French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin’s decision to disband the Grey Wolves Group (GWG) – “Loups Gris” in French and “Bozkurtlar” in Turkish – on November 4, 2020, was an outcome of a series of provocative actions by the group in France. The French authorities banned the activities of the “particularly aggressive” GWG after it defaced an Armenian memorial near the French city of Lyon with yellow graffiti that included its French name “Loups Gris” and the initials “RTE” as a reference to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
This memorial honors the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government during World War I (1914-1918). The GWG defaced the memorial to demonstrate its support for Erdoğan’s alliance with Azerbaijan against Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The French ban on GWG provides for fines or imprisonment of its members if they undertake any further illegal activities in France, specifically inciting racism, engaging in hate speech and promoting violence against the authorities and Armenian community in France.
Similarly, Austria has also token new, stricter measures against the GWG and also the Muslim Brotherhood. They banned the display of their flags and symbols in public places and other common gatherings and activities, as well as imposing fines of 4,000–10,000 Euros for displaying the banners of the GWG, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah. Also, German political parties, including the Greens, left-wing Die Linke and the far-right Alternative Für Deutschland (AFD), have called for similar measures. Cem Özdemir, the Turkish-German Greens deputy, was among those advocating strong action: “It doesn’t matter whether they’re Turkish or German or anything else, the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves deserve to be banned.”
This study aims at assess the historical and ideological background of the GWG and its support for an exceptionalist, far right version of Turkish nationalism. It also explains how this group has managed to infiltrate European political parties in order to serve its interests and promote its extreme variant of Turkish nationalism and intolerance against minorities in Europe.
Formation and ideology of GWG
The GWG was formed in 1960s as the youth wing of the extreme-right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who proclaimed that their goal was to unite all Turkic peoples in one state. The GWG was named after a Turkish legend according to which a wolf in pre-Islamic times led and saved the endangered Turkish tribes from the Altay Mountains in Central Asia. Colonel Alparslan Turkes, who was an open admirer of the ideas of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, initially led the GWG. Turkes espoused a fanatical pan-Turkish ideology that called for reclaiming large sections of the Soviet Union under the flag of a re-born Turkish empire.
Over time, the GWG became a nationalist terrorist organization and a death squad engaged in the killings of various “objectionable” officials including trade unionists, journalists, and activists from the Kurdish movement and communists. This organization was known for violent action both inside and outside Turkey. For example, during the Labor Day demonstrations in May 1977, the GWG staged a massacre of leftist demonstrators in Istanbul that left 42 people dead and over 200 people injured. Over the years, GWG militants also killed thousands of civilians in Kurdish areas. With around 100 camps across Turkey, the GWG took part in many terror activities aimed primarily against their leftist rivals and the Kurds, which resulted in deaths of approximately 6,000 people in the 1970s alone.
In addition, the GWG has been accused of having carried out violent acts outside Turkey. The group is suspected to have been behind a 2015 bomb attack in Bangkok, which killed 19 and injured 123, after Chinese ethnic Uighur man carrying fake Turkish passports was arrested by the Thai police in connection with the incident. It is alleged that the attack was a response to the Thai government’s decision to deport Uyghur terrorist suspects back to China instead of allowing them to travel to Turkey and receive asylum. In Europe, the GWG has been involved in political killings of Kurds, defiling of Armenian monuments, and attacks on Chinese tourists. In recent years, the group has also been accused of recruiting fighters for the war in Syria.
Known as following a neo-Nazi ideology, the GWG has widely used translations of Nazi texts and formed a Nazi-like credo “The Turkish Race above All Others”. The GWG organization is also notorious for hosting a powerful group of right-wing Turkish mafia members involved in every conceivable business of illegal trafficking. Driven by its extremist, exclusionary and racist ideology, the GWG believes in the supremacy of the Turkish race over all peoples of the world. Hussien Khedr, the Head of the Integration Council in the city of Heidenhausen, Germany (Vorsitzender des Integrationsrates der Gemeinde Hiddenhausen) says that the GWG believes that the Turkish race are the finest and most honored people above all others.
The GWG and the Turkish government
The GWG is an unofficial militant wing of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The MHP, a far right party that promotes an ultranationalist agenda to the point that it is often described as a fascist movement, entered a political alliance with President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the 2018 Turkish general election. In comments to Agence France Press following the attacks on the Armenian memorial near Lyon, Gerald Darmanin, the French Interior Minister, noted the GWG’s perceived closeness to the Turkish President. 
The GWG’s links to the MHP therefore raise concerns over the extent to which its actions are encouraged or at least tolerated at the highest levels in Ankara. Evidence of a pragmatic alliance was seen in the MHP’s campaign in support of the ‘yes’ campaign in the referendum on constitutional reform in Turkey in 2017. Erdoğan’s victory in what was condemned as a flawed vote by international observers significantly enhanced the Turkish Presidency’s powers.
In return for this victory, the MHP and GWG reaped the rewards through preference in the state bureaucracy amid the mass purges that followed the attempted coup of 2016. Members of the group were placed in important positions in the security apparatus and judiciary department and replaced supporters of Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülen movement that was accused of being behind the coup. Ali Ertan Toprak, Chairman of the Kurdish Community of Germany, claims that the GWG has become Erdoğan’s new strategic partner in its quest to expand power and influence in Europe. Toprak warns that the increasing expansion of GWG activities could, if unchecked, create deep rifts in the Turkish community in Germany to the extent that it could jeopardize overall social cohesion and coexistence in in the country.
