Home Decoding The Expression “Deep State”

Decoding The Expression “Deep State”

The term ‘deep state’ has resurfaced again as a subject of debate and discussion amongst the academic circles, policy makers and the media at large. The credit for this can be attributed to the usage of the term, time and again by the US President Donald Trump and his supporters not only during his 2016 election campaign but even after he took over as the country’s 45th President. This article attempts to understand the various nuances of the term deep state and explore its varied meaning.


The subject issue is at a nascent stage and definitely under researched. Scholars and practitioners are still exploring the conceptual technicalities of the term. Though there is diversity of opinion amongst scholars as to what is the precise scientific definition of the term ‘deep state’, but broadly speaking, it refers to organisations such as military, police, bureaucracy, intelligence agencies or any such political groups or apolitical group that works secretly in order to protect particular interests and to rule without being elected.

The genesis of the term is believed to be from the secretive Turkish networks known as “derindevlet”- which literally means ‘deep state’ .This was a group founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with the purpose of undertaking clandestine acts to preserve the prevalent governmental structures. Those who were seen as hostile to the ruler were particularly targeted, like the Kurds, press, communists and other dissenters”[1]

According to historian Ryan Gingeras, the term (derindevlet) "colloquially speaking" refers to `criminal` or `rogue` element that has somehow muscled their way into power".[2] It generally refers to a kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important roles in defining and implementing state policy. He traces its roots to the last days of the Ottoman Empire, where organized criminal gangs in both cities and provinces were useful to the young Turks (the committee of Union and Progress, CUP), the party that dismantled the Empire and declared the Republic of Turkey in 1923.[3]


Robert Worth argues the term “deep state” is "just as apt" for networks in many other states in the region other than Turkey where governments have colluded with: smugglers and jihadis (Syria), jihadi veterans of the Afghanistan war (Yemen), and other criminals working as irregular forces (Egypt, Algeria)[4]

Scholars like Musgrave, believe that the deep state had its origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and for decades ‘deep state’ used to refer to a “permanent national security apparatus that would act as a check on the civilian government.”[5]

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French historian is of the opinion that the autocracies of Syria, Egypt and Yemen crushed the democratic uprisings of the “Arab Revolution’, they did so by turning to the shadowy intelligence agencies and internal security arms of the so called deep state-emulating strategies pioneered in Kemalist Turkey - who has for decades experienced internal dissent, as well as Street Gangs (the Baltaguiyya in Egypt) or Death Squads (the Shabbiha in Syria) to enforce their will. He places the blame for the chaos in Middle-East to the reconstituted deep states, security agencies and autocratic leaders determined to hold on to power at any cost.[6]

The idea that there is a deep state governing behind the scenes is dismissed by some as a conspiracy theory. Michael Barkun, believes that conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and it embodies three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is at it seems, and everything is connected.[7]

The Cambridge Dictionary defines Deep State as the ruling elites from the military, judicial branch, business and media, which has long wielded tremendous power behind the scenes.[8] Body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy is the Oxford dictionary definition of the term.[9].

Such diversity of opinions reflects the disagreement as to what exactly constitutes the deep state, but perhaps one can say that there is one similarity or common ground which reflects in the meaning and varied definitions of this term: primarily that, it is a kind of a parallel government working covertly either for the government or against the government.


The composition of the Deep state is different with regard to different countries. But one common ground perhaps is, the prominent player remains by and large the intelligence agency and the military. Various other actors of the deep state have also been enumerated below in a few countries where deep state is believed to exist. There exist an interface and intermingling amongst and between these so called actors of the Deep State as enumerated below- Figure-1       

                                                          Actors of the Deep State

                                                                 Fig - 1

In Turkey, The so called “Susurluk” affair of 1996 was widely regarded as evidence of the existence of the deep state. It involved a road accident involving high ranking police officer who also headed a special anti-terrorist unit and an underworld don who was also a far-right leader of the grey wolves movement. A considerable evidence of the deep and intricate nexus between state authorities and criminal gangs, including grey wolves was evident in the report which was presented by the investigative committee in April 1997.[10]

American Scholars believe that it is the prevalence of the conspiracy theory that reflects the presence of the deep State in America and this became particularly evident during the 2016 Presidential elections. This term is used in Republican and conservative political messaging. Consistent usage of this term by Trump, in fact, earned him the title ‘conspiracy candidate’. The “Pizza gate Conspiracy theory”[11], “wire-tapping’[12] campaign, “Russian involvement” in the Trump elections,  all these examples perhaps reflect the prevalence and the prominence of the conspiracy theory in the US. Mike Lofgren, a former Republican U.S.Congressional aide believes it’s a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern without reference to the consent of the governed.[13] Professor Jon D. Michaels, argues that the concept's relevance is quite limited in the United States. He states that it is a more useful perspective in the study of developing governments such as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey "where shadowy elites in the military and government ministries have been known to countermand or simply defy democratic directives."[14]


In conclusion, one can only say that the term 'deep state’ has a deeper meaning and a very complex understanding. Though there is no concrete theory on deep state existing in the literature of international politics but studies on the ‘deep state’ will certainly be much of use and relevance in the contemporary political milieu.


Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India.


[1] What Does Deep State Mean? Politics by Dictionary.com


[2]Gingeras, Ryan (Summer 2011). "In the Hunt for the `Sultans of Smack:Dope, Gangsters and the Construction of the Turkish Deep State". Middle East Journal.65 (3): 427. JSTOR 23012173. 

[3] Mathew Wills, The Turkish Origins of the “Deep State” , https://daily.jstor.org/daily-author/mathew-wills/)

[5] Tom Porter, ”Deep State: How a conspiracy theory went from Political Fringe to Mainstream,” Newsweek, Sep12, 2018

[6] Jean-Pierre Filiu, From Deep State to Islamic State /Sciences PO Research, www.sciencespo.fr>recherche>content

[7] A culture of conspiracy: Apocalyptic visions in contemporary America. Michael Barkun, Berkley; University of California Press, pp3-4, 2003

[8] Definition of “deep state” from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)

[10] Bill Park, Turkeys Deep State, Ergenekon and the threat to democratization in the republic, RUSI Oct2008,Vol 153 no 5, pp 54-59

[11]Pizza gate conspiracy theory involved allegations that Hillary Clinton and other prominent democrats held secret meetings in the Washington D.C. Pizza restaurant.

[12] Thomas Greven, Conspiracy theories, deep state of denial, International Politics and Society, May 13, 2017

[13]Eassy: Anatomy of the deep State, Bill Moyers. Com, feb 24, 2014,Retrieved April, 22 2017

[14] Michaels, Jon D., Trump and the "Deep State". Foreign  Affairs. September/October 2017.

In the Figure

  1. Turkeys Deep State, Ergenekon and the threat to democratization in the republic, Bill Park, RUSI Oct2008,Vol 153 no 5, pp54-59
  2. Jean-Pierre Filiu, From Deep State to Islamic State /Sciences PO Research, www.sciencespo.fr>recherche>content
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