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Grey Wolves

Insurgency Overview

Formed in 1968 as a paramilitary wing of the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Grey Wolves are a fascist grassroots organization that continues to promote far-right political and cultural values (9). Under the leadership of Colonel Alparslan Türkes, the youth-group quickly became a key weapon against left-wing militants during the political unrest of the 1970s (15). The group is well-known for their denial of the Armenian Genocide and their anti-Kurdish rhetoric. In order to finance their political and military operations, the Grey Wolves engage in the drug trade, as well as both human and weapons trafficking (2). After the fall of the Soviet Union, the group expanded to the newly independent states in Eastern Europe as well as Central Asia, and established chapters in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, China and Syria (16). Aside from their involvement with the MHP, the Grey Wolves have documented ties to both the CIA and NATO’s former anti-communist organization Operation Gladio (11).

History & Foundations

Started by Colonel Aparslan Türkes in the late 1960s, the group was designed to act as an armed extension of the MHP and engaged in political violence that targeted leftists across Turkey (15). The group would then go on to open over a hundred training and education camps that focused on preparing the youth for their role in fighting for the MHP (3). During the social unrest in the late 1970s, the group became the first line of defense against leftist political dissidents, and engaged in street warfare in an attempt to push them out of the region (15). It is believed that Grey Wolves members accounted for almost 700 murders of left-wing and progressive activists during this time period (6). The most significant example of the violence employed by the group is the Maraş Massacre, which saw the killing of over 100 Alevis, a regional Islamic group from central Turkey (14). While it has never been formally proven, the Grey Wolves are also alleged to be behind the 1977 Taksim Square Massacre that resulted in over 40 deaths.

During this period of extensive violence, the group operated with the support and protection of the Turkish Army’s Special Warfare Department (21). With the Turkish military behind them, the Grey Wolves began acting as a de facto death-squad that was able to operate without legal constraints or oversight. By the 1980s, the warring between left wing groups and the Grey Wolves had become too intense, and as a result the Turkish military intervened and eventually oversaw a coup d'état (22). Following the military takeover, the Grey Wolves were banned in Turkey, and remained underground until their resurgence a decade later.

After years of inaction, the Grey Wolves reemerged with a focus on Turkish Kurds and Armenians, taking a particularly strong position against both ethnic minorities. As a result of their anti-Kurdish belief system, the Grey Wolves were a major part of the Kurdish-Turkish Conflict of the 1990s. This conflict was the result of Kurdish nationalists attempting to declare independence from Turkey and create a separate Kurdish state (18). The Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) led the fight for the Kurds, and was the primary combatant against the Grey Wolves. Because of the PKK’s tendency to recruit members through local universities, the Grey Wolves began attacking college students and leftist organizers around college campuses. Aside from the PKK, the group also heavily targets ethnic Armenians and are strong advocates for Armenian genocide denial (19). Today, the group continues to have an active role on college campuses and have managed to spread into Asia and Western Europe.

Objectives & Ideology

The Grey Wolves are a pan-Turkish political and paramilitary group that believe all Turkic nations should unite as one. This includes the people of the Russian region of Kazan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey (12). They seek to do this through spreading political messaging in these regions and abroad, as they look to influence the social and political landscapes of the areas they are present in (1). They also act as the de facto armed wing of the MHP, and often employ violence in the fight for their beliefs. Apart from being a far-right, fascist organization, the Grey Wolves support a particular brand of Turkish ultranationalism, with a unique Islamic flavor that plays a major role in their belief systems and politics. Despite being a primarily Sunni Muslim group, some members shirk the religious identity and take a more secular approach to chauvinism (12). They believe that the Turkish race is superior to all others, and believe in the need for an ideal Turkish nation built upon Sunni Islam and monoethnicity (17). The group remains committed to their anti-communist beliefs, and advocates against Western ideals.

Political & Military Capabilities

Because of their unique relationship to the Turkish government and particularly the MHP, the Grey Wolves have enjoyed considerable political power. As the MHP’s unofficial militant wing, the Grey Wolves have worked in tandem with the CIA and NATO as enforcers of the latter’s former anti-communist plan, Operation Gladio (11). After President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2018, the Grey Wolves and MHP created a working alliance with the AKP which allowed the group to operate unobstructed from legal restraints in the country (11). As a result of this alliance, Grey Wolves members were placed in high positions within the security apparatus, which granted the group even greater political power (11). With members inside the highest levels of the Turkish government, the group also became a tool for the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to commit clandestine political murders with immunity (13).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Grey Wolves began forming chapters around Eurasia, which have tremendously increased the influence they have on global politics. The group focuses on areas that have large populations of ethnic Turks, most notably France, Germany, China and Syria (16). Despite being banned in many of these countries, they have still been able to operate undercover in an effort to continue infiltrating the international political sphere. The Grey Wolves have been responsible for multiple bombings and attacks abroad, most notably the bombing of a French Armenian Genocide memorial in 1984, and their involvement in the violence against Greek Cypriots in 1996. It was also revealed that the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II, Mehmet Ali Ağca, was a Grey Wolves member that was involved in other acts of political violence in support of the group (10). Despite having been legally limited in their military and political capabilities internationally, the Grey Wolves have repeatedly demonstrated the considerable power that they still manage to wield.

