Albion Monitor /Features

The Last Cold Warriors

by Lucy Komisar

The United States set up secret paramilitary force at the height of the Cold War
ISTANBUL -- On November 3, a truck crashed into a Mercedes-Benz in Susurluk, 90 miles south of Istanbul, and killed three Turkish passengers: a fugitive heroin smuggler and hitman, a former high-ranking police officer, and a former "Miss Cinema." The lone survivor was a rightwing member of parliament. In the car's trunk, police found a forged passport, police identification papers, ammunition, silencers and machine guns.

Abdallah Catli, the fugitive heroin smuggler, had escaped from a Swiss prison. The dead beauty queen, Gonca Uz, was his girlfriend.

The police officer was Huseyin Kocadag, head of a Turkish police academy and a former Istanbul deputy police chief who reportedly organized hit squads in the southeast that kill Kurdish guerrillas and their supporters.

The survivor, Sedat Bucak, a member of parliament from the conservative True Path Party is reportedly in charge of 2,000 Kurdish mercenaries paid by the government to fight Kurdish guerrillas.

The car crash has created a sensation in Turkey and had led parliament to hold hearings on the ties linking the True Path Party, the police, and thugs like Abdullah Catli. Newspapers in Turkey are making connections between what they are calling the "state gang" and a secret paramilitary force that for decades has attacked the left. But as Turkish investigators dig, they may come across one more hidden connection: The United States set up that secret paramilitary force at the height of the Cold War.

Even though there was no Soviet occupation, some of the groups did take up arms -- against leftwing dissidents in their own countries
In the 1950's, the United States was concerned that the Soviet Union would conquer much of Western Europe. The CIA and the Pentagon came up with a plan to establish secret resistance groups within various Western European countries that would fight back against the predicted Soviet occupation. These groups were called "stay behind" organizations: little cells of paramilitary units that would take on the Soviets behind enemy lines. Belgium, France, Holland, Greece, Italy, and Germany have all acknowledged that they participated in the covert network.

The United States funded these stay behind groups for decades. Even though there was no Soviet occupation, some of the groups did take up arms -- against leftwing dissidents in their own countries. Some descendants of these groups are still at it, especially in Turkey.

Abdullah Catli was one of these.

"The accident unveiled the dark liaisons within the state," former prime minister Bulent Ecevit told parliament in December. Now leader of a small opposition social democratic party, Ecevit knows a lot about those liaisons. He first told me about them -- and the American connection -- back in 1990, when I interviewed him in his Ankara office, where he sat in a soft, brown chair sipping a cherry drink.

Ecevit is a genial, 71-year-old man with a high forehead, deep-set eyes, a beakish nose, curly black hair, and a moustache. The son of a doctor and a painter, Ecevit is an intellectual and a poet who has translated T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He graduated from the American-run Robert College and lived in the U.S. as a student and a journalist. He once led the major social democratic party; there was a split, and he now heads the smaller of the two.

Ecevit became prime minister in 1973. He told me he was startled the following year when the Turkish military high command requested money from the prime minister's secret fund to pay for a new headquarters for the Special Warfare Department. General Semih Sancar, Turkey's army commander, told him about the department. He said the Americans had funded it from the start, but now they were allegedly pulling out. Sancar advised Ecevit not to look too closely at the matter. Ecevit investigated and found no such organization in the state budget.

"There are a certain number of volunteer patriots whose names are kept secret and are engaged for life in this special department," a military briefer told Ecevit. "They have hidden arms caches in various parts of the country."

At the time, Ecevit worried that these so-called lifetime patriots might have a rightist slant and would use their weaponry to advance their ideological goals. But he felt he was in no position to deny them funds. Ecevit's party was the largest, but it had won only a third of the votes. He was running a shaky coalition government. Ecevit released the funds the military wanted and never discussed the matter with the United States.

But the U.S. government surely knew about it. It set up the secret stay behind organization and funded it for more than two decades.

We are the counterguerrilla. Even the president of the republic cannot touch us"
Working out of the Joint U.S. Military Aid Team headquarters, it was known first as the Tactical Mobilization Group and then the Special Warfare Department. In 1971, after a military coup, it was dubbed the counterguerrilla force and turned into an instrument of terror against the left.

Journalist Ugur Mumcu, who was arrested shortly after the coup, wrote later that his torturers told him, "We are the counterguerrilla. Even the president of the republic cannot touch us." (Mumcu, who continued to write in the daily Cumhuriyet about the counterguerrilla force and about the existence of rightist drug gangs connected to the government, was killed by a car bomb in 1993.)

Confirmation of the counterguerrilla force's existence has come from the highest sources. Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Kennan Evren, who led a 1980 coup, wrote in his memoirs that Suleyman Demirel, now president and in the late 1970's prime minister, asked then that the Special Warfare Department be used to combat terrorism. Evren said he refused, but that Demirel had insisted, pointing out that it had been used in 1971 against subversive activities.

General Evren acknowledged that the Special Warfare Department was involved in clandestine activities, citing the murder of nine leftwing militants at Kizildere in northern Turkey in 1972. He told a newspaper that civilians in the paramilitary organization run by the department may have been involved in terrorist incidents in the 1970's without his knowledge. Given the military's tight control over security, such ignorance is highly unlikely.

One notorious terrorist incident Ecevit thought the stay behind group may have been involved in occurred on May Day, 1977, when the major trade union confederation organized a rally that brought several hundred thousand people to Istanbul's main Taksim Square. As the sun was setting, snipers on surrounding buildings started firing at the speakers' platform. The crowd panicked. Thirty-eight were killed; hundreds were injured. The shooting lasted for 20 minutes; several thousand police at the scene did nothing.

