On the Trail of Turkey's Terrorist Grey Wolves
By Martin A. Lee
In broad daylight on May 2, 50 armed men set upon a television station in
Istanbul with gunfire. The attackers unleashed a fusillade of bullets and
shouted slogans supporting Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.
The gunmen were outraged over the station's broadcast of a TV report
critical of Ciller, a close U.S. ally who had come under criticism for
stonewalling investigations into collusion between state security forces
and Turkish criminal elements.
Miraculously, no one was injured in the attack, but the headquarters of
Independent Flash TV were left pock-marked with bullet-holes and smashed
windows. The gunfire also sent an unmistakable message to Turkish
journalists and legislators: don't challenge Ciller and other high-level
Turkish officials when they cover up state secrets.
For several months, Turkey had been awash in dramatic disclosures
connecting high Turkish officials to the right-wing Grey Wolves, the
terrorist band which has preyed on the region for years. In 1981, a
terrorist from the Grey Wolves attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II
in Vatican City.
But at the center of the mushrooming Turkish scandal is whether Turkey, a
strategically placed NATO country, allowed mafiosi and right-wing
extremists to operate death squads and to smuggle drugs with impunity. A
Turkish parliamentary commission is investigating these new charges.
The rupture of state secrets in Turkey also could release clues to other
major Cold War mysteries. Besides the attempted papal assassination, the
Turkish disclosures could shed light on the collapse of the Vatican bank
in 1982 and the operation of a clandestine pipeline that pumped
sophisticated military hardware into the Middle East -- apparently from
NATO stockpiles in Europe -- in exchange for heroin sold by the Mafia in
the United States.
The official Turkish inquiry was triggered by what could have been the
opening scene of a spy novel: a dramatic car crash on a remote highway
near the village of Susurluk, 100 miles southwest of Istanbul. On Nov. 3,
1996, three people were crushed to death when their speeding black
Mercedes hit a tractor and overturned. The crash killed Husseyin Kocadag,
a top police official who commanded Turkish counter-insurgency units.
But it was Kocadag's company that stunned the nation. The two other dead
were Abdullah Catli, a convicted fugitive who was wanted for drug
trafficking and murder, and Catli's girlfriend, Gonca Us, a Turkish beauty
queen turned mafia hit-woman. A fourth occupant, who survived the crash,
was Kurdish warlord Sedat Bucak, whose militia had been armed and financed
by the Turkish government to fight Kurdish separatists.
At first, Turkish officials claimed that the police were transporting two
captured criminals. But evidence seized at the crash site indicated that
Abdullah Catli, the fugitive gangster, had been given special diplomatic
credentials by Turkish authorities. Catli was carrying a government-approved
weapons permit and six ID cards, each with a different name. Catli also
possessed several handguns, silencers and a cache of narcotics, not the
picture of a subdued criminal.
When it became obvious that Catli was a police collaborator, not a
captive, the Turkish Interior Minister resigned. Several high-ranking law
enforcement officers, including Istanbul's police chief, were suspended.
But the red-hot scandal soon threatened to jump that bureaucratic
firebreak and endanger the careers of other senior government officials.
Grey Wolves Terror
The news of Catli's secret police ties were all the more scandalous given
his well-known role as a key leader of the Grey Wolves, a neo-fascist
terrorist group that has stalked Turkey since the late 1960s. A young
tough who wore black leather pants and looked like Turkey's answer to
Elvis Presley, Catli graduated from street gang violence to become a
brutal enforcer for the Grey Wolves. He rose quickly within their ranks,
emerging as second-in-command in 1978. That year, Turkish police linked
him to the murder of seven trade-union activists and Catli went
Three years later, the Grey Wolves gained international notoriety when
Mehmet Ali Agca, one of Catli's closest collaborators, shot and nearly
killed Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981. Catli was
the leader of a fugitive terrorist cell that included Agca and a handful
of other Turkish neo-fascists.
Testifying in September 1985 as a witness at the trial of three Bulgarians
and four Turks charged with complicity in the papal shooting in Rome,
Catli (who was not a defendant) disclosed that he gave Agca the pistol
that wounded the pontiff. Catli had previously helped Agca escape from a
Turkish jail, where Agca was serving time for killing a national newspaper
editor. In addition to harboring Agca, Catli supplied him with fake IDs
and directed Agca's movements in West Germany, Switzerland, and Austria
for several months prior to the papal attack.
