In 2002, it seemed as if Turkey's two-decade long struggle against the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK) had ended. It did not. Peace was ephemeral. While the PKK, on October 1, declared yet another cease-fire, it came only after a sustained period of almost daily attacks on Turkish soldiers, civilians, and foreign tourists. On August 27 and 28, for instance, the PKK bombed targets in Istanbul and the resort cities of Antalya and Marmaris, killing three people and wounding more than 100.
What went wrong? Why does the PKK resort to violence? Correcting the problem is essential, not only for Turkish security but also for its relationship with both the United States and European Union.
PKK violence claimed more than 30,000 lives between 1984 and 1999. Six months after Turkish special forces and members of Turkish National Intelligence (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT) captured PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in February 1999, the organization declared a cease-fire, and said it would disband in February 2002. But the PKK did not disappear. It moved its terrorists from Turkey to northern Iraq. Within Turkey and Europe, it simply changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (Kongreya Azadî û Demokrasiya Kurdistan, KADEK) and proclaimed a peaceful agenda.
With quiet in place, the Turkish government launched reforms on the Kurdish issue providing for Kurdish-language broadcasts and education. To satisfy European Union accession rules, the Turkish parliament eliminated capital punishment, sparing Öcalan's life despite overwhelming public desire for his execution. In August 2003, the Turkish government passed an amnesty law, providing the group's members a chance to leave the PKK.
Today, the picture is very different. The PKK, renamed PKK-Kongra-Gel (Kongra Gelê Kurdistanê, Kurdistan People's Congress), has abandoned its cease-fire. During July 2006, PKK bombs and snipers killed twenty-three Turks inside Turkey, and clashes continued after the cease-fire. At other peak periods of PKK violence, Turkish casualty rates have approached those suffered by the U.S. military in Iraq. The PKK has transformed northern Iraq into a safe haven. Perhaps 3,500 PKK members enjoy refuge in northern Iraq; they have established an enclave in Qandil.
PKK attacks have sparked a nationalist backlash in Turkey. First, most Turks blame Washington for renewed PKK violence emanating from northern Iraq. This is the single most important factor damaging the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Second, because the PKK enjoys an extensive support network in Europe, many Turks blame Europe for harboring and enabling anti-Turkish terror. Such a perception has damaged Turkey-European Union ties.
Understanding the PKK
Too many diplomats and journalists accept PKK claims to represent Turkey's Kurds. They do not. To understand the PKK, it is important to understand the characteristics that have defined the group since Öcalan founded it as the National Liberation Army in 1973.
First, it is a cult of personality. PKK members and sympathizers call Öcalan "Apo," the Kurdish word for uncle. Öcalan consciously promotes this cult. "Everyone should take note of the way I live … The way I eat, the way I think, my orders, and even my inactivity should be carefully studied. There will be lessons to be learned from several generations because Apo is a great teacher," he told the Turkish Daily News in 1998. PKK members often refer to themselves as "Apocus" (Apoists), emphasizing Öcalan's central role in shaping the group's identity and destiny.
Second, the PKK holds true to Maoist ideology. In the 1970s, while studying at the prestigious Ankara School of Political Science (Mülkiye), Öcalan grew enamored of the Maoism embraced by many intellectuals at the time. Turkey's Marxist-Leninists he found too soft. He became persuaded that nothing around him was good enough because it was capitalist and imperialist. His politics reflected rural feudal values, rooted in his southeastern Turkey upbringing, and a Maoist obsession with the peasantry, which he developed in Ankara. He dropped out of the Mülkiye in 1978 and founded the PKK. The group "condemned the repressive exploitation of the Kurds" and called for a revolution to overthrow the system in Turkey. The PKK wanted to set up a "democratic and united Kurdistan" in southeastern Turkey to be governed along Marxist-Leninist lines. Since there was no working class in southeastern Turkey at the time―the area's population was split among majority peasants, minority landowners, and a small urban middle class―the fundamental force of the revolution would be a worker-peasant alliance. Under Öcalan's leadership, the peasantry would be the "main force" of the "popular army," providing Öcalan with an expandable manpower supply. Over time, more than 30,000 Kurdish peasants died as a result of this vision.
Third, the PKK seeks to monopolize the Kurdish nationalist struggle. Öcalan tolerated no other Kurdish leftist or nationalist groups operating in eastern Turkey, his area of operation. He branded all his Kurdish rivals fascists and acted to eliminate them. In the late 1970s, the PKK decimated the Revolutionary Unity of the People (Devrimci Halkın Birliği), the Liberation of the People (Halkın Kurtuluşu), and the Revolutionary East Cultural Association (Devrimci Doğu Kültür Derneği, DDKD). Öcalan crushed not only violent groups but also peaceful Kurdish political parties, including Kemal Burkay's Kurdistan Socialist Party (Partîya Sosyalîsta Kurdîstan, PSK), ending the hope of many area Kurds for peaceful political action. He also targeted Kurds who identified with Turkey. In 1979, the PKK rose to national prominence when it assassinated Mehmet Celal Bucak, a well-known conservative Kurdish politician and a wealthy landowner in eastern Turkey. They condemned him as someone who "exploited the peasants." Bucak was the first of many, and the trend continues. On July 6, 2006, PKK members killed Hikmet Fidan, coordinator for the Patriotic Democratic Party (Partîya Welatparêzên Demokratên Kurdistan, PWD), a PKK splinter group based in northern Iraq that promoted nonviolent action for the Kurds.
