The Grey Wolves is an international fascist, Turkish nationalist, and pan-Turkic organization and movement which rose to prominence in the late 1970s in Turkey. While the group, which is usually called the Ülkü Ocakları (Idealist Hearths) in Turkish, formally operates as a political and cultural organization, their extremist ideology has also inspired non-members to violent acts. Breakaway groups, including the Osmanlı Ocakları and the Alperen Hearths, have also carried out attacks on groups demonized by the Grey Wolves. In recent years the group’s members and sympathizers have attacked Kurds and Armenians and members of the opposition Democratic Peoples’ Party in Turkey.
Attacks perpetuated by pan-Turkic nationalist extremists are commonly attributed to the Grey Wolves based on their ideological similarity, regardless of whether the individual culprits are affiliated with the organization. While the movement is often referred to as Grey Wolves in western media, in Turkey this name is only used in reference to the 1970s death squads. The name “Grey Wolves” comes from a Turkish Bozkurt legend in which a mother wolf protects the original Turkish settlers who arrived in Anatolia from Central Asia.
Turkish politician Alparslan Türkeş formed the Wolves in 1966, just three years after he founded the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a participant in Turkey’s current (as of July 2021) governing coalition. The Wolves functioned as the MHP’s armed branch in the 1970s, carrying out attacks and assassinations on leftists, journalists, and dissidents. The group is still tied to the MHP, and Grey Wolves members view the political party’s current chairman, Devlet Bahçeli, as the leader of the organization. In 2019, a former president of the Wolves for seven years, Olcay Kilavuz, described Bahçeli as “Leader Devlet Bahçeli, who sees and embraces Idealists as his own children and enlightens our way with his ideas,” adding, “We will not hesitate to be under the command of Devlet Bahçeli, the Leader of the Nationalist-Idealist Movement, as it has been until today.” Kilavuz also claimed that Bahçeli directly appointed him.
From 1976 to 1980 more than 5,000 people died in the Turkish conflict between leftists and nationalists, including the Wolves. In 1981, the Wolves made international headlines when member Mehmet Ali Ağca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
The Wolves were at times linked to the Turkish intelligence agency MIT, and their crimes often went unpunished by the Turkish police. The group has organizations, affiliates, and ideologically aligned movements in Germany, Azerbaijan, and Cyprus.
Throughout the 1970s, the group battled with Turkish communist organizations, and was sometimes referred to by its allies as the Anti-Communist Street Forces. A member of the Adana branch, who was “found guilty of establishing a group to commit crimes, including murder, attempted murder, shooting a house, and throwing explosives,” described his indoctrination as an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. The organization ingrained in him that “since [communists] wanted to divide the homeland, all of them had to be killed.” According to a 2014 study by Turkish academic Meral Cinar, Wolves viewed the leftists as an existential threat, and consequently, moderates also represented a danger since they “were ‘accomplices’ of the enemies but they were hiding this fact.” Wolves also believed that many Turkish leftists were a fifth column, working for foreign organizations and governments.
The Wolves’ support is highest in cities with large Azeri and Turkmen populations, a phenomenon that is explained by their pan-Turkic ethnic nationalism. The founder of the Grey Wolves, Alparslan Türkeş, included “Turkmen, China’s Uighurs, Russia’s Tatars, Azeris, Kazakhs and others” in his definition of the Turkic nation. The Wolves idealize their conception of a “pure Turk” and adopt the folkloric ideology known as Turanism as evidence of Turkic superiority. Turanism involves the belief in superior Turkic peoples with a shared language and culture. Many Turanists support the formation of a Turkic Empire that would encompass former Soviet countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. As such, the party rejects the existence of a Kurdish identity within Turkey. The name “Grey Wolves” comes from the Turkish Bozkurt legend in which a mother wolf protects the original Turkish settlers who arrived in Anatolia from Central Asia.
