Grey Wolves: Turkish Ultranationalist Paramilitary or Idealist Hearths?


    1.0. Introduction

    The Grey Wolves are an international Turkish ultranationalist paramilitary and pan-Turkic organisation which rose to prominence in the late 1970s (source). Very few in Turkey use the term ‘Grey Wolves’ and prefer to use the term Ulku Ocaklari, which means Idealist Hearths (source)(source). The Grey Wolves is therefore somewhat of a Western term for the group. From 1976 to 1980, more than 500 people died in the Turkish conflict between left-wing groups and nationalists, including the Grey Wolves (source).

    2.0. Origins and History of the Grey Wolves

    Alparslan Turkes founded the Ulku Ocaklari after the country’s military coup in 1960 (source).  Turkes had been a colonel involved in the coup which overthrew Prime Minister Adnan Menderes (source). The group began originally as a cultural and educational movement before becoming the paramilitary wing of Turkey’s MHP political party in the 1970s (source). Throughout the 1970s, the group engaged in physical conflict with leftist groups (source). During the 1980s, authorities jailed many members of the group after the military coup and banned the group (source). However, in 1993 the Turkish government recruited the group to fight against left-wing groups and encourage ‘law and order’ (source).

    The name of the ‘Grey Wolves’ reportedly comes from the Turkish Bozkurt legend in which a mother wolf protects the original Turkish settlers who arrived in Anatolia (source).

    3.0. Grey Wolves’ Ideology

    When they were initially founded, the Grey Wolves were an anti-communist organisation (source). This period was during the Cold War when many Turkish nationalists feared Russia as a great enemy of Turkey. 

    Turkish nationalists, such as the Grey Wolves, reject the idea that the WWI massacre of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Turks constituted genocide (source). Furthermore, the wolves idealise the notion of a ‘Pure Turk’ and adopt the folkloric ideology of Turanism as evidence of Turkic superiority (source). The far-right group would target those who do not identify solely as ‘Turk’. Therefore, victims of violence include prominent minorities such as those from the Kurdish community (source). 

    Another key ideological trait of the Grey Wolves is their protection of Sunni Islam in Turkey. Despite this, the group tends to be primarily secular and mostly functions on nationalist ideals (source). Nowadays, the group mainly recruit from youth groups including university students (source).

    3.1 Motto

    The group’s motto is:

    “Your doctor will be a Turk, and your medicine will be Islam”


    This is to make evidence of the group’s attempt to blend Turkish identity with Islam.

    3.2. Symbols

    The most famous symbol of the organisation is the ‘Bozkurt’ hand gesture. Supporters of the group, along with many Turks, use the hand salute to specify a nationalist sentiment (source).

    Image shows a hand making the bozkurt hand gesture which has the thumb touching the middle and the ring finger.
    The ‘Bozkurt’ hand gesture. Credit to: Wikimedia Commons

    4.0. Violence

    The Grey Wolves have been responsible for many violent acts including:

    • Murder
    • Targeting of left-wing political groups 
    • Targeting of ethnic minorities including Kurds and Armenians 

    The group supposedly received weapons from a variety of actors including the Counter Guerilla (Turkish Gladio), the CIA, and the National Intelligence Organisation of Turkey (source).

    4.1. Maras Massacre 1978

    Between the 19th and 26th of December, a group of fascist militias enacted a series of killings in the city of Maras and villages nearby (source). Members of the Grey Wolves were reportedly the main perpetrators of the massacre. 

    4.2. Attempted Assassination of Pope John Paul II

    In May 1981, Grey Wolves member Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II (source). Agca shot John Paul twice at close range as the pope travelled through Vatican City in an open car (source). Pope John Paul survived the attack but was in critical condition. A court sentenced Mehmet Ali Agca to life in prison for the incident. 

    After the incident, in 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Agca in his prison cell (source). It is still not clear why Agca attempted to kill the religious leader but a 2006 investigation by Italian authorities suggests that Soviet and Bulgarian secret services may have been involved (source).

    4.3. 2015 Turkish-Kurdish Conflict

    Tensions between Kurds and the Turkish state were exacerbated in 2014 when the Turkish military failed to assist the Kurds when the Islamic State took siege over the Kurdish town of Kobani, Syria (source). Kobani is just across the border with Turkey and thus there was an expectation that the Turkish military would take action. After Kurdish fighters managed to defend themselves, President Erdogan of Turkey began military campaigns against Kurds in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish state subsequently used the Grey Wolves organisation to encourage further repression of Kurdish people.

    5.0. Breakaway Groups

    5.1. Osmanli Ocaklari

    The Osmanli Ocaklari are a radical youth group which styles themselves after the Grey Wolves (source). The group emerged in the early 2000s and the name means the ‘Ottoman Hearths’.They are a pro-Erdogan organisation and have attracted attention for mob violence at rallies (source). They adopt slightly more religious rhetoric than the Grey Wolves but still maintain an organisational resemblance (source).

    5.2. Alperen Hearths

    The Alperen Hearths is another ultra-nationalist group based in Turkey. They are linked to the right-wing nationalist Great Union Party (BBP) (source). Similar to the Grey Wolves, the Alperen Hearths display themselves as an educational and cultural organisation. However, they have also incited violence. In 2017, the group threatened attendees at a Pride March in Istanbul.