Approach to Resistance

With their unique position in both the Turkish government and police force, the Grey Wolves have taken a dual edged strategy aimed at spreading their message. Employing violence and political prowess, the group has been somewhat successful at exerting control both at home and throughout Eurasia. A common theme in the group’s violence is their use of bombings in order to create fear and to advance their own belief systems of anti-Armenian and anti-Kurdish sentiment. The group relies heavily on Turkic ultra-nationalism in order to garner strong support for their cause (4). In the regions they are present in, the Grey Wolves are also known for organizing civil demonstrations, such as protesting the creation of Armenian Genocide memorials and staging large prayer groups at the Hagia Sofia in protest of the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (7).

International Alliances

One of the primary ways that the Grey Wolves have been able to withstand repeatedly being banned is through their ability to cooperate with similarly minded groups across the globe. While the group has a close relationship with the Turkish governing body, they have also made tremendous inroads at partnering with political groups in Russia, Syria Greece and other Western European countries (16). Relying on their shared Muslim identity, the group has allied with the pro-Chechen group, the Great Unity Party, where they have worked together to organize events at mosques (8). Certain Syrian rebel groups such as the Syrian Turkmen Assembly have welcomed Grey Wolves members onto the front lines and received direct funding from the group in order to continue to fight against the Syrian government (5). As Azerbaijanis are considered members of the Turkic ethnic group, the Grey Wolves started an organization in the country under the same name. The group has participated in coup attempts and other forms of political violence within the country (20). Despite legal constraints that prevent the Grey Wolves from actively participating in much of the EU, they have still managed to cultivate a strong presence in the region through their partnerships with like minded groups.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Al Ghazali, F. (2020, November 25). The grey wolves: Erdoğan's Extremist Arm in Europe. TRENDS Research and Advisory. Retrieved from

(2) - Atkins, S. E. (2004). Encyclopedia of modern worldwide extremists and extremist groups. Google Books. Retrieved from

(3) - Ersozoglu, E. (2021, September 28). Grey Wolves: Turkey's Shadow Network facing backlash in Europe. Grey Dynamics. Retrieved from

(4) - The grey wolves: A marriage of ethnic religious extremism. (2021, March 15). Retrieved from

(5) - Heller, S., & Grimaldi, S. G. (2016, January 21). A cause for all Turks: Turkey and Syria's turkmen rebels. War on the Rocks. Retrieved from

(6) - Idiz, S. (n.d.). Turkey's ultra-nationalists playing with fire. Al-Monitor. Retrieved from

(7) - Ioannou, T. (2017, December 11). Turkish nationalist group invaded i̇stanbul's Hagia Sophia Church to pray (video). Retrieved from

(8) - Isingor, A. (2000, September 6). Istanbul: Gateway to a holy war. Retrieved from

(9) - Jenkins, G. (2008, May 26). Political Islam in Turkey. Google Books. Retrieved from

(10) - Lee, M. A. (1997, March 1). Les Liaisons Dangereuses de la Police turque. Le Monde diplomatique. Retrieved from

(11) - Lee, M. A. (1998, April 12). Turkish dirty war revealed, but papal shooting still obscured. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

(12) - MacDonald, A. (2020). Who are the Grey Wolves and Why is France Banning Them? Middle East Eye. Retrieved from

(13) - Machete attacks raise fears over widespread violence. TodaysZaman. (2013, July 14). Retrieved from

(14) - Martin, G. (2011). The Sage Encyclopedia of Terrorism, Second Edition. Google Books. Retrieved from

(15) - Martin, G. (2019, January 16). Terrorism: An international perspective. Google Books. Retrieved from

(16) - Martin, G., & Prager, F. (2019, January 16). Terrorism: An International Perspective. Google Books. Retrieved from

(17) - Peters, L. S. (2010). The big world experiment: the mobilization of social capital in migrant communities. Retrieved from

(18) - Pike, J. (2004, May 21). Kongra-Gel. Retrieved from

(19) - Sloan, S., & Anderson, S. k. (2009, August 3). Historical Dictionary of Terrorism. Google Books. Retrieved from

(20) - Smith, A. (2022, February 9). Turkey's Grey Wolves organization – an arm of president Erdoğan's governing coalition – fights in Syria, Azerbaijan, praises Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev, runs branches in U.S., Europe. MEMRI. Retrieved from

(21) - Staff, A. (2008, August 19). Turkish Secret Service paid Grey Wolves for assassinations. Retrieved from

(22) - Zaman, A. (1999, April 20). Turkey's Gray Wolves Nip at Heels of Power. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Additional Resources


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