Fourth, the PKK is dependent upon foreign patrons. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and their Syrian clients underwrote the group. Soviet agents trained PKK cadres in Damascus and Lebanon's Syrian-held Bekaa Valley. The PKK also received help from the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. With the Cold War's collapse, Öcalan infused the Marxist component of PKK rhetoric with greater Kurdish nationalism and an Islamic patina that appealed to more conservative Kurds.
After the Soviet Union's collapse, the PKK turned to Greece and the Kurdish-ruled areas of northern Iraq for safe-haven. The Greek government allowed PKK terrorists to infiltrate the Lavrion refugee camp outside Athens. The PKK has relied on a safe haven in northern Iraq since Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein lost control of the region after the 1991 uprising. Turkish cross-border operations into the safe haven diminished but could not eradicate the PKK presence, which enjoyed the patronage first of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as well as Saddam Hussein, and later—and, at present—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Iran's theocratic regime, diametrically opposed to Turkey's secular system, long saw the PKK as a useful tool to use against Turkey. Tehran allowed the PKK to maintain "about 1,200 of its members at around fifty locations in Iran."
The PKK's New Dynamics
After Abdullah Öcalan's capture, PKK leadership shifted to a coterie of high-level lieutenants based in northern Iraq, the most important of which is Murat Karayılan, the group's new hard-line leader and a likely inheritor of Öcalan's cult of personality. Abdullah Öcalan's brother Osman Öcalan, who lacks a reputation as a fighter and does not have popular backing in the organization, split away from the PKK in August 2004 to form the Patriotic Democratic Party to challenge Karayılan. This initiative, however, has failed, and Osman Öcalan has reconciled with the PKK. Today, Cemil Bayık, the PKK head of military operations, and financial chief Duran Kalkan, join Karayılan to form the ruling troika.
The PKK has adapted to shifts in Turkey's political landscape as well as changes in the Middle East. In the aftermath of Turkish reforms ordered by the European Union, the PKK declared a cease-fire and sought to recast itself as a peaceful group. However, as peace diminished morale among PKK foot soldiers and democratic politics eroded the group's raison d'être, the leadership reverted to violence.
The war in Iraq also enabled the PKK to consolidate its safe haven in northern Iraq. The PKK learned early on that, despite White House rhetoric of a global war on terrorism, neither Iraqi Kurds nor U.S. Central Command had any desire to take action against the PKK. If the KDP and the PUK were to cut the logistical lifelines for the PKK, the group would be hard pressed to survive. But rather than crack down, the PUK and especially KDP leadership see the PKK as a useful bargaining chip with Turkey.
Turkey's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) government has exacerbated matters by misplaying Turkey's hand in Iraq. The AKP's unwillingness to support the U.S. war in Iraq in March 2003 hampered Ankara's ability to shape events in Iraq; instead, Turkey remained on the sidelines and undercut its working relationship with the U.S. military. Gratuitous anti-Americanism from some AKP officials and deputies has rendered Turkish demands regarding U.S. actions in northern Iraq ineffective.
Nor, with the U.S. military considering Iraq its area of operations, could Turkish forces root out PKK terrorists without U.S. compliance. Regardless of who was at fault, the July 4, 2003 incident in which U.S. forces detained and hooded a Turkish Special Forces unit, which Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer accused of illicit presence in Iraq, underscored the issue. The PKK has used its safe haven to organize attacks. Using technologies borrowed from the Iraqi insurgency and a desire to avoid contact with Turkish security forces, the group increasingly utilizes remote-detonated bombs, road mines, and other improvised explosive devices.
Equally as important to the PKK as human capital sheltered in northern Iraq are the financial resources provided by Europe. The European Left has long supported the PKK. The communist government of Italian prime minister Massimo d'Alema welcomed Öcalan to Italy after the Syrian government expelled him in February 1998. When Turkish security forces apprehended Öcalan in Kenya, he was on his way out of the Greek embassy in Nairobi, carrying a Greek Cypriot passport.
