When John Paul II was shot in St. Peter's Square
Turkish spy scandals shed new light on papal murder attempt
By Martin A. Lee
Twenty years ago, on the afternoon of May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was struck by three bullets while being driven in a slow-moving convertible through St. Peter's Square, where 20,000 people had gathered to see the pontiff. Rushed to a hospital, the pope barely survived a six-hour operation. Two bystanders were also injured in the attack.
The would-be assassin, 23-year-old Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca, was immediately apprehended at the scene of the crime. The police found in his pocket several notes scribbled in Turkish, one of which read: "I am killing the pope as a protest against the imperialism of the Soviet Union and the United States and against the genocide that is being carried out in El Salvador and Afghanistan."
Agca's handwritten statement reflected the fanatical "third position" ideology of the Grey Wolves, a violent, neofascist organization that denounced both superpowers while engaging in bloody street battles against left-wing youth in Turkey.
Agca was a member of the Grey Wolves, but he claimed that he acted alone when he tried to kill the pope. In July 1981 he was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison. The court failed to verify reports from several eyewitnesses who said they had seen another dark-haired gunman fleeing from St. Peter's Square moments after the shooting.
A year later, while Agca languished in an Italian jail, stories started to circulate in the Western press alleging that the plot to assassinate John Paul II was hatched by the Soviet KGB and carried out by the Bulgarian secret service. The Soviets, according to this theory, viewed the Polish-born pope as a threat to Communist hegemony in Eastern Europe and wanted him eliminated.
Playing off these news accounts, which were based largely on U.S. intelligence sources, Agca began to weave an elaborate, conspiratorial tale that seemingly endorsed the idea of a "Bulgarian connection" to the papal shooting. Italian magistrates launched an investigation that culminated in the arrest and trial of three Bulgarians and four Turks. But they were all released "for lack of evidence" in 1986 after Agca repeatedly contradicted himself in a Roman courtroom and claimed at one point that he was Jesus Christ.
The so-called Bulgarian connection was further debunked by the testimony of ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1990 that his CIA colleagues, under pressure from agency higher-ups, had skewed their reports to try to lend credence to the notion of a Soviet plot to murder the pope. "The CIA had no evidence linking the KGB to the plot," Goodman asserted.
Although it was never substantiated, the much-publicized Bulgarian connection proved to be one of the more efficacious Reagan-era disinformation schemes, reinforcing the idea of the Soviet Union as an evil empire while deflecting attention from potentially embarrassing ties between U.S. intelligence and right-wing extremists in Turkey.
In the late 1970s, armed bands of Grey Wolves launched a wave of bomb attacks and shootings that killed hundreds of people, including public officials, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, students, and trade unionists. During this period, the Grey Wolves operated with the encouragement and protection of the Counter-Guerrilla Organization, a section of the Turkish Army's Special Warfare Department. Headquartered in the U.S. Military Aid Mission building in Ankara, the Special Warfare Department received funds and training from U.S. advisors to establish paramilitary units that were supposed to engage in acts of sabotage and resistance in the event of a Soviet invasion.
But instead of preparing for foreign enemies, these shadowy paramilitary specialists set their sights on domestic targets, according to retired Turkish army commander Talat Turhan, who has authored three books about Turkish secret service and police ties to right-wing extremists and mafia-style gangs. The Counter-Guerrilla Organization, according to Turhan, supplied weapons to the Grey Wolves, who were responsible for much of the political violence that set the stage for the 1980 coup by the Turkish military.
Agca was part of a network of neofascist gunmen who had close links to Turkish police commanders, intelligence officers, and far-right politicians. Evidence of this sordid sub-rosa alliance came to the fore in dramatic fashion in 1996 when one of Agca's closest associates, Grey Wolf leader Abdullah Catli (pronounced "chutley"), died in a car crash on a remote highway near Susurluk, a hundred miles southwest of Istanbul.
A convicted fugitive wanted for murder and heroin trafficking, Catli was accompanied by his gangster girlfriend and a high-ranking police official, who also died in the car accident. A Kurdish warlord who teamed up with Turkish security forces was the sole survivor of the crash. Questions about what they were all doing together in the same car led to a parliamentary inquiry and a series of stunning revelations about "the deep state" and political corruption in Turkey.