Catli enjoyed close links to Turkish drug mafiosi, too. His Grey Wolves
henchmen worked as couriers for the Turkish mob boss Abuzer Ugurlu. At
Ugurlu's behest, Catli's thugs criss-crossed the infamous smugglers' route
passing through Bulgaria. Those routes were the ones favored by smugglers
who reportedly carried NATO military equipment to the Middle East and
returned with loads of heroin.
Judge Carlo Palermo, an Italian magistrate based in Trento, discovered
these smuggling operations while investigating arms-and-drug trafficking
from Eastern Europe to Sicily. Palermo disclosed that large quantities of
sophisticated NATO weaponry -- including machine guns, Leopard tanks and
U.S.-built Cobra assault helicopters -- were smuggled from Western Europe
to countries in the Middle East during the 1970s and early 1980s.
According to Palermo's investigation, the weapon delivers were often made
in exchange for consignments of heroin that filtered back, courtesy of the
Grey Wolves and other smugglers, through Bulgaria to northern Italy.
There, the drugs were received by Mafia middlemen and transported to North
America. Turkish morphine base supplied much of the Sicilian-run "Pizza
connection," which flooded the U.S. and Europe with high-grade heroin for
[While it is still not clear how the NATO supplies entered the pipeline,
other investigations have provided some clues. Witnesses in the October
Surprise inquiry into an alleged Republican-Iranian hostage deal in 1980
claimed that they were allowed to select weapons from NATO stockpiles in
Europe for shipment to Iran.
[Iranian arms dealer Houshang Lavi claimed that he selected spare parts
for Hawk anti-aircraft batteries from NATO bases along the Belgian-German
border. Another witness, American arms broker William Herrmann,
corroborated Lavi's account of NATO supplies going to Iran.
[Even former NATO commander Alexander Haig confirmed that NATO supplies
could have gone to Iran in the early 1980s while he was secretary of
state. "It wouldn't be preposterous if a nation, Germany, for example,
decided to let some of their NATO stockpiles be diverted to Iran," Haig
said in an interview. For more details, see Robert Parry's Trick or
A Vatican Mystery
Italian magistrates described the network they had uncovered as the
"world's biggest illegal arms trafficking organization." They linked it to
Middle Eastern drug empires and to prestigious banking circles in Italy
and Europe. At the center of this operation, it appeared, was an obscure
import-export firm in Milan called Stibam International Transport. The
head of Stibam, a Syrian businessman named Henri Arsan, also functioned as
an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to
several Italian news outlets.
With satellite offices in New York, London, Zurich, and Sofia, Bulgaria,
Stibam officials recycled their profits through Banco Ambrosiano, Italy's
largest private bank which had close ties to the Vatican until its
sensational collapse in 1982. The collapse of Banco Ambrosiano came on
the heels of the still unsolved death of its furtive president, Roberto
Calvi, whose body was found hanging underneath Blackfriar's Bridge in
London in June 1982. While running Ambrosiano, Calvi, nicknamed "God's
banker," served as advisor to the Vatican's extensive fiscal portfolio.
At the same time in the mid- and late 1970s, Calvi's bank handled most of
Stibam's foreign currency transactions and owned the building that housed
Stibam's Milanese headquarters. In effect, the Vatican Bank -- by virtue
of its interlocking relationship with Banco Ambrosiano -- was fronting for
a gigantic contraband operation that specialized in guns and heroin.
The bristling contraband operation that traversed Bulgaria was a magnet
for secret service agents on both sides of the Cold War divide. Crucial,
in this regard, was the role of Kintex, a Sofia-based, state-controlled
import-export firm that worked in tandem with Stibam and figured
prominently in the arms trade. Kintex was riddled with Bulgarian and
Soviet spies -- a fact which encouraged speculation that the KGB and its
Bulgarian proxies were behind the plot against the pope.
But Western intelligence also had its hooks into the Bulgarian smuggling
scene, as evidenced by the CIA's use of Kintex to channel weapons to the
Nicaraguan contras in the early 1980s.
The Reagan administration jumped on the papal assassination attempt as a
propaganda opportunity, rather than helping to unravel the larger
mystery. Although the CIA's link to the arms-for-drugs traffic in
Bulgaria was widely known in espionage circles, hard-line U.S. and Western
European officials promoted instead a bogus conspiracy theory that blamed
the papal shooting on a communist plot.
