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The Rise of Paramilitary Groups in Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has extensively consolidated his power through massive purges and a constitutional referendum that granted him sweeping dominance and authority over state institutions since the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. While restructuring formal institutions, Erdogan instigated an irregular and Iranian-like militia structure that helps him control streets, inflict oppression and carry out covert operations against dissident political groups.
Erdogan’s paramilitary structure has three distinct layers. The first layer includes pseudo-military groups that function formally as security contractors (e.g., SADAT A.S. International Defense Consulting) and informally as secretive armed forces that carry out clandestine operations that formal state institutions legally cannot implement.
The second layer includes gang and mafia groups and their leaders (e.g., the Ottoman Germania, a Turkish nationalist boxing gang in Germany, and convicted mafia leader Sedat Peker).[i] Erdogan aims to use such criminal groups as a deterrent against his opponents and perceived enemies both within Turkey and among the large number of Turkish descendants living abroad to gain leverage over the host countries.
The third layer includes youth clubs and hearths (e.g., Ottoman Hearths, a pro-Erdogan youth organization, and the People’s Special Operations Squad, an association founded by a former special-forces soldier)[ii] from which Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) recruits adolescents and young adults with the goal of ensuring their loyalty to Erdogan and his regime.
To consolidate his power, Erdogan has supported the emergence and growth of these groups and emboldened them to inflict fear among the Turkish people and to oppress political dissidents by granting immunity for the youths’ criminal offenses against Erdogan’s political “enemies.” Erdogan’s strategy to empower pro-government paramilitaries, however, poses grave risks for Turkish democracy and institutions.
When Erdogan became prime minister sixteen years ago in 2002, the military, which had been known as a secular institution with a Kemalist tradition (i.e., a tradition of nationalism and secularism as established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), has been a major obstacle to Erdogan’s populist and Islamist agenda. Erdogan has presented himself a true democratic leader who aims to adapt progressive policies in pursuit of European Union membership and real democracy in Turkey. His democratic attitudes enabled him garner popular support and alliances from both conservative and liberal political groups. Erdogan, however, continued to amass political power and wield extensive control over state institutions. With a tight grip on power, Erdogan began to turn his back to his allies and his progressive policies. He embraced authoritarian leadership and policies that prioritized eliminating political alternatives and his opponents within the government bureaucracy.
The Gezi Park protests in late May 2013 were a milestone in Erdogan’s modus operandi. Gezi Park switched Erdogan’s attention and his threat perception from state institutions to the people. He began to perceive political dissident groups as a significant threat to his regime. Since then, the government has been less tolerant of and more violent toward political opponents and critics.
Erdogan, for example, has used terrorism charges loosely. During and after the Gezi Park protests, the Turkish government harshly oppressed and criminalized peaceful protesters of the government and its policies. Erdogan and his party members did not shy away from labeling millions of people as terrorists simply because of their political views and membership in certain social groups. The president frequently uses labeling, demonization, incarceration, and even torture to silence and deter his opponents.
Eissenstat (2017) criticizes Erdogan for reshaping “security structures to ensure loyalty and to maintain political control” and for creating “a network of informal security structures that include military contractors, political party clubs and newly militant and mobilized AKP base” (p. 1). Erdogan’s efforts to gain control and loyalty among the military and the police have had a dramatic effect, as more than 50,000 military and law enforcement personnel have been purged since the July 15, 2016, coup attempt.[iii] Erdogan has used the “controlled,” if not staged, coup attempt as a pretext to justify his actions “in casting aside any limits, whether those based on rule of law at home or condemnation abroad” (Eissenstat, 2017, p. 4).[iv]
Erdogan’s Paramilitary Force
Erdogan’s paramilitary force has three layers: private armed security contractors, gangs and mafia-like groups, and youth clubs and hearths.