The Turanist nationalist movement and Alparslan Türkeş himself were greatly influenced by the Turkish nationalist writer Nihat Atsiz, a self-identified racist and “intellectual father of non-Kemalist nationalism.” Kemalism is a political ideology introduced by modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, that sought to modernize the new Turkish Republic through rejection of Islam—viewed as a retrograde and subversive influence—and assimilation of all non-Turk citizens under one homogenous Turkish identity. Atsiz went further, viewing nearly every non-Turkic ethnic group as an inherent enemy of the Turkic people. Atsiz was an important ideologue of the pan-Turkic movement and defined Turkishness based on ethnic terms, rather than the Kemalist version by which assimilation was an acceptable form of Turkishness and ethnic differentiation is considered taboo. Later, Nihat Atsiz split from the Republican Villagers Nation Party when it became the MHP and changed its emblem from the Grey Wolf to the three crescents (which symbolize the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic faith).
Türkeş published a doctrine known as the “Nine Lights Movement,” detailing the ideals of “Technology and Industrialism,” “Nationalism,” “Idealism,” “Moralism,” “Societism,” “Scientism,” “Peasantry,” “Advancement and Technology,” and “Libertarianism and Personalism.” Absent from his doctrine was the principle of Islam, a value system Türkeş would later adopt in 1967 as an essential component of Turkish identity after his first political party, the precursor to MHP, suffered widespread electoral defeat. Türkeş’s shift toward an Islamic, pan-Turkic identity departed from Nihat Atsiz’s insistence that Islam made “Turkishness as an identity…irrelevant.”
Devlet Bahçeli’s Ülkücu
At its inception the Grey Wolves movement was anti-communist, in response to a perceived threat from the Soviet Union against Turkey. However, the 1981 coup led to a crack-down on violent anti-communist groups and the imprisonment of Türkeş. The Grey Wolves doctrine subsequently evolved and, according to Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay, by the 1990s, the Wolves changed from a group that idealized Turks to idealizing “Turkish Muslims.” Following Türkeş’ death in 1997, Devlet Bahçeli briefly pushed for a more centrist political agenda. However the MHP’s electoral alliance with the AKP has emboldened Bahçeli to make greater demands for nationalist, anti-minority policies from the ruling party. For the past 20 years, Bahçeli has pushed the movement to be more conservative, traditional, and religious.
The Grey Wolves organization is decentralized, with chapters and sympathetic movements spread across cities and universities in Turkey and abroad, as well as provincial branches in Turkey. The group has chapters in universities and cities as well as provincial unions, such as the Istanbul Union. The group constantly reformed under new names in the 1970s and exists alongside several breakaway movements, such as the Alperen Hearths and the Ottoman Hearths.
The Grey Wolves are also active in Cyprus, Azerbaijan, and Germany. In Europe, related organizations go by different names. Ties between Azerbaijan’s Wolves and those in Turkey are reportedly largely based on ideological links rather than organizational cooperation. The Cyprus branch, however, is more directly linked. The Cyprus Idealist Hearths (KKTC) organization was led by Fatih Arıcı as of July 2020. In 2016, the president of Turkey’s Grey Wolves visited the Cyprus branch.
The Wolves also operate across Europe. In France, sympathizers and members of the group are not believed to be part of any organized movement. In Germany, the organization had two affiliated branches as of 2019, the Federation of Associations of Turkish Democratic Idealists—also known as the Germany Turkish Federation (ADÜTDF)—and the Turkish-Islamic Union in Europe (ATİB). These groups have hundreds of local associations and umbrella organizations. In 2017, the German public-service television broadcaster ZDF estimated that the groups had 18,000 members. The Turkish Federation was connected to the attempted assassination of the Pope through the relationship between the failed assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca, and Musa Cedar Celebi, the leader of the Federation in 1979 in West Germany. Celebi also had ties to illegal smuggling activities and was previously a customs inspector. He was extradited to Italy in 1983 for allegedly paying Ağca 3 million German marks to kill the Pope. After Hewas’s extradition to Italy in 1983, Ali Batman filled his position.
The Wolves are also closely linked to the MHP, a member of Turkey’s ruling coalition, and acts at times as the street movement or paramilitary organization of the party. Both groups were formed by Alparslan Türkeş. After Türkeş’s arrest in 1980, the Wolves reportedly kept a lower profile, especially abroad. Nevertheless, Wolves refer to current MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli as their own leader, despite having a separate president of the organization. In 2019, Ülkü Ocakları’s former president of seven years, Olcay Kilavuz, described Bahçeli as “Leader Devlet Bahçeli, who sees and embraces Ülkü Ocaklı as his own children and enlightens our way with his ideas. We will not hesitate to be under the command of Devlet Bahçeli, the Leader of the Nationalist-Idealist Movement, as it has been until today.” He also claimed that he was appointed to lead the Grey Wolves indirectly by Bahçeli in 2012. While Kilavuz acted as the President of Ülkü Ocakları he was also an MHP representative.
The Wolves have also been linked to Turkey’s mafia, illicit drug trade, and state security and intelligence forces (MIT). The group was most directly linked to state security forces at the height of its violent acts in the late 1970s, when the organization received weapons from the Counter-Guerrilla Organization. Allegations that the Wolves function as a paramilitary organization are bolstered by Grey Wolf, mafia ringleader, and assassin Alaattin Çakıcı’s employment with Turkish intelligence and connections to state officials. A former Turkish intelligence officer claimed that he “served in Paris for 4 years, and … acted against Armenian terrorism with Çakıcı at that time.” He said that the MIT used Çakıcı for operations in Europe and Lebanon. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s insistence on releasing individuals such as Çakıcı from prison reflects the seeming impunity of these persons. On May 12, 2018, Bahçeli tweeted that the Grey Wolf assassins Çakıcı and Kürşat Yılmaz were “brothers who love their nation and country,” and suggested that they should be released from prison. Çakıcı threatened six journalists from prison, claiming, “They will be punished by the people who love me in Turkey or abroad.” Journalists report that Çakıcı is a member of the Turkish mafia and continues to wield power from inside his jail cell.
A 1998 report from the Turkish parliament explicitly revealed the Wolves’ connections to the Turkish security forces. The report cited a senior member of the organization’s connection to “organized crime, heroin smuggling, and political assassinations carried out in collaboration with the Turkish security forces.”
The Abdullah Çatlı scandal offered further evidence of collusion between the Grey Wolves and Turkish security forces. Çatlı served as the organization’s deputy leader in Turkey in 1978 but later went undercover when he was linked to the murder of seven trade unionists. Çatlı also helped Ağca escape from prison in Turkey. In November 1996 Çatlı was killed in a car accident while wanted for heroin trafficking and murder. A 1998 report from the Turkish parliament revealed Çatlı’s connection to “organized crime, heroin smuggling, and political assassinations carried out in collaboration with the Turkish security forces.” Çatlı was employed by the Turkish secret police on multiple occasions and became involved in anti-Kurdish operations.
The following list details some of the known ties Grey Wolves leaders and members have had with mainstream political parties, security services, and criminal organizations:
- Devlet Bahçeli: Leader of the Grey Wolves and the MHP.
- Ahmet Yiğit Yıldırım: President of the Grey Wolves.
- Mehmet Ali Ağca: Attempted assassin of Pope John Paul II. Ağca denied his involvement with the Grey Wolves but was known to have been a member.
- Musa Cedar Celebi: Leader of the Grey Wolves / Turkish Federation in 1979 in West Germany. He allegedly had ties to smuggling activities and was previously a customs inspector. Celebi was extradited to Italy for allegedly paying Ağca 3 million German marks to assassinate the Pope.
- Ali Batman: Replaced Celebi as the leader of the Turkish Federation in West Germany in 1983.
- Alaattin Çakıcı: Çakıcı was arrested after the Turkish military coup in 1980 for the murder of 41 leftists. A former Turkish intelligence officer claimed that he “served in Paris for 4 years, and that they acted against Armenian terrorism with Çakıcı at that time.” He said that the MIT used Çakıcı for operations in Europe and Lebanon. On May 12, 2018, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli tweeted that Çakıcı and Kürşat Yılmaz were “brothers who love their nation and country” and suggested that they should be released from prison. Çakıcı threatened six journalists from prison, claiming, “They will be punished by the people who love me in Turkey or abroad.” Journalists report that Çakıcı is a member of the Turkish mafia and continues to wield power from his prison cell.