The PKK has also put down deep roots inside Europe. Using a network established in the 1990s to smuggle terrorists from Turkey into sympathetic European safe havens, the organization has established a significant presence in criminal activity, trafficking drugs, smuggling illegal immigrants into the EU, and running prostitution rings to raise funds. The PKK benefits significantly from the drug trade. The U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime estimates drug trafficking from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere into Europe to be a US$5 billion per year business. According to one European intelligence analyst, half of this amount goes to the PKK. François Haut, director of the Department for the Study of the Contemporary Criminal Menace in Paris, says that the PKK is responsible for up to 80 percent of narcotics trafficked into the Parisian suburbs.The PKK also appears "responsible for producing and distributing 40 percent of Europe's heroin."
The PKK not only operates criminal rings but also propaganda and fund-raising arms inside Europe. Such front groups take advantage of European freedom and liberalism to operate, including the following:
The PKK increasingly also takes advantage of Turkey's relaxed political environment to complement its military wing with a political front. On October 23, 2005, three former Turkish parliamentary deputies from the Kurdish nationalist Peoples Democracy Party (HADEP) declared the formation of the Democratic Society Movement, since renamed the Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi, DTP). Öcalan was intimately involved in the movement, and Turkish intelligence officers have tracked communications between Öcalan and the deputies. What is more, Öcalan also acknowledged his role in shaping DTP's policies in remarks published in the Kurdish nationalist daily Özgür Politika. The growing prominence of the DTP in Turkey suggests that while previously Kurdish nationalist political parties, such as HADEP, were secondary to the PKK, now the political party is the main body of the organization with the military wing working for its sake.
Does the PKK Matter for Europe and the U.S.?
Many Turks have reacted to the PKK resurgence with anger. The previous PKK terrorist campaign was so violent that almost everyone in Turkey knows someone killed as a result of PKK attacks. Accordingly, the PKK is at least as offensive to the Turks as Al-Qaeda would be to Americans and Europeans.
The Turks find it unacceptable that the PKK functions freely inside Europe. Turkish anger has become palpable. Turkish mobs have attacked both PKK members captured by security forces and DEHAP/DTP sympathizers. On August 23, 2005, for example, a mob sought to lynch PKK members being pursued by security forces near the northern Turkish town of Trabzon. Two weeks later, a mob in Bozüyük in northwestern Turkey accosted a busload of DTP members returning from a failed attempt to visit Öcalan, imprisoned on the Marmara Sea island of Imrali.
The anti-PKK backlash is increasingly anti-Western in tone. European governments long avoided confronting the PKK. Various PKK leaders, including Hıdır Yalçın, Rıza Altun, Zübeyir Aydar, former Kurdish nationalist deputy in the Turkish parliament, and Ali Haydar Kaytan all live in Europe. Many call Belgium home. These PKK activists coordinate fund-raising for the organization, often through extortion, kidnappings, and political campaigns. Only in May 2002 did the EU designate the PKK as a terrorist group, and then only after the group said it had dissolved, changing its name to KADEK. In April 2004, the EU designated Kongra-Gel as a terrorist group. Seven months later, Dutch security forces shut down a PKK training camp in Liempde, arresting twenty-nine people who were, according to Dutch authorities, training to conduct attacks in Turkey. And, on September 5, 2005, the German Interior Ministry shut down E. Xani Presse und Verlags, publisher of the pro-PKK Özgür Politika newspaper although Germany's federal administrative court overturned the decision the following month. On September 19, the German authorities shut down Welat Press Verlag, operator of the Mezopotamia-Nachrichtenagentur news agency (MHA) and the websites of Roj Online. Still, several EU countries continue to tolerate the PKK and its fronts.
The United Kingdom is the European exception. London shows little tolerance for the PKK and its affiliates. On August 14, 2006, for instance, the British parliament added TAK to its list of banned PKK affiliates. The decision was subsequently underlined by the wounding of ten Britons in a TAK attack on Marmaris, a destination popular with British vacationers.
As PKK terrorism causes increasing casualties in Turkey, anti-Europeanism grows and support for EU accession decreases. Frustration over PKK resurgence has poisoned Turkish attitudes towards Washington. Notwithstanding successful U.S.-Turkish intelligence cooperation against the PKK, U.S. reluctance to confront the PKK has exacerbated distrust among Turkey's policymakers, the security elite, and even among long-time allies in the Turkish army, long Washington's most committed partners.
The PKK's latest cease-fire, declared on the day the Turkish prime minister was visiting Washington, is a tactical move meant to alleviate U.S. pressure for a crackdown on the group. It is not enough. Countering if not eradicating the PKK through effective, short-term measures, such as shutting down the group's media and financial arms in Europe and eliminating its leadership in northern Iraq, is in the interest of both the United States and Europe. But as Turkey implements reforms to meet EU criteria, optimism that the PKK might stick to its tactical "cease-fire" is not realistic. Such a hope misunderstands PKK ideology. For the PKK, terrorism remains a tactic, used to compliment the more peaceful rhetoric it directs toward the European public.
 Los Angeles Times, Aug. 26, 2006.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes