On November 4, France announced that it would ban the Turkish ultranationalist group known as the Grey Wolves.
This decision came following violent demonstrations in Lyon on October 30 when Turkish nationalists clashed with pro-Armenian nationalists outside the city, flashing the wolf hand symbol of the Grey Wolves. A memorial recognising the Armenian Genocide was also defaced with the letters RTE for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Grey Wolves scrawled across it.
Dr. Yektan Turkyilmaz, a research fellow at the Forum for Transregional Studies in Berlin, Germany, says that the Grey Wolves are by no means a new entity. In fact, it has grown into something of a covert arm of the Turkish state in recent years away from its roots as an ultranationalist youth organization.
“In Turkey we need to go back to the late 1960s and 70s to understand the group,” Turkyilmaz told Ahval in a podcast interview. He described how since its origin as the youth wing of today’s National Movement Party (MHP), the Grey Wolves have been linked to criminal violence across Turkey, primarily against leftist groups during this period.
The relationship with the Turkish government and the Grey Wolves has also been a controversial one. During the 1970s, the government was repeatedly accused of using the group to attack its foes, even after the MHP was temporarily banned following the 1980 military coup. According to Turkyilmaz, this relationship has not ended but evolved.
“Some members have links to Turkish intelligence – that is no secret to anybody,” said Turkyilmaz.
Perhaps the most notable incident was in 1997, following a car crash in Susurluk that killed several Turkish officials including the Grey Wolves’ then second in command. In what soon grew into a national scandal against the “deep state”, the Turkish parliament opened an inquiry that revealed past support for the group from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).
Today the relationship has not ended but evolved. The MHP party under Devlet Bahçeli operates as a partner to the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) and Turkey denies that the Grey Wolves even exist at all.
In some respects, the Grey Wolves appear to have grown into another arm of a well-documented Turkish influence network across Europe. Intelligence agencies across Europe flagged the group as a cause for concern, particularly given its presence at violent rallies involving pro-Turkish demonstrators.
Turkyilmaz explained that a Grey Wolves presence has existed in Europe since at least the 1970s. Now he insists it is being ‘weaponised” against Ankara’s enemies on the continent like supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or the followers of Fethullah Gülen, who Erdoğan holds responsible for the failed coup attempt against him in July 2016.
In some cases, the group is also mobilising its members in Europe towards engaging in political action.
“You see an effort to weaponise not just against enemies, but for political goals,“ said Turkyilmaz. He pointed to pro-Turkey parties in Europe including Denk in The Netherlands and the Turk Federasyon in Germany, which have been linked to Turkish government bodies such as the Diyanet.
Turkyilmaz identified this network of entities as part of an effort by Turkey to build its soft power that began in the 1990s. A shift occurred after Ankara grew more belligerent towards the West following the failed coup and its confrontations with Europe increased such as the ongoing dispute in the eastern Mediterranean.
“Turkish politics are becoming more radicalised, more aggressive, not only in Turkey but abroad too,” said Turkyilmaz.
This Turkish network is not unknown to European governments, but Turkyilmaz believes states are feeling more willing than before to tackle this challenge. He referred to the recent attempt by Turkish intelligence to assassinate Berivan Aslan, a Kurdish-Austrian politician as further proof of its danger to Europe.
Acting against the Grey Wolves has served as something of symbolic act against this threat. Beyond France, Austria banned the salute associated with the group and after Paris outlawed it, politicians across party lines all expressed interest in following suit in Germany.
Turkey has criticised each of these moves as discriminatory, hypocritical and Islamophobic. After the outcry in France following the murder of Samuel Paty and condemnation from Muslim nations for President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks on Islam being “in crisis”, the topic has centered around how Europe can stem radicalisation within its Muslim communities.
Turkyilmaz does not see a “clash of civilisations” that is propagated by Erdogan as well as far-right parties in Europe. He does agree to a degree with some of Macron’s proposals, particularly ending the importation of imams from places like Turkey, but the onus remains on European states to understand their Muslim populations better.
It is his hope that the current moment can be part of a deeper discussion in Europe on how to mend the rift between its states and their Muslim citizens.
“This is a serious and real concern in Europe,” Turkyilmaz said. “European leaders are not only deciding about these groups, they are deciding about themselves and the kind of Europe they want to see.”