GWG infiltration in Europe
Europe has always been a core interest of many radical and extremist elements who benefited from the continent’s openness to establish groups and organizations to pursue their ideologies, goals and interests. During the last few decades, these religiously-motivated groups have infiltrated European societies and began to jeopardize national principles based on liberty, tolerance, coexistence and diversity of society. These radical organizations created “legalistic extremism” by infiltrating European institutions through legal ways, dividing multiethnic communities, and creating parallel societies that intensify exclusion rather than inclusion.
In Germany, the GWG followed a very careful strategy in order to escape public attention and work through legal ways. Its ideology relied on joining German political parties like the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in order to be a part of the legislative and constitutional structure of the state. It is estimated that there are now approximately 20,000 GWG members in Germany. The danger is not solely related to the increasing number of GWG members in Germany, but in the number of supporters and sympathizers of this group, particularly “young wolves”, who consider themselves as “God’s Warriors”. As Hussein Khedr argues, the GWG targets the poor and extends help in order to secure votes for parliamentary representation in Germany. Building mosques that are supervised by Turkey, the GWG educators teach those children that they are victims and that their loyalty must be to other countries (such as Turkey). In one study, more than 55 percent of local participants said that Erdoğan represented them.
In Austria, the number of GWG members is about 5,000. Their methodology is based on infiltrating political institutions to obtain legal coverage and therefore escape scrutiny. Despite denying any connection with the GWG, Sebastian Kurz, the Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and Chancellor of the Republic, appreciated the support he is getting from GWG and Turkish voters. However, the price of supporting the Austrian Chancellor was instability and disruption on the streets of Vienna’s “Favoriten” district, which hosts a significant number of Turkish people. The GWG was also accused of attacking a number of Kurdish and Armenian women in Austria.
In the face of Turkish aggression through the GWG, the Austrian government is now enforcing strict laws to tackle the problem. The Austrian national media consider the GWG as a dangerous influence allied to Erdoğan and is demanding the banning of its activities just as done by France. Karl Nehammer, the Austrian Minister of Interior, confirmed that the security entities possess documents incriminating Turkish intelligence agencies, which have used the GWG to ignite the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Austria and threaten national security and stability.
In France, the situation is significantly different, since the French authorities have taken immediate actions to dissolve the GWG and imposed strict punishments and fines on its activities. France is the first European country to confront extreme Turkish nationalist agitation on its land. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has pledged to defend secular values and fight radical Islam. In response to Macron’s comments, President Erdoğan said that Macron needed a mental health check. The factors fueling tensions between Paris and Ankara go beyond the charges against GWG of targeting the Turkish and Armenian communities near Lyon: they also include strong disagreement over regional issues, including the civil war in Libya, disputes over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean region, the Syria civil war, and the escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, it seems that there is no clear vision from European governments for dealing with GWG members, which manifests itself in uncertainty over whether to use the law to challenge their threats and confront their activities among local Turkish communities, or to avoid any confrontation with the organization. In Austria, for instance, it seems that the government is applying a more lenient policy in dealing with the second and third generations of GWG members by ignoring infractions in return for obtaining their electoral support when needed.
The provocations and actions of the GWG in Europe and elsewhere do not reflect any of the true virtues of peace, tolerance and coexistence of Islam. Rather, they intensify Islamophobia, which has become a major issue for the European public and its policy makers. The risk is that the GWG will further incite Muslims and allied extremist groups within France and other European countries with the aim of destabilizing these states.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s initial response to the ban on the GWG was to totally deny the existence of the GWG in France, claiming that Paris was “dealing with an imaginary formation” while also calling on the French government to “protect the freedom of assembly and expression of Turks in France. The Foreign Ministry also accused France of “double standards” and “hypocrisy” because it allowed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and other groups to be active in France while imposing a ban on the activities of the GWG.
The GWG’s activities in France illustrate the potential for militant Turkish nationalism to threaten stability in European countries. This phenomenon represents another facet in the complex relationship between Europe and Turkey, given that Ankara has threatened to use the potential migration of more than three-and-a-half million Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip to wring concessions and aid from the European Union. The French action against the GWG, coupled with intensifying EU-Turkey rivalries over Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons fields and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, suggest that Europe is belatedly realizing that it needs to increase its vigilance and adopt a more realistic policy in its dealings with Ankara.
 Didili, Z. (2020). Ankara vows retaliation after French ban on Turkey’s ‘Grey Wolves’ ultranationalist group. New Europe. https://bit.ly/394IDcw; BBC News (2020). Grey Wolves: Far-right group to be banned in France. BBC News. https://bbc.in/3ftB1S3
 Nussbaum, A. (2020). France to Disband ‘Grey Wolves’ Pro-Turkey Group, Minister Says. Bloomberg. https://bloom.bg/2IPzyK8; DW (2020). France bans Turkish ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves group. DW News. https://bit.ly/3kU6r5l