Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is currently in New York for the annual UN General Assembly, addressed party members and American Muslims on Sunday at a lackluster event organized by the Turkish-American National Steering Committee (TASC), an organization financed by his government. Among sponsors and contributors to the New York event was a highly controversial, racist group called the Grey Wolves, which is linked to the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
According to information obtained by Nordic Monitor, Erdoğan’s meeting was financed by Turkish state institutions as well as pro-AKP associations located in the United States. As in previous years, pro-Erdoğan businessmen’s associations also provided participant support to the meeting. This year’s sponsors also included fan associations in the US of popular Turkish football clubs. Turkish football fan associations, which generally remain distant from politics since they have supporters from all political parties, could have joined the event after considering the cost of declining.
The Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar, or Ülkü Ocakları in Turkish) is the youth organization of the extremist MHP, Erdoğan’s biggest supporter in Turkey. The organization, which was involved in armed conflicts with leftists in the ’70s and ’80s, claims to have operated as a nongovernmental organization following its reopening after the 1980 coup. However, Ülkü Ocakları often comes to the fore with violence against Kurds, the beating of journalists who criticize the MHP, anti-immigrant rallies and close relations with mafia leaders.
The American branch of the Grey Wolves is an association that has been operating since 1993, headquartered in Clifton, New Jersey. The association, which apparently is not very active, occasionally participates in activities related to Armenian genocide allegations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, publishes statements on religious/national days and spreads propaganda during Turkish elections since Turks living in the US are able to vote there. The Grey Wolves have supporters particularly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, where Turks in the US mainly live. The president of the association is Alper Adil Yiğiter, also the official representative of the MHP in the US. There are a significant number of old posts against Erdoğan and the AKP on the social media accounts of the American Grey Wolves as well as on Yiğiter’s personal accounts. Like his leader Devlet Bahçeli, chairman of MHP, who was a fierce opponent of Erdoğan until 2015, Yiğiter saw Erdoğan as a traitor because of the concessions he made to the Kurds and claimed that the Grey Wolves would end his dreams of introducing a presidential system of governance in Turkey. However, the MHP lent the greatest support for Turkey’s transition to a presidential system during a constitutional referendum in 2017.
Ülkü Ocakları, or the Grey Wolves, which has well-established and influential branches in Europe where a large number of Turks reside, does not have an active branch in the US due to the fact that there are relatively few Turks in the States and because the Turkish government gives more support to Islamist organizations. It is no secret that Erdoğan family members have been closely involved with the activities of American-Turkish Islamist NGOs for long years. However, unlike in previous years, the fact that Ülkü Ocakları was a sponsor of Sunday’s meeting could be a sign that the ruling party wanted to send a strong message to the MHP grass roots that the alliance between the MHP and the AKP still continues amid rumors that it will end before a possible early election in 2022.
Meanwhile, US Congressman Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, proposed an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) submitted on September 13 calling for the designation of the Grey Wolves as a terrorist group. The amendment requires a report by the US secretary of state on the activities of the Grey Wolves organization “undertaken against US interests, allies and international partners,” including a review of the criteria met for designation as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The amendment calls for a determination as to whether the group, the militant wing of Turkey’s far-right MHP, meets the criteria as set forth in section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. If the secretary of state determines that the Grey Wolves do not meet those criteria, the amendment asks for a detailed justification as to which criteria have not been met.
Last May, the European Parliament (EP) voiced concerns about the group, saying it was expanding to worrying levels not only in Turkey but also in EU countries, in its 2019-2020 report prepared by Turkey rapporteur Nacho Sanchez Amor. Underlining that the group is linked to the far-right MHP, the EP also called on EU countries to ban associations affiliated with them and closely monitor their activities since they pose a threat mainly to Kurds, Armenians and people of Greek origin, according to the report.
In 2019 Austria banned the Grey Wolves salute under a law banning symbols of “extremist organizations” in the country to block terrorist propaganda.
The French government in November 2020 banned the activities of the Grey Wolves after a center dedicated to the memory of those who died in the mass killings of Armenians during World War I was defaced with graffiti, including the name of the Grey Wolves, which sparked a furious reaction from Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.