The so-called "Bulgarian connection" became one of the more effective
disinformation schemes hatched during the Reagan era. It reinforced the
notion of the Soviet Union as an evil empire. But the apparent hoax also
diverted attention from extensive -- and potentially embarrassing -- ties
between U.S. intelligence and the Turkey's narco-trafficking ultra-right.
Fabrication of the conspiracy theory might have even involved suborning
perjury. During his September 1985 court testimony in Rome, Catli
asserted that he had been approached by the West German BND spy
organization, which allegedly promised him a large sum of money if he
implicated the Bulgarian secret service and the KGB in the attempt on the
Five years later, ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman disclosed that his
colleagues, under pressure from CIA higher-ups, skewed their reports to
try to lend credence to the contention that the Soviets were involved.
"The CIA had no evidence linking the KGB to the plot," Goodman told the
Senate Intelligence Committee.
Friends of the Wolves
Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, the CIA station chief in Rome at the time of the
papal shooting, had previously been posted in Ankara. Clarridge was the
CIA's man-on-the-spot in Turkey in the 1970s when armed bands of Grey
Wolves unleashed a wave of bomb attacks and shootings that killed
thousands of people, including public officials, journalists, students,
lawyers, labor organizers, social democrats, left-wing activists and
ethnic Kurds. [In his 1997 memoirs, A Spy for All Seasons,
Clarridge makes no reference to the Turkish unrest or to the pope
During those violent 1970s, the Grey Wolves operated with the
encouragement and protection of the Counter-Guerrilla Organization, a
section of the Turkish Army's Special Warfare Department. Headquartered
in the U.S. Military Aid Mission building in Ankara, the Special Warfare
Department received funds and training from U.S. advisors to create "stay
behind" squads comprised of civilian irregulars. They were supposed to go
underground and engage in acts of sabotage if the Soviets invaded.
Similar Cold War paramilitary units were established in every NATO member
state, covering all non-Communist Europe like a spider web that would
entangle Soviet invaders. But instead of preparing for foreign enemies,
U.S.-sponsored stay-behind operatives in Turkey and several European
countries used their skills to attack domestic opponents and foment
violent disorders. Some of those attacks were intended to spark right-wing
In the late 1970s, former military prosecutor and Turkish Supreme Court
Justice Emin Deger documented collaboration between the Grey Wolves and
the government's counter-guerrilla forces as well as the close ties of the
latter to the CIA. Turkey's Counter-Guerrilla Organization handed out
weapons to the Grey Wolves and other right-wing terrorist groups. These
shadowy operations mainly engaged in the surveillance, persecution and
torture of Turkish leftists, according to retired army commander Talat
Turhan, the author of three books on counter-guerrilla activities in Turkey.
But the extremists launched one wave of political violence which provoked
a 1980 coup by state security forces that deposed Prime Minister Bulent
Ecevit. The Turkish security forces cited the need to restore order which
had been shattered by rightist terrorist groups secretly sponsored by
those same state security forces.
Cold War Roots
Since the earliest days of the Cold War, Turkey's strategic importance
derived from its geographic position as the West's easternmost bulwark
against Soviet communism. In an effort to weaken the Soviet state, the
CIA also used pan-Turkish militants to incite anti-Soviet passions among
Muslim Turkish minorities inside the Soviet Union, a strategy that
strengthened ties between U.S. intelligence and Turkey's
Though many of Turkish ultra-nationalists were anti-Western as well as
anti-Soviet, the Cold War realpolitik compelled them to support
a discrete alliance with NATO and U.S. intelligence. Among the Turkish
extremists collaborating in this anti-Soviet strategy were the National
Action Party and its paramilitary youth group, the Grey Wolves.
Led by Colonel Alpaslan Turkes, the National Action Party espoused a
fanatical pan-Turkish ideology that called for reclaiming large sections
of the Soviet Union under the flag of a reborn Turkish empire. Turkes and
his revanchist cohorts had been enthusiastic supporters of Hitler during
World War II. "The Turkish race above all others" was their Nazi-like
credo. In a similar vein, Grey Wolf literature warned of a vast
Jewish-Masonic-Communist conspiracy and its newspapers carried ads for
Turkish translations of Nazi texts.
The pan-Turkish dream and its anti-Soviet component also fueled ties
between the Grey Wolves and the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations (ABN), a
CIA-backed coalition led by erstwhile fascist collaborators from East
Europe. Ruzi Nazar, a leading figure in the Munich-based ABN, had a
long-standing relationship with the CIA and the Turkish ultra-nationalists.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Nazar was employed by Radio Free Europe, a
CIA-founded propaganda effort.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the shifting geopolitical terrain
created new opportunities -- political and financial -- for Colonel Turkes
and his pan-Turkish crusaders. After serving a truncated prison term in
the 1980s for his role in masterminding the political violence that
convulsed Turkey, Turkes and several of his pan-Turkish colleagues were
permitted to resume their political activities.
In 1992, the colonel visited his long lost Turkish brothers in newly
independent Azerbaijan and received a hero's welcome. In Baku, Turkes
endorsed the candidacy of Grey Wolf sympathizer Abulfex Elcibey, who was
subsequently elected president of Azerbaijan and appointed a close Grey
Wolf ally as his Interior Minister.
The Gang Returns
By this time, Abdullah Catli was also back in circulation after several
years of incarceration in France and Switzerland for heroin trafficking.
In 1990, he escaped from a Swiss jail cell and rejoined the neo-fascist
underground in Turkey.
Despite his documented links to the papal shooting and other terrorist
attacks, Catli was pressed into service as a death squad organizer for the
Turkish government's dirty war against the Kurds who have long struggled
for independence inside both Turkey and Iraq. Turkish Army spokesmen
acknowledged that the Counter-Guerrilla Organization (renamed the Special
Forces Command in 1992) was involved in the escalating anti-Kurdish
Turkey got a wink and a nod from Washington as a quid pro quo for
cooperating with the United States during the Gulf War. Turkish jets
bombed Kurdish bases inside Iraqi territory. Meanwhile, on the ground,
anti-Kurdish death squads were assassinating more than 1,000
non-combatants in southeastern Turkey. Hundreds of other Kurds
"disappeared" while in police custody. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty
International and the European Parliament all condemned the Turkish
security forces for these abuses.
Still, there was no hard evidence that Turkey's security forces had
recruited criminal elements as foot soldiers. That evidence surfaced only
on Nov. 3, 1996, when Catli' died in the fateful auto accident near
Susurluk. Strewn amidst the roadside wreckage was proof of what many
journalists and human rights activists had long suspected -- that
successive Turkish governments had protected narco-traffickers, sheltered
terrorists and sponsored gangs of killers to suppress Turkish dissidents
and Kurdish rebels.
Colonel Turkes confirmed that Catli had performed clandestine duties for
Turkey's police and military. "On the basis of my state experience, I
admit that Catli has been used by the state," said Turkes. Catli had been
cooperating "in the framework of a secret service working for the good of
the state," Turkes insisted.
U.S.-backed Turkish officials, including Tansu Ciller, Prime Minister from
1993-1996, also defended Catli after the car crash. "I don't know whether
he is guilty or not," Ciller stated, "but we will always respectfully
remember those who fire bullets or suffer wounds in the name of this
country, this nation and this state."
Eighty members of the Turkish parliament have urged the federal prosecutor
to file charges of criminal misconduct against Ciller, who currently
serves as Turkey's Foreign Minister, as well as Deputy Prime Minister.
They asserted that the Susurluk incident provided Turkey "with a historic
opportunity to expose unsolved murders and the drugs and arms smuggling
that have been going on in our country for years."
The scandal momentarily reinvigorated the Turkish press, which unearthed
revelations about criminals and police officials involved in the heroin
trade. But journalists also have been victims of death squads in recent
years. The violent attack on Independent Flash TV was a reminder.
Prosecutors have faced pressure, too, from superiors who are not eager to
delve into state secrets. Thus far, no charges have been lodged against
Across the Atlantic in Washington, the U.S. government has yet to
acknowledge any responsibility for the Turkish Frankenstein that U.S. Cold
War strategy helped to create. When asked about the Susurluk affair, a
State Department spokesperson said it was "an internal Turkish matter."
He declined further comment. ~
Martin A. Lee's book on neo-fascism, The Beast Reawakens, will
be published by Little, Brown in July.
(c) Copyright 1997
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