic men who lost their grip on reality. Listen to the other and these killings were part of a series of assassinations of Christians in Turkey designed to undermine the government in Western eyes.
Who to believe? What to believe? Can you take people at face value? This is not a new problem, and certainly not one exclusive to Turkey. One of the most famous spy webs in British history starred names like Philby, Burgess and Maclean. The first deception was them posing in ordinary positions whilst spying for Britain. However they were double agents, passing secrets to Moscow. Stalin, however, for a period suspected Philby of being a triple agent and distrusted information received from him until a number of tests showed he was genuine.
A triple agent is one set up by their original spymasters as a deliberate plant posing to the other side as a double agent, pretending to be treacherous to their home country when they aren’t really. Confused? If like me you prefer to live in a world where everyone tells the truth and you can take what they say at face value, then you definitely will be.
Of course we have to recognize that they are only famous because they were found out, so maybe they weren’t quite so successful after all. But, it seems that all of the really great names in the UK spy world had a Turkey connection. In the Cold War Turkey was an essential ally -- the last bastion in southeastern Europe before the Black Sea and the Soviet threat. The stakes were high in the poker game to keep Turkey from falling to the Communists too and making the Black Sea into a Soviet lake. Now Turkey is similarly important due to the drugs and terrorist threats from neighbors slightly further east.
Philby and Burgess were both posted in İstanbul in the 1940s and famously became really drunk together one night at the Moda Yacht Club, which is still a trendy spot near Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city.
This is an age fictionally brought to life in part two of Jeremy Duns’ engrossing Paul Dark spy series. Peppered with undercover agents cleverly disguised as ordinary citizens -- “he looked more like a bank clerk on his day off than the infiltrator of a terrorist cell” -- “Free Country” tells the story of a spy who has gone bad, acting as a double agent for Moscow, but is fleeing for his life as both sides want him dead.
Two chiefs of MI6 have been murdered in two months. Our hero is not entirely innocent in this. Russian agents, his previous clandestine friends, are now tailing him with the aim of silencing him forever. The tale leaps and twists and turns from St Paul’s Cathedral, to dark tunnels in the London Underground network. A connection with Italian red terrorists moves the action to Rome, then via Sicily to St Peter’s in the Vatican City and then a chase across Italy to Turin, the home of the Shroud.
The final unraveling of the plot to reveal Italian authorities in the 1960s being behind the attacks on civilians and blaming this on red brigade terrorist groups to keep public opinion anti-Communist resonates with some of the news items in Turkey in the 2010s.
Before we reach this climax, though, our hero has a flashback to the 1950s to an incident that had taken place when he was stationed in Pera House in İstanbul. The city had been crawling with spies since the war, and Dark had stumbled upon the Stay Behind operation.
He had discovered a large-scale fold-out map of Turkey with 30 circles on it. In the dead of night exploring the nearest one, just outside İzmit, he finds a tunnel with a stash of rifles, pistols, binoculars, a radio set and commando daggers. This was an arms dump for sleeper-cell resistance forces: Men who knew where the bases were and who had been trained in guerilla warfare. These cells could be triggered into immediate action in the event that Russia invaded.
I guess the piece of land belonging to the İstek Vakfı in Poyrazköy wasn’t on the map that our fictional anti-hero Dark found in the 1960s, but it sounds familiar doesn’t it?
In his novel, Duns explains that the Americans built on the foundations the British laid and made the organization into Gladio. Some cells were for intelligence gathering, some for sabotage, others for propaganda, escape and guerilla warfare.
What was the inspiration for the name Gladio? It was named after a small stabbing knife used by the gladiators; this knife would produce a superficial wound with a lot of blood. It would not finish off the opponent quickly, and thus finish the contest, but it would terrify and prolong the entertainment for the crowds. A spymaster explains it to Dark: “They are not interested in killing many innocent people -- but they want to terrify many people, with a superficial but spectacularly bloody wound.”
In preparation for his novel Duns read through pages and pages of classified documents now released under the time-lapse rules. Sadly his research on İstanbul is less accurate: he has our hero driving a jeep across the Galata Bridge from Pera and continuing on by land to İzmit. Even if he had accurately identified the Bosporus Bridge as connecting the two continents, that wasn’t built until some 20 years after the action took place.
This does no more than put a small dent in an otherwise well researched and documented set of guesses. In the notes at the end of the novel, Duns points out that “the existence of British stay-behind network and their offshoots had been publicized prior to Andreotti’s statement” -- here referring to an admission by the Italian prime minister in 1990 that Gladio was part of a secret NATO operation.
He continues: “The CIA established the Turkish arm of the network in 1952, but I have speculated that the British had already done some work along these lines a year earlier. This is based in part on a paragraph in Kim Philby’s memoirs in which he stated that the Directorate of War Planning was busy setting up ‘centers of resistance’ and guerilla bases in Turkey to counter a possible Soviet invasion while he was stationed there in the late 1940s.”
From these facts he has woven a gripping thriller, “not a few spooks idly plotting and placing a bomb here and there, but a highly trained army ready to do their dirty work.” The prosecutors in today’s Ergenekon trials would say that truth really is stranger than fiction.
“Free Country” by Jeremy Duns, published by Simon & Schuster Ltd. (2010), 19.99 pounds in hardcover ISBN: 978-1847374448