Ecevit, who was out of office at the time, went to see President Fahri Koruturk and told him he thought the counterguerrilla force might have carried out the massacre. "Give me a written statement," Koruturk answered. He relayed Ecevit's fears to Prime Minister Demirel, Ecevit recalled, but nothing came of it.

"There is no means of knowing or controlling what a young recruit may get up to after twenty years in such an organization"
When he ran for prime minister in late 1977, Ecevit denounced the counterguerrillas. When he became prime minister, he told Army Chief of Staff Evren, 'During the Kizildere incidents the Special Warfare Section is said to have been used. I am worried about this civilian organization. There is no means of knowing or controlling what a young recruit may get up to after twenty years in such an organization."

Evren replied, "There is nothing to worry about. We will deal with it." So Ecevit blocked a parliamentary debate on the issue. At a news conference, he denied existence of the counterguerrilla group and said his earlier charges were just suppositions. Signaling his fear of provoking the military, he said, "We must all be respectful towards the Turkish Armed Forces and help them in the realization of their desire to remain out of politics."

Once, when Ecevit was touring the country, a general in eastern Turkey gave a dinner in his honor. When Ecevit learned he had worked in the Special Warfare Department, he told the general, "I have deep suspicions about the civilian extension of that department."

"The civilians work very honestly, very faithfully," the general assured him. "There is nothing to be afraid of."

Ecevit told him, "Simply as a hypothesis, it's quite possible, general, that one of those lifetime patriots might at a certain later date become the party chief of the Nationalist Action Party, which is involved in rightwing terrorism in this very town.

"Yes," said the general, "This is the case, but he's a very nice man."

By the late 1970's, violence between the left and right threatened Turkey's stability. The chief violent group on the right was the neofascist "Grey Wolves," the militant arm of the rightist Nationalist Action Party head by Alparslan Turkes, a former colonel and a leader of the 1960 military coup.

Our dead heroin trafficker, Abdallah Catli, was a leader of the Grey Wolves when he was found guilty in absentia of organizing the 1978 murders of seven student members of the Turkish Labor Party.

The rightwing terrorism during the late 1970's helped set the stage for the 1980 military coup, which the generals said was needed to save the country from anarchy
After the car crash, Turkes admitted that Catli had worked clandestinely for the military and police, that he had worked "in the framework of a secret service working for the good of the state." A former Turkish foreign-ministry adviser and the head of the intelligence anti-terror unit also told officials conducting the current parliamentary inquiry that Catli worked for Turkish intelligence.

Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller, a leader of the conservative True Path Party, praised Catli after the crash: "Those who fire bullets or suffer their wounds in the name of this country, this nation and this state will always be respectfully remembered by us."

The rightwing terrorism Catli was involved in during the late 1970's helped set the stage for the 1980 military coup, which the generals said was needed to save the country from anarchy.

After the 1980 coup, several hundred thousand leftists were jailed for three or four years without trial. Many were tortured. The parliamentary commission has called on Evren to testify about charges that terror squads were used routinely by the military junta and participated in roundups of leftists.

By the mid-80's, the counterguerrillas had a new target: the Kurds. Government security agencies began using paramilitary death squads against Kurds who started an armed struggle in 1984. In November 1990, six months after our interview, Ecevit repeated publicly that a clandestine paramilitary force existed in Turkey. Three weeks later, the head of the Turkish Army Operations Department and the commander of the Special Forces issued a statement that there was a special NATO organization in Turkey called the Special Warfare Department, whose mission was "to organize resistance in the case of a communist occupation." They said its secret members were "patriots" not connected to the counterguerrillas. The special NATO organization was, of course, the "stay behind" operation the Americans had started.

In 1992, the commander of the Special Warfare Department, General Kemal Yilmaz said, "The department is still active in security operations against armed members of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) in Turkey's southeastern provinces."

The U.S. State Department's 1995 human rights report on Turkey was blunt: "Prominent credible human rights organizations, Kurdish leaders, and local Kurds asserted that the government acquiesces in, or even carries out, the murders of civilians." It said, "Human rights groups reported the widespread and credible belief that a counterguerrilla group associated with the security forces had carried out at least some 'mystery killings.'"

The Assassins of a Pope

The State Department's 1996 report on Turkey did not mention the counterguerrillas, but said that, "'mystery killings' continued to occur with disturbing frequency." It also said, "The 1995 recommendations of a parliamentary committee, designed to purge 'illegal formations' within the state which the committee said committed some mystery killings, were not implemented."

The Turkish embassy in Washington said it had no information on these illegal formations. Meanwhile, the paramilitary commission investigating the Mercedes-Benz crash has recommended prosecuting the lone survivor of the crash, along with 34 others linked to the scandal, including several former police chiefs and officers.

As for Washington's role, Pentagon would not tell me whether it was still providing funds or other aid to the Special Warfare Department; in fact, it wouldn't answer any questions about it. I was told by officials variously that they knew nothing about it, that it had happened too long ago for there to be any records available, or that what I described was a CIA operation for which they could provide no information. One Pentagon historian, said, "Oh, you mean the 'stay behind' organization. That's classified."

Lucy Komisar, a New York journalist who writes about foreign affairs, is doing research about Turkey for a book on U.S. foreign policy and human rights. This article also appears in the April issue of The Progressive

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Albion Monitor April 6, 1997 (

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