    5.3. Bosnian Branch of the Grey Wolves

    Huseyin Cakalli founded the Bosnian branch of the Grey Wolves (source). Cakalli started out by forming connections with the main Bosniak nationalist party, the Party of Democratic Action. 

    David Ibsen, the Executive Director of ‘The Counter Extremism Project’, explained that nationalists view the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan wars as a great tragedy (source). This somewhat explains why the group are seeking to consolidate its influence in Bosnia.

    6.0. Prominent Figures

    6.1. Alparslan Türkes

    Alparslan Türkes was the founder of the Grey Wolves and was the leader of the Turkey Nationalist Movement Party from 8 February 1969 until 5 April 1997 (source). Türkes had previously been a member of the Turkish army where authorities court-martialed him for fascist and racist activities. However, authorities dismissed these charges two years later.

    6.2. Sinan Ates

    Sinan Ates was the chairman of the Grey Wolves and is also associated with the Nationalist Movement Party (source). Ates resigned as chairman in April 2020 and went to work at Hacettepe University in Ankara (source). He was also said to be a potential successor to the leadership of the MHP. However, on 30 December 2022, a gunman on a motorcycle shot dead Sinan Ates as he left his office (source). It is still unclear who was behind the killing but a high-ranking member of the Grey Wolves was arrested along with 12 others including a member of the MHP.

    7.1. MHP

    MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) is a far-right party which currently has 50 MPs in Turkey’s parliament (source). Significantly, the MHP has a political alliance with the ruling Party for Justice and Development (AKP). This alliance mainly started due to Erdogan’s stronger nationalist rhetoric and more aggressive foreign policy (source). Furthermore, the MHP supported a ‘Yes’ vote in the 2017 referendum over Erdogan’s executive presidency. This alliance results in a significant tolerance for the Grey Wolves by the Turkish government. Erdogan even made the ‘Grey Wolves’ hand salute at a party rally in 2018 (source). 

    MHP has awarded government positions in security to some members of the Grey Wolves (source). The party use the Grey Wolves as a tool to keep Turkish nationalism alive. 

    During the 1970s, the Grey Wolves operated as the MHP armed branch and still view the MHPs’ current chairman, Devlet Bahçeli as their leader (source). When France banned the Grey Wolves, the MHP claimed that they had nothing to do with the group operating abroad (source).

    MHP Vice President Yasar Yildirim standing alongside Wrestling Association president Seref Eroglu. Both men are holding a flag of Turkey.
    MHP Vice President Yasar Yildirim with Wrestling Association President Seref Eroglu. Credit to: Turkish Wrestling Federation 20217

    7.2. German Christian Democratic Union (CSU)

    The German political party, CSU, have developed a long-lasting liaison with the Grey Wolves because they believe that it will help them secure a foothold in the Turkish community (source). In 2020, the federal minister of the interior, Horst Seehofer from CSU, refused to consider banning the Grey Wolves umbrella organisations (source).

    8.0. International Response to the Grey Wolves

    8.1. France

    France banned the Grey Wolves in November 2020 after accusing the group of ‘extremely violent’ actions and threats (source). One of these accusations included the spraying of an Armenian genocide memorial in Lyon with slogans of the grey wolves (source). Furthermore, French authorities stated that the organisation used hate speech against France’s ethnic Armenians (source). The ban on the organisation means that any activities or meetings by the group could lead to imprisonment or fines. It also includes a ban on the hand salute.

    8.2. Germany

    After France’s banning of the group, some German parliamentarians sought to do the same. In particular, three German Green Party MPs described the groups as “Erdogan’s extended arm” and stated that the members “repeatedly stir up hatred, threaten people and are involved in acts of violence” (source). However, Turks form the largest ethnic minority in Germany and thus it would be much more difficult for German authorities to ban the Grey Wolves.

    8.3. European Union

    The European Parliament has urged EU member countries to declare the Grey Wolves a terrorist organisation (source). Furthermore, a parliament resolution in 2021 described the group as right-wing racists and warned that the group has gained growing influence in Europe (source). The EU accused the group of “threatening people with a Kurdish, Armenian, or Greek background and anything they considered an opponent” (source). The Turkish government met this declaration with dismay and accused the EU of being contradictive, prejudiced and for not allowing freedom of expression.

    8.4. United States

    In September 2021, U.S. Congresswoman Dina Titus introduced an amendment to a National Defense Act which called for designating the Grey Wolves as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (source). Although Congress did not pass the amendment, this move did suggest that the US could take steps to designate the group as such.

    8.5. Russia

    The Pro-Kremlin think-tank, ‘The Russian International Affairs Council, has classified the Grey Wolves as an extremist group operation (source). The council has also determined that the group engages in acts of terror and guerilla warfare.

    9.0. Conclusion

    The Grey Wolves are an ultra-nationalist organisation which was founded on anti-communist ideals but has developed into a group fighting for Turkic superiority and against left-wing groups and minorities. The group are strongly supported by the far-right party MHP and was originally their paramilitary wing. This relationship awards the Grey Wolves support from the Turkish government which has an alliance with MHP. The group have been involved in a series of violent acts throughout the years including the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. They have also inspired a series of breakaway groups. The Grey Wolves have received condemnation from the EU, France, the US and Russia.

    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear Duggan
    Eimear is an intelligence analyst currently pursuing the International Masters programme in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS). Her main areas of interest are Balkan security, European affairs, and extremism.

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