First Layer: Private Armed Security Contractors
SADAT, a private security and consulting company, is the most notorious armed group that functions as a paramilitary force for Erdogan. SADAT was established in 2012 by former military officials who were dismissed after being charged with promoting and supporting extremist Islamist ideologies. The founder and chair of SADAT, Adnan Tanriverdi, is a former general dismissed from the military in the 1990s because of his extremist leanings. Tanriverdi also is a columnist for Yeni Akit, a pro-government and Islamist newspaper that has been sympathetic to violent extremist groups. Despite Tanriverdi’s infamous reputation, Erdogan appointed the former general as his chief advisor right after the July 15 coup attempt. Multiple media reports and eyewitness accounts have said that pro-AKP militia and mafia groups, including SADAT, were responsible for many civilian killings during the coup attempt.[v] [vi] [vii]
SADAT’s involvement would not be surprising given that its mission is to provide Islamic countries with military training on asymmetrical warfare tactics.[viii] SADAT reportedly has trained about 3,000 foreign fighters and other militants operating in Syria and Libya and received a grant from the Turkish government to do so. Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, contends that ISIS and Al-Nusra were among the groups that received military training from SADAT.[ix] Several media reports say that SADAT carried out clandestine operations against government opponents, including kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings. Eissenstat (2017) argues that “SADAT’s ideological profile, paramilitary experience, and close ties to government make it an ideal ally for the sort of ‘dirty war’ against opposition groups.” Tanriverdi’s close relationship with Erdogan has given the former general a powerful and active role in the redesign of the Turkish military after the massive purge of the country’s defense forces. Tanriverdi, for example, was a member of the security summit on Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish YPG in Afrin.[x]
Second Layer: Gang and Mafia Groups
Erdogan has developed strong relationships with gang and mafia leaders in Turkey and in other countries where large numbers of people of Turkish descent live. One such gang is Ottoman Germania, a boxing club formed by Germans of Turkish origin who adhere to far-right ideologies. The club is estimated to have 2,500 members and 20 chapters in Germany[xi] and about 3,500 members combined in Austria, Switzerland and Sweden. German law enforcement conducted criminal investigations against several Ottoman Germania members for offenses that include organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering and prostitution. The investigations also unearthed the club’s affiliation with the AKP and revealed how Erdogan used the club for his political aims. According to a news report in December 2017 by Frontal 21, an investigative news program of German public broadcaster ZDF, police investigations discovered the relationship between Ottoman Germania and Erdogan and Metin Kulunk, an AKP deputy and close confidant of Erdogan. [xii] Kulunk had been financing[xiii] Ottoman Germania through Mehmet Bagci and Selcuk Sahin, the former head and vice president of the group, respectively. Both men were detained in Germany on criminal charges. German police surveillance and wiretappings found that Kulunk instructed Bagci and Sahin to target Erdogan’s political enemies in Germany, telling the men to “hit Kurds over the head with sticks,” record the beatings, and provide the video footage to them, which then would use the documentation as a “deterrent” for dissidents.[xiv]
Kulunk also has a strong relationship with Sedat Peker, a far-nationalist Turkish mafia leader and staunch supporter of Erdogan. Peker criticized the cancelation of Turkish cabinet members’ rallies in several European town in 2017 and released a video on his personal website saying that “when the right time comes, Europeans will learn exactly how our race, which has been brought up with the belief that those who look at life fearlessly are not afraid of death, can organize such protests in every corner of Europe, much worse than Gezi protests.”[xv] [xvi] [xvii]
Bundestag intelligence oversight committee members, meanwhile, accused Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) of using around 6,000 informants in Germany to pressure Turkish Germans who do not ally with Erdogan and his party.[xviii] According to Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, a German intelligence service expert observer, the MIT’s activities in Germany had been “enormous.” He notes that “for many Turks national pride is so strongly pronounced that they regard it as an honor to be allowed to work for MIT.”[xix]
Third Layer: Youth Clubs and Hearths
Erdogan has become more aware of the importance of youth clubs and hearths, which are more common among right-wing political parties than parties of other political persuasions. The clubs have become recruitment sites for right-wing parties determined to turn the youths into loyal supporters of Erdogan and his party, the AKP.
When Erdogan saw that adult members of Turkish population had grievances against and were dissatisfied with his regime, he focused on reaching out to youths by forming youth organizations from which he could recruit AKP supporters at a young age. He adopted the structure of far-right youth clubs (e.g., Ulkucu Ocaklari) with a tradition and structure that could align easily with the AKP and its Islamist ideology.
Ottoman Hearths (Osmanli Ocaklari) were founded in 2009 and have been a pivotal civilian force in the AKP’s efforts to suppress dissidents during anti-government protests. The organization’s members have appeared at AKP rallies and protests wearing white burial shrouds, which means that they are “ready to die” for their leaders. Ottoman Hearths adopted the youth-organization structure of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves (i.e., Ulkucu Ocaklari) and combined it with the organizational structure of Turkey’s Welfare Party, or Refah Partisi (founded by Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister), and with the structure of the National Youth Foundation (Mili Genclik Vakfi). The founder and chairman of the Ottoman Hearths, Kadir Canpolat, was involved in the National View (Milli Gorus) Islamist movement.[xx]
The reach of Ottoman Hearths has spread rapidly to each province in Turkey and now have about 2 million members across the country. It organization also has established itself in other countries, such as the United States and Germany, that host large numbers of ethnic-Turkish people.[xxi] [xxii] The groups have been under the spotlight for their alleged activities that include violently targeting opposition-party and media offices and journalists. [xxiii] Canpolat, for example, was convicted on charges of causing bodily injury, possessing and bearing weapon without a license, and kidnapping. The actions for which Canpolat was convicted befit the organization’s mission and declaration of responsibility to intervene in “social and domestic disturbances” and defend Erdogan and his regime against any kind of vigilante or insurgency. In an interview with the online news portal Middle East Eye, Ottoman Hearths Deputy Chairman Yilmaz Babaoglu said about the organization’s actions: “It was our way of showing our leader how much we appreciated his efforts to make us great country again under the aegis of a ‘New’ Turkey.” He added: “We love our nation’s leader Erdogan and his AKP. We also believe the AKP’s enemies are the nation’s enemies.” [xxiv]
Ottoman Hearths have made their presence known at anti-Erdogan protests and rallies, working diligently to crush political dissidents. The organization responded, for example, when Erdogan threatened to use the AKP base during the Gezi Park protests and unleash a million of his people against the demonstrators. Members of Ottoman Hearths also serve as street vigilantes committed to thwarting any action they perceived as being a threat to Erdogan and the AKP. In the role of vigilante, the organization’s members have targeted several Kurdish activists. Most of these incidents have not been investigated. The head of Ottoman Hearths’ Istanbul branch, Furkan Gok, expressed on Twitter his appreciation of a suicide bomber for killing of 30 civilians in the town of Suruc on July 20, 2015, during a meeting of young Kurdish activists. [xxv] Ottoman Hearths also have been successful in mobilizing AKP supporters against protesters in Turkey's intensely polarized political environment. Members rallied for Erdogan and monitored protests that erupted during the 2014 presidential election and 2017 constitutional referendum.
People’s Special Operations (Halk Ozel Harekat) is another organization founded to fight for Erdogan and his party in case of a civil war or a coup attempt in Turkey. [xxvi] The organization was founded by Yunus Emre Polat, who fought along with extremist groups in Syria.[xxvii] The current chairman, Fatih Kaya, served as specialist sergeant for 10 years in the Turkish Military Special Forces. He joined jihad along with opposition groups in Syria. In an interview with the BBC Turkish, Kaya said his organization is active in 22 Turkish provinces and has received 40,000 applications for membership.[xxviii]
During the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, several media outlets and eyewitnesses reported that Ottoman Hearths, People’s Special Operations, and SADAT members were present at the event and were responsible for the loss of many lives, including the brutal killings of cadets and conscripts who already had surrendered to the police. Two cadets, Murat Tekin and Ragip Enes Katran from Air Force Academy, and four military personnel surrendered on the Bosporus bridge; however, they were stabbed to death, and their throats were brutally slit. Some of them were beheaded, as ISIS did to its victims. Some people have alleged that the three groups might have killed civilians during the failed coup attempt in order to galvanize the public against the putschists.[xxix] The AKP government, however, did not initiate a criminal investigation of these lynching, killings, and beheadings.
Backing and Emboldening Paramilitary Groups
Erdogan has taken a number of measures to consolidate his power and assume full control of legislation, the judiciary, the military and law enforcement since the July 15 coup attempt, which was, as Erdogan saw it, "a gift from God.”[xxx] After declaring a state of emergency immediately after the coup attempt, Erdogan purged more than 100,000 public servants. The government then bypassed parliament and issued controversial decrees that suppressed human rights and undermined Turkish democracy.[xxxi] The decrees have emboldened and empowered paramilitary groups.
With a decree (KHK/696) issued on December 24, 2017, the government granted immunity to civilians who were deemed to have acted against the July 15 coup attempt and to those who acted to suppress subsequent terrorist activities.[xxxii] Normally, legal immunity is given to government officials, including diplomats, member of the judiciary, and some government representatives in pursuit of their duties. It is unusual, however, to grant such immunity to civilians who have no official duties and responsibilities.
One of the most notable concerns about this contentious decree is that pro-government paramilitary groups, including contracted private security firms (e.g., SADAT), gang and mafia groups (e.g., Ottoman Germania) and AKP-affiliated youth clubs and hearths (e.g., Ottoman Hearths, People’s Special Operations) will enjoy the granted immunity during their activities that target those who are perceived to be a threat to the Erdogan regime.
The vague language and terms used in the decree has been harshly criticized by opposition parties, social groups, and academics, as it is likely to generate conditions that justify the use violence against whomever the government perceives as terrorists.[xxxiii] [xxxiv] Erdogan and his party members did not hesitate to use the term terrorism broadly and to criminalize their political opponents. Hundreds of thousands of people, including leftists, Gulenists and Kurdish political activists, were labeled as terrorists and a “threat to national security.” [xxxv] These individuals have been harshly oppressed. More than 60,000 were imprisoned, and many of them have endured physical and psychological torture.[xxxvi] Their families have been exposed to hate speech and defamation and are disenfranchised from society. The decree, which created a gap in the civil rights and left critics unprotected from pro-government groups and vigilantes, essentially granted a security blanket to pro-paramilitary forces and rendered political opponents and their families vulnerable to retribution.
In the absence of criminal liability for paramilitary groups, concerns have arisen about the emergence of death squads that may function under paramilitary forces. It is not uncommon for AKP members and pro-government journalists to issue death threats to their political opponents.[xxxvii]
Another government decree (KHK/696) issued soon after the coup attempt encourages extrajudicial killings and kidnappings and provides immunity to those who commit violent crimes and hate crimes against political dissidents whom the government has labeled as terrorists. As a side effect of the decree, violent criminals will enjoy sweeping immunity because they can claim that their actions were aimed at persons labeled as terrorists. The criminals will be able to justify their violence and blame their victims. Some “smart” criminals will take advantage of the chance to avoid prosecution and any charges for their criminal offenses.
A third contentious decree (KHK/675), issued on October 31, 2016, allows “retired officers and noncommissioned officers” to be involved “in the recruitment of military personnel and cadets to the Turkish Armed Forces.”[xxxviii] This regulation became more ominous after the assignment of SADAT leader Adnan Tanriverdi as chief advisor to the president. SADAT’s alignment with the paramilitary wing of Erdogan’s party and the Erdogan regime is concerning because people who espouse Islamist views and have close relationships with Erdogan will be able to manage the recruitment process for the Turkish army.
While only one percent of military personnel were involved in the coup attempt, according to Gurcan (2017), “nearly 44 percent of the land force generals, 42 percent of air force generals, 58 percent of naval admirals, and around 30 percent of the staff officers in charge of concept development and planning in strategic headquarters such as the Turkish General Staff and force commands have been formally discharged” since the coup attempt” (p. 8). As the massive purges of the military and the police continue, Erdogan and AKP government have intensified recruiting efforts among the party’s base and allies. The KHK/675 decree opened a window of opportunity for SADAT to recruit members for the Turkish military and reshape the armed forces of a powerful NATO member.
A fourth controversial decree (KHK/676), issued on October 29, 2016,[xxxix] allowed the government to lift restrictions on individuals who previously had been constrained from purchasing and possessing guns. Given the high prevalence of ex-felons among pro-Erdogan gangs and mafia groups and youth clubs, the decree allows ex-felons in these paramilitary groups to possess and carry guns legally. These guns, of course, are used for more than just self-defense. The guns also are used to intimidate and stalk their political “enemies.”
Overall, the decrees since the July 15 coup attempt have protected and emboldened pro-government paramilitary groups to engage in violence and intimidation against political dissidents. The decrees created a golden opportunity for pro-government contractors to reshape the formal military forces while giving pro-government gangs and mafia groups access to guns they can use to gain power over the people and intervene in protests.
What’s Behind Erdogan’s Leverage of Paramilitary Groups
Erdogan is well aware of the strong and swift impact of paramilitary groups, as they have tremendous capacity to integrate military forces with local knowledge and use extra-legal force against perceived enemies (e.g., Dube & Naidu, 2015; Lyall, 2010). Pro-government paramilitary structures are efficient and functional instruments for authoritarian states to exert control over the public and ensure their obedience to the government. While the alignment of government with paramilitary groups may seem controversial because the relationship dissolves the government’s “monopoly of violence,” the ideological and operational alignment of paramilitary groups with states actualize the government’s efforts to oppress political dissidents and insurgents (Kalyvas & Arjona, 2005, p. 35). Ideological and operational alignment with paramilitary groups helps states to have nonconfrontational or even collusive relationships with these groups (Staniland, 2015). Paramilitary forces have the capacity to conduct clandestine activities with much less accountability than would befall the government. Political leaders simply ignore their affiliation with the paramilitary groups and do not take responsibility for the groups’ controversial activities. As an example, Ottoman Hearths were harshly criticized for their violence and oppressive behavior during antigovernment protests; however, Erdogan and the AKP denied any affiliation with Ottoman Hearths, adding that the hearths are independent social youth clubs with their own agenda.
