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Who are the Turkish ‘Grey Wolves’ that France vows to ban?

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The Grey Wolves, or Ülkü Ocakları as they are known in Turkish, are about to be outlawed in France.

Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister who announced his government would submit a motion to that effect to the parliament on Wednesday, has defended the decision, describing the Grey Wolves as an “extremely aggressive group.”

Some commentators argue that it is possible that Germany will follow suit. Are the Grey Wolves really aggressive or extremist?

They have attacked an Armenian genocide memorial

The tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia spilled over to Europe last week when a mob of Grey Wolves encountered Armenians in Vienne, near Lyon. Several people were injured in the fighting that erupted, and the police took some 40 people into custody.

The mob also defaced the Armenian Genocide Memorial in the nearby town of Decines-Charpieu, spray painting it with ultranationalist symbols as well as the letters “RTE,” the initials of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The attack on the memorial sparked widespread outrage in Lyon, which was already tense after an armed attack that targeted a Greek Orthodox priest over the weekend.

A ruling party partner in Turkey

Franco-Turkish relations have been strained for a while. The two countries are at odds over conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya. The ties were further strained after the murder of a French teacher for displaying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Erdoğan slammed Emmanuel Macron, his French counterpart, who tackled the controversy as a matter of free speech, calling on him to “check his mental health.” In reaction, France recalled its ambassador to Turkey.

The Grey Wolves are the youth network of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an ally of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The group, which enjoys a well-organized structure in Turkey, is mainly based on Turkish nationalism as their ideology. Kurds and other minorities of the country have occasionally been their target. They reject the notion of Kurdish ethnicity and instead insist that Kurds are ethnically Turks.

Their young members have been involved in sensational assassinations that shook the country, such as Ogün Samast, the convicted murderer of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and Oğuzhan Akdin, who killed Andrea Santoro, a priest at the Santa Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon.

Ever since the MHP became a government partner, the Grey Wolves have increased their dominance in Turkish politics. Their presence in the police and judiciary is particularly visible as the police chiefs of İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir, the country’s largest three cities, make no secret of their affiliation with the group. Mehmet Yılmaz, head of the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), is also a staunch Grey Wolf.

Against the backdrop of the rising power of the Grey Wolves, Erdoğan has been keener to embrace their symbols and discourse. Their hand salute, which is banned in Germany and Austria, has recently increased its popularity in Turkey, and Erdoğan does not shy away from using in it during his rallies.

Intimacy with mafia groups

The Grey Wolves are also known for their links to mafia groups. Alaattin Çakıcı, Turkey’s biggest mob boss, has a history in the organization. Çakıcı, who was serving a prison sentence on a range of charges from drug trafficking to homicide, was released in early 2020 in an amnesty the AKP declared upon intense pressure from its alliance partner, the MHP.

All the networks in Turkey that are engaged in drug trafficking identify themselves as members of the Grey Wolves.

Violent acts in Europe

Europe had its first encounter with the Grey Wolves on May 13, 1981, with the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. Mehmet Ali Ağca, who was captured after the incident, was a young Grey Wolf. Several people who stood trial for their involvement in attacks against prominent Armenians in a number of European cities between 1982 and 1985 were also members of the group. The most famous among them was Abdullah Çatlı.

According to reports prepared and submitted to parliament in the 1990s by then-head of the Prime Ministry Supervisory Board Kutlu Savaş, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) had strong connections to the actions of the Grey Wolves in Europe. The report, which was put under a confidentiality order as a “state secret” and kept from the public until it was leaked in 2008, described in detail the assassinations and bomb attacks in Europe and the role played by the Grey Wolves and MİT in them.

The networks linked to the Grey Wolves have long been under the surveillance of European intelligence agencies. In Germany the group is on the watchlist of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). Their hand salute is outlawed in Germany and Austria. The network in Turkey claims that they have no direct ties to the structures in Europe.

Osmanen Germania, a group in which the Grey Wolves were notably present, was banned in Germany in 2018. The German authorities justified their decision by stating that Osmanen Germania posed a “grave risk” to the right to life, the right to property, the right to liberty and public safety in general.

The Grey Wolves, however, have not been banned in Germany. The decision in France will be a first on the continent.

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