Decoding Turkey’s dark side risks multifold spike in terror events

As part of the Ergenekon investigation, a clandestine terrorist organization embedded »»
As part of the Ergenekon investigation, a clandestine terrorist organization embedded deep within the state and charged with plotting to topple the democratic government, Turkish police last month found a huge cache of buried weapons and ammunition, including C-4 explosives and light anti-tank weapons.

 A shootout on Monday between Turkish police and members of the Revolutionary Headquarters, a leftist group which openly endorses the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), during a raid on an apartment building left three people dead and eight others wounded.

    Then came the devastating news that 10 soldiers had been killed and two others wounded in two separate attacks carried out by members of the PKK in southeastern Turkey on Wednesday. On the same day a former justice minister escaped unscathed from an explosion at an Ankara university after a woman approached him and detonated a bomb. Police later caught another suicide bomber allegedly linked to Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), an outlawed terrorist organization.  

    Against the backdrop of this back-to-back violence and as the Ergenekon investigation gets deeper and deeper, involving prominent names from academia, the media, politics, the military and the police, one cannot help but wonder whether all these incidents are somehow linked. The targets, methods and the way they were set up differ but their timing raises a red flag, positioned right after the local elections.

    Nonetheless, it confuses many, not only in Turkey but also abroad. "It's possible, of course, that some of these bombs are linked to the PKK or Ergenekon, but it's equally possible that they're not," says Jenny White, professor of anthropology at Boston University and frequent blogger on Turkey. "The PKK/Ergenekon dominates the discussion and frames everything that occurs. That's natural, of course, but it makes me wonder if that doesn't also blind us to other sources of discontent and criminality," she told Sunday's Zaman. Quite understandably she asks, "What else is going on in Turkey besides Ergenekon?"

As confusing as that maybe, all these events are somewhat linked, argues Önder Aytaç, instructor at the Security Studies Institute in Ankara and columnist at the independent daily Taraf. "There has been overwhelming evidence piled up confirming these alleged links and we'll see more clearly after the body of evidence gathered during the Ergenekon investigation is revealed to the public in the court of law," he said in an interview with Sunday's Zaman.

The very next day after the local elections held on March 29, Aytaç, along with coauthor Emre Uslu, wrote in a column that appeared in Taraf, that there may have been plans already in the works to raise tension and create chaos in the country by instigating provocative mass protests, aided by the PKK and Kurds, and by committing high- profile assassinations. In fact, the prediction came true as the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) is accused by many of fomenting violence by mobilizing the public in the country's Southeast to stage violent protests over the past several weeks.

Contrary to expectations that the success of the DTP in local elections would be helpful in reducing the tension in Kurdish-populated areas, there were violent incidents in many provinces in the Southeast. Early in April, a crowd led by some DTP deputies gathered to commemorate Abdullah Öcalan's birthday in Şanlıurfa's Halfeti district, the birthplace of Öcalan -- the convicted terrorist leader of the PKK who is serving a life sentence -- and clashed with the police, resulting in the death of two demonstrators and injuries to many.

A week later, nearly 50 people, the majority of whom are members of the DTP, were detained in operations conducted across 13 cities on the orders of the Diyarbakır Prosecutor's Office over alleged links to the PKK. İhsan Dağı, a professor at Gazi University, questioned the timing of these incidents. "It certainly raises a lot of questions in my mind whether all these events are somehow linked," he said, adding, "Why is it that the prosecutor's office waited until after the elections to order such an expansive operation." Aytaç argues, however, that the PKK might feel cornered and resort to violence even though it declared a unilateral cease-fire the day before the raids by the security forces on April 13.

Patience and perseverance is key

In the last couple of weeks, Turkish security operations seemed to have expanded to include not only leftist groups like the PKK and the DHKP/C but also extreme fundamentalist groups al-Qaeda and Vasat as well. At least 107 people, including a man named Şahmerdan S., who officials said may be the leader of Vasat, which has relations with the PKK, were detained in multiple police operations across the country on April 27.

Recent findings in the Ergenekon case have revealed that seemingly diverse groups have cooperated with various terrorist organizations and illegal partnerships in many bloody attacks against civilians and soldiers. A large amount of guns and ammunition seized by police during past raids on the homes of suspected members of the PKK and Hizbullah, a terrorist organization that reportedly has links to an illegal group within the gendarmerie known as JİTEM, had been handed over to these groups by Ergenekon members.

A police raid in 2000 at an address in the district of Cizre in the southeastern province of Şırnak uncovered 99 long-barrel rifles and thousands of bullets. Another police raid in 2001 resulted in the discovery of more than 50 rifles and 13 bazookas. A police investigation into the rifles showed that they belonged to the gendarmerie command in Şırnak and had been used in bloody attacks in southeastern Turkey by the PKK and Hizbullah.

Ali Nihat Özcan, a retired major from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and expert on terrorism, says Turkey is dealing with a Cold War era relic, referring to the terror groups in Turkey. "It is very natural to see a reaction from one group if you apply pressure to another connected with it," he told Sunday's Zaman. Özcan describes the recent spikes in violence and terror through the analogy of the physics rule of "communicating vessels," where anything that takes place in one place affects the rest.

Özcan points out that terror groups are very flexible and adaptive to changing conditions and security forces need to be very vigilant and proactive in response to the rising threat. Destroying something is always easy, but mounting a defense is a very challenging task especially for the police and security forces," he said, adding that intelligence is key to stem attacks from terror groups.

He goes on to say that through reigns of terror illegal organizations have accumulated power and established a network that keeps them well fed. "It takes time and patience to shatter this network and you need to be able to develop a shared vision among all government agencies trying to eliminate this network," he said.

Facing the dark past of Turkey

In the Ergenekon investigation, prosecutors claim alleged perpetrators used shadowy links reaching out to all these terror organizations in the hope that the violence and assassinations plotted would create chaos and the military, which considers itself the guardian of the country, would be forced to overthrow the government. Prosecutors believe they have all the evidence they need to back up the claims in the indictment submitted to the court.

Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ dismissed accusations that there are officers who have plotted a coup within the ranks of the Turkish military. He emphasized the TSK's commitment to democracy and the rule of law and dodged the question of whether the TSK had conducted an inquiry into the allegations within the military. Başbuğ simply said there was no need to conduct an investigation because everyone within the TSK shared the same view.

The public perception of past coup leaders in Turkey is also undergoing a radical shift. The local city council in Turkey's third largest city, İzmir, voted unanimously in March to rename all primary schools and high schools named after Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 military coup. The reason was simple, as one council member said -- the retired general was a "black mark" on Turkey's history.

Public support for the military involvement in politics either directly or indirectly has also dwindled sharply in the last couple of years. A report titled "Defining the Middle Class in Turkey,'' prepared by Boğaziçi University and the Open Society Institute (OSI) in 2007 using surveys of 1,809 people living in 18 provinces, also documents the common approach towards coups among Turkish people. A total of 81.9 percent of respondents said that they would never support a coup regardless of the circumstances.