A shadowy Turkish ultra-nationalist group is under increasing scrutiny in Europe after French officials banned them for violent actions and inciting hate speech in November.
The Grey Wolves have been operating inside Turkey for decades and have been accused of politically motivated violence mainly against left-wing leaders, ethnic Kurds and Turkey’s Alevi sectarian minority.
But there are signs the group is increasing its operations abroad.
In late October, French police in Decines-Charpieu near Lyon reported four people were injured in violent clashes between Turkish nationalists and Armenians protesting Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Armenians have long said that mass killings of their ancestors in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 should be recognized as a genocide, which Turkey rejects. In November, an Armenian genocide memorial outside Lyon was defaced with yellow graffiti.
French Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin later announced via Twitter that the group had been banned in France, saying it “incites discrimination and hatred and is implicated in violent actions.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately responded, calling the move “disgraceful,” without actually acknowledging that the Grey Wolves existed.
France’s ban comes as Turkish officials in recent weeks have strongly criticized the French government’s handling of Islamist extremism, with tensions leading to verbal insults between French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Responding to the ban, the Turkish Foreign Ministry accused the French government of overreacting.
"As a matter of fact, it is known that there is no such movement called Grey Wolves," the Ministry said, while also denouncing France’s ban of the wolf salute — a hand gesture symbolizing a wolf that is often used by the group’s members.
The statement said such symbols were widely used in many countries without being designated illegal.
In March 2019, Austria also banned the wolf salute in the same list of signs belonging to organizations as the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Hamas.
Grey Wolves in Turkey
The Grey Wolves is an informal name of the ultra-nationalist organization called Ülkü Ocakları (Idealist Hearths). As a political movement, it is mostly referred to as Ülkücü Hareket or the Idealist Movement.
In 1968, Idealist Hearths was founded as the militant youth wing of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), currently a political ally of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Over the years, the group was reportedly involved in politically motivated violence in Turkey, mainly against leftist political leaders and ethnic and religious minorities.
On November 30, the Turkish daily Haberturk quoted an anonymous MHP source who denied reports that Idealist Hearths was operating outside of Turkey. However, “Turkish Federation is important for us abroad,” the source said.
Turkish Federation is an umbrella organization of several Turkish diaspora groups affiliated with MHP. While the group is often seen as an extension of the Grey Wolves abroad, its members deny such accusations.
“Today, there is no such organization, and the wolf salute is a symbol that everyone uses,” Orhan Ilhan, head of the France Turkish Federation, told VOA.
However, according to Kemal Can, a columnist for Istanbul-based online news website Gazete Duvar and an author on the MHP’s history, Turkish nationalists sympathetic to the Grey Wolves remain active in Europe under different organizations.
"The absence of an official organization named the Grey Wolves in Europe does not mean that there is no political movement that calls itself the Grey Wolves," Can told VOA, referring to the Turkish Federation.
EU terror designation
Following the ban by French authorities, officials from other European countries have asked for similar actions as part of a widening campaign against extremist organizations.
On November 10, four Italian members of the European Parliament from the far-right Identity and Democracy group proposed to include the Grey Wolves on the European Union terrorist list, saying the organization has links to Turkish far-right and radical Islam, and some of its members have engaged in destabilizing measures and sedition on European soil.”
On November 18, the German Bundestag adopted a motion that urged the government to outlaw the group’s affiliates, prevent its online agitation and monitor its activities.
“Now is the turn of the Grey Wolves, which has links with far-right extremism and organized crime,” Cem Ozdemir, a lawmaker with the opposition Greens, told VOA. “We cannot interfere in how they organize in Turkey, but here, we have the opportunity to stop their operations against people who are living in peace together.”
In its 2019 report, Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution estimated that 11,000 people are affiliated with the Idealist movement in Germany. It said the movement in Germany is mainly represented by the two umbrella organizations — the Federation of Associations of Turkish Democratic Idealists, known as Germany Turkish Federation (ADÜTDF), and Turkish-Islamic Union in Europe (ATİB).
Kemal Bozay, a Düsseldorf-based professor at the IUBH University of Applied Sciences, charges that the move from the German Parliament came in response to increased right-wing polarization among the Turkish diaspora.
“As the political climate in Turkey escalates more, and the AKP-MHP coalition increasingly disseminates anti-Kurdish, anti-Alevi and anti-European sentiments, these tensions in Turkey reflect in the society in Germany through the Idealist movement's affiliates and the AKP's affiliates,” Bozay told VOA.
Ismail Kupeli, a doctoral researcher at the University of Cologne, stressed that despite mounting pressure on the Grey Wolves, the German Parliament’s motion remains symbolic, with no indication that the German government will take a similar action against the group.
“It looks like a signal, a kind of solidarity with France, but it doesn't have a real impact for now,” Kupeli told VOA.
VOA Turkish Service's Cem Dalaman in Berlin and Arzu Cakir in Paris contributed to this report.