- Olcay Kilavuz: President of the Grey Wolves from 2012 to 2019. In January 2019, he stepped down from the position after seven years as the president. He is also a member of MHP.
- Abdullah Çatlı: Çatlı served the deputy leader of the organization in Turkey in 1978 but later went undercover when he was linked to the murder of seven trade unionists. Çatlı had also aided Mehmet Ali Ağca, who went on to shoot the Pope, in his escape from Turkish prison. In November 1996 Çatlı was killed in a car accident. Items found in his car revealed that he was a hired hitman involved in a national conspiracy. Çatlı was wanted at the time for heroin trafficking and murder. A 1998 report from Turkish parliament revealed Çatlı’s connection to “organized crime, heroin smuggling, and political assassinations carried out in collaboration with the Turkish security forces.” Çatlı was employed by the Turkish secret police on multiple occasions and became involved in “anti-Kurdish” operations.
There is little open-source information about the Wolves’ financing networks. The organization has been funded in the past in part by member dues, which were $4 a month in 1983. The Wolves have also been linked to illicit activities and organizations in the 1980s and 1990s such as heroin smuggling, weapons smuggling, and the Turkish mafia, with smuggling primarily focused in Bulgaria and West Germany. In the 1970s, the organization was given weapons by the Turkish Counter-Guerrilla Organization.
As of 1983, the group was “said to number about 18,000 in Europe, serve as the enforcement arm of the so-called Turkish Federation, [as part of] an amalgam of about 100 Turkish right-wing groups with 50,000 members.” In 2017, the German Federal Agency for Civic Education stated that the Wolves had “outgrown the neo-Nazis as the largest far-right group” in Germany. While exact numbers of membership in Turkey are unknown, the organization has chapters in most cities in Turkey, including predominantly Kurdish areas. Increasing nationalist fervor across Turkey may indicate a greater potential for recruitment in the coming years. In the 1970s, the group created commando camps and recruited retired soldiers and others for them.
Wolves have also engaged in recruitment for armed militias in Cyprus, Iraq, and Syria. In 1974, the Ülkü Ocakları Headquarters recruited volunteers for the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. In 2017, Devlet Bahçeli said that there were “5,000 idealist volunteers” prepared to fight in “Turkish cities where Turkmen live, especially [the Iraqi city of] Kirkuk.”
In 1968, the Wolves began founding paramilitary “commando” camps in several provinces across Turkey and in Cyprus to train members in combat. In 1983, the Washington Post claimed the Grey Wolves received “rigorous training in civil warfare.” Former West Germany Grey Wolves leader Ali Batman reportedly received training from a guerilla camp “where he learned shooting and bomb making.” The group began founding “commando camps” in 1968. A report prepared by the Turkish Interior Ministry’s Security Department, found that there were 28 “commando camps” in total.
Former MHP Mardin Deputy Rifat Baykal allegedly opened a commando camp in Gumuldur Akrepkaya region in Izmir. A 100-member camp run by retired soldiers was created along the Ankara-Eskisehir highway by MHP board member Dundar Taser. The Silivri province camp in Istanbul was founded by Mustafa Ok and was later visited by Ülkü Ocakları founder Alparslan Türkeş. In 1969, Ruhi Unal founded a 350 member camp in Yumurtalik, Adana province. In 1970 a secondary camp was created in Adana province, under the name “the Southern Region Commando Camp.” The camp attracted 80 participants at first, armed with at least 17 rifles. In 1970 Alparslan Türkeş ordered the establishment of a training camp in Bursa’s Mudanya province and the camp was constructed by MHP board member Kamil Koc and the MHP Bursa City Organization.
Also Known As:
- Bozkurtlar (Grey Wolves)
- Ülkü Ocakları (Idealist Hearths)
- Idealist Youth
- Anti-Communist Street Forces
- Ülkü Ocakları Eğitim ve Kültür Vakfı
- Büyük Ülkü Derneği (BÜD)
- Boz Gourde