For twenty years, according to a 1998 parliamentary report, Turkish security agencies backed ultra-right-wing death squads and narco-criminal gangs that were involved in bombings, kidnappings, and other terrorist attacks.
Confirming what human rights activists had long suspected, the report concluded that members of the Grey Wolves had participated in a state-sponsored "dirty war" against ethnic Kurds and Turkish dissidents.
This terror campaign was responsible for many of Turkey's 14,000 unsolved murders and disappearances in recent years.
Much of the parliamentary report focused on the ignominious career of Abdullah Catli, Agca's Grey Wolf mentor. A young thug who looked like Turkey's answer to Elvis Presley, Catli graduated from street gang violence to become a brutal enforcer for the Grey Wolves. By 1978 he had emerged as second-in-command of the group. The following year, Catli helped Ali Agca escape from a Turkish jail, where he was serving time for the murder of Abdi Ipeki, a prominent newspaper editor.
Catli proceeded to safe-house Agca and direct his movements through several European countries in the months leading up to the papal shooting. Catli provided him with a passport and other fake ID. Most significantly, it was Catli who gave Agca the pistol that nearly killed the pontiff. Catli admitted supplying the gun to Agca when he testified in September 1985 as a witness at the trial in Rome of three Bulgarians and four Turks who were charged with complicity in the papal death plot. He also testified under oath that the West German BND spy agency had offered him money if he would implicate the Soviet Union and Bulgaria in the attack on the pope.
But Catli said nothing about his role as an undercover agent for the Turkish government. As it turns out, he had been collaborating with the Turkish secret service since the military coup in 1980, despite his status as a fugitive from justice, according to the parliamentary report on the Susurluk crash. In other words, Catli was in cahoots with Turkish intelligence at the time he supplied Agca with the gun used in the papal shooting.
Imagine if the Bulgarian government had released a report showing that the person who gave Ali Agca the papal assassination weapon was then on the payroll of the Bulgarian secret service. The U.S. news media would certainly have been all over the story, touting it as proof of a sinister Bulgarian connection. Substitute Turkey, a staunch U.S. ally, for Bulgaria and the result is a deafening media silence.
In all likelihood, the plot to kill the pope was not backed by a foreign government. Rather, it appears to have been the work of renegade Turkish extremists who operated under the protective umbrella of Turkey's secret service but did not always take their marching orders from Ankara. In American spy talk, it's called "blowback" the unintended consequences of covert activity kept secret from the public. Seen from this perspective, the shooting of Pope John Paul II is a yet another example of the blowback phenomenon.
Last year, in accordance with the wishes of the pope, Agca was pardoned by the Italian government and sent back to his native Turkey. He is presently in jail, serving out the remaining nine years of his sentence for killing Ipeki, the journalist who had been probing government links to Turkish neofascists and crime syndicates.
Some people had hoped Agca's return would lead to further disclosures about criminal activity in Turkey, but parliamentary investigators complain that the military and other security agencies have blocked their inquiry and prevented them from following many important leads. Meanwhile, politicians and security officials implicated in death squad killings and drug-related scandals remain untouched.
Most of the far-right terrorists who stalked Turkey during the past two-and-a-half decades have escaped punishment for their crimes. They have ample reason to cheer the electoral success of the Grey Wolves' parent organization, the National Action Party (known by its Turkish initials, MHP), which recently joined Turkey's national governing coalition. Several Grey Wolves now hold key positions in the party and are serving as MHP representatives from various Turkish cities. A man privately described by U.S. drug enforcement officials as a "well-known heroin chemist" was also elected to parliament in 1999, when the MHP emerged as the second-biggest vote-getter in Turkey.
Devlet Bahceli, the MHP's current leader and Turkey's deputy prime minister, says his party has renounced violence. But many of its members continue to espouse a virulent ethnic nationalist ideology summed up by the slogan: "the Turkish race above all others." Within these circles, Agca and Catli are revered as great patriots who sought to cleanse Turkey of communist influence.
Martin A. Lee (email@example.com) is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, a book on neofascism. His column, Reality Bites, appears here on Mondays.