Despite the massive purge and Erdogan’s large-scale recruitment efforts to set up his own cadres within the military and the police, Erdogan still fears that the military has the potential to defy the government and protect secular democracy and the rule of law. Another conundrum for Erdogan is that while he has gained total control over the country’s formal institutions, it may not be politically feasible for him to use those formal institutions for his clandestine and illegal operations. Eissanstat (2017) argues that the new military and the new police are no more reliable for Erdogan now than they were in the past. The new recruits and those who replace the purged officers are “less professional,” and “the government has been forced to form alliances with formal secular enemies.” As an example, Tol & Taşpinar (2016) argue that “ten colonels convicted in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials were reinstated” after the purge and promoted to generals or admirals. However, Erdogan’s alliance with former political “enemies” in an effort to crush the president’s current political opponents—including Gulenists and Kurds—is extremely fragile and could easily collapse with new developments.
To strengthen his position, Erdogan may want to recruit some members of pro-government paramilitary forces in state institutions and give them formal titles and ranks and include them in the formal security forces, as the Iranian government has done for members of the Basij Resistance Force, a paramilitary group that operates under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.[xl] The Basij, or people’s militia, was established as a voluntary civilian auxiliary unit that works closely with Iran’s formal security forces to monitor and control aggrieved separatists. The Basij has been active especially in Iran’s remote regions where Baluchi, Kurdish and Turkoman people are densely populated.[xli]
Many Basij members have been recruited by formal security forces and serve alongside with members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp and for the Iranian regime and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Erdogan is following a similar path as he seeks to create a “party” military and a “party” police agency by purging officers and recruiting new members from his paramilitary forces and party clubs.[xlii] A national security crisis in the future may provide the “legitimacy” for Erdogan to implement his plan.
Authoritarian leaders also can tolerate or empower paramilitary organizations to balance or have more control over the formal forces. Kalyvas and Arjona (2005) argue that states can outsource their core functions and “dissolve the monopoly of violence in order to preserve it” (p. 35). “Violence devolution,” Kalyvas and Arjona contend, is a way for the government to maintain control over formal institutions. Given the criminal immunity and security blankets Erdogan has bestowed, pro-government paramilitary groups have become more powerful, enabling the president to balance, at some level, formal military and police forces with diehard loyalist groups.
Even though Erdogan has the power to mobilize government resources to ensure his victory in the 2019 presidential election, he will not risk losing the election and will instead use any means—both legal and illegal—to guarantee victory and continuation of his regime. Erdogan’s current crackdown on the institutions has shown that he has ended Turkish democracy “to avoid being ousted democratically” (Cagaptay, 2017).
Last, but not least, Erdogan has a legacy of favoring those who scratched his back in his bad times. Erdogan therefore wants pay back and emboldened his loyalists, who did not hesitate to use violence during the coup attempt.
Detrimental Effects of Paramilitary Groups on Turkish Democracy
As long as paramilitary groups are operationally aligned with the state, these groups will continue to exist and even thrive. Political leaders who may be shortsighted tolerate and support paramilitary groups in order to consolidate their power. What these leaders perhaps do not realize is that paramilitary groups undermine the core functions of government and, in so doing, weaken democracy and democratic institutions. Paramilitary groups may claim territorial control, provide public goods and provide state services. They also may engage in corruption and economic crimes to extract political and monetary benefits from the country’s citizens. Once a paramilitary group accumulates power and becomes strong enough to compete with the state and control territory, the group challenges state authority and gains more access to resources and becomes more resilient to government interventions.
The support of pro-government paramilitary groups appears to be a rational strategy for Erdogan and the AKP in the short run; however, paramilitary groups represent a significant threat to the stability of both the country and democracy. As the history clearly illustrates, authoritarian leaders such as Adolph Hitler and Muammar Kaddafi organized and legalized paramilitary groups and brought them into the state system in order to protect their regime and ensure their personal safety. Their actions, however, threatened civil liberties and democracies, and destroyed the lives of their own people.
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