Back to Square One

by Ali M. Koknar, TRC Terrorism Research Associate

July 4, 2004

In 1984, the year PKK started its open armed struggle against the Turkish government; the total number of terrorist incidents attributable to PKK was 160. Thereafter, the numbers increased in many multiples to hundreds, and in the early 1990s, to thousands of incidents every year, climaxing at around 6,400 incidents in 1994, marking the height of PKK’s campaign against Turkey. Thereafter the number of incidents started to decline rapidly, although the PKK was still attacking Turkish security forces and civilians alike. By the year 1999 when the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested by Turkish authorities, PKK attacks were less than 1,000 yearly, and down to about 500 incidents in 2000, back to the level of terrorist activity in 1985, when the PKK was in its armed propaganda stage.

The so-called “ceasefire” which the PKK declared in August 1999, in an attempt to assist Ocalan during his trial, never really materialized as the statistics bear witness. Between 1999 and 2003, PKK continued to launch offensive operations inside Turkey. While the number of contacts between the terrorists and Turkish security forces dwindled to a couple of hundred a year in this period, the casualty figures illustrate a situation far from a “ceasefire”. In 2001, for example, around 200 contacts were made with the terrorists resulting in over 100 PKK terrorists killed in action (KIA). The Turkish Army was concerned enough about the PKK terrorist regrouping on the Iraqi side of the border to mount a cross-border operation in January 2001 sending a Turkish mechanized infantry division into Iraq. PKK openly admits to losing 500 KIA in the 1999-2003 period in a total of 700 contacts.

One of the reasons for the diminished number of contacts was PKK’s strategic decision to deploy its cadres from Turkey to northern Iraq. Despite the fact that PKK attempted to present this as a gesture of goodwill on their part, the redeployment had started back in 1996, three years before Ocalan’s arrest and the PKK’s so-called “ceasefire”. PKK strength had reached its zenith in 1994, when they fielded around 10,000 armed fulltime terrorists, some 6,500 of them inside Turkey. Thereafter, the PKK started to shift its cadres to northern Iraq, gradually decreasing its numbers inside Turkey all the way down to 1,000, or 25% of its total force by 1999. Which means that after its “ceasefire” declaration, the PKK redeployed only a few hundred cadres from Turkey to Iraq, hardly a major withdrawal as they propagated. During the so-called “ceasefire” period the PKK continued to lay landmines, which were often detonated by civilians. In 2001 alone, there were almost 90 such incidents, which killed five security force members and civilians and maimed 88.

As of summer 2003, PKK took a strategic decision to infiltrate terrorists back into Turkey. In the last year almost 1,500 PKK terrorists are estimated to have joined their 500 comrades inside the country, with some 300 of them crossing the border between April and June of 2004. These terrorists are well armed with some of the ex-Iraqi Army weapons, such as surface to air missiles, which the PKK is reported to have spent close to two million dollars to obtain in northern Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the war in April 2003. On the Iraqi side of the border, the PKK maintains around 5,300 terrorists at their nine bases near Haftanin, Hakurk and Qandil mountain range on both the Iraqi and Iranian side of the border. Incidentally, the PKK is continuing to traverse Iranian territory to infiltrate terrorists into Turkey. In late spring, the Turkish Army deployed an airmobile infantry brigade to the Iranian border region in a massive cordon-and-search operation looking for PKK terrorists from Iran.

In the month of June 2004, following the PKK’s declaration that the “ceasefire” was over, around 45 contacts were made by Turkish security forces with the PKK in eastern and southeastern provinces of Turkey where the majority of the ethnic Kurdish population lives. These contacts resulted in around 30 terrorists KIA for a loss of 18 Turkish security force members KIA and 35 wounded. The bulk of the contacts were in the historically restive province of Tunceli. Syrian border provinces such as Hatay, and Mardin, Iraqi border provinces Sirnak and Hakkari (also bordering Iran), and Iranian border province of Van bore the brunt of the assault. The fact that hinterland provinces such as Siirt, Adiyaman, Bingol, Elazig, Batman, Diyarbakir, Kahramanmaras, and Mus also received their share of ambushes on security forces, bombings, and landmines, is an indication of the PKK’s yearlong effort to infiltrate terrorists into these provinces, hundreds of kilometers away from the Iraqi border. Previously, May 2004 had been the most violent in years, with 12 PKK terrorists KIA against seven security force members KIA and ten wounded in ten contacts. Earlier in the year, Turkish security forces had killed 13 PKK terrorists, while losing three of their own.

Historically, terrorist incidents increase with the coming of spring, as the melting snow and agreeable temperatures in the highlands of the southeast and eastern Turkey make it possible for terrorist movement on the field. Consequently, Turkish security forces have been conducting preemptive operations since March 2004, in the southeastern and eastern provinces.

Until he was arrested and brought to Turkey in 1999, Abdullah Ocalan ruled the PKK with an iron fist. Despite convening its general assembly and electing a leadership team, Ocalan made all decisions no matter how trivial the issues. PKK membership still regards him as the leader although he is now in prison, while most day-to-day decisions were made by the temporary leadership council, composed of his lieutenants Osman Ocalan, Cemil Bayik, Nizamettin Tas, Murat Karayilan, Duran Kalkan and Mustafa Karasu, in the 1999-2002 period. With its political expectations unfulfilled, the PKK attempted Palestinian intifadah-type uprisings (called serhildan in Kurdish–which the PKK attempted once before in the 1992-1993 period) in Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey. As these attempts failed, the organization’s internal dynamics became very volatile, and the leadership council split into hardliners and reformists. Despite the restrictions on his communications it the outside world, it appears that PKK’s incarcerated leader Abdullah Ocalan is still in charge of strategic affairs. The leadership council, which was created after his arrest, did not function as planned, and disintegrated completely in the last two years, leaving experienced PKK terrorist chieftains Cemil Bayik and Murat Karayilan making tactical decisions and contributing to strategic decision as well. Osman Ocalan, Abdullah Ocalan’s younger brother, an original member of the leadership council, was unable to fill his older brother’s shoes and was forced to resign his post by Bayik and Karayilan’s hardliner clique, and to take refuge in Mosul. Karayilan seems to have been the creative mind behind PKK’s decision to rescind the “ceasefire” in June 2004. The Turkish government’s release of four pro-PKK Kurdish politicians, Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan and Selim Sadak, and the planned return of Leyla Zana’s husband, and fellow Kurdish nationalist, Mehdi Zana, from self-imposed exile in Sweden, may be strengthen the reformists’ hand. Meanwhile, from his island jailcell, Abdullah Ocalan is betting on both sides in this power struggle.

As the PKK mounts its offensive, it does not enjoy the support it received in the 1980s and the 1990s from Syria. Similarly, it enjoys less freedom of movement inside Iran. Both countries yielded to pressure from Ankara, albeit, Syria more, Iran less, so, denying open support, if not sanctuary to PKK. Inside Iraq, PKK is also distanced from PUK, once its comrade-in-arms virtually, during that period when Turkey sided with the KDP against PUK and did not hesitate to bomb PUK positions during cross-border operations against the PKK in Northern Iraq. In his new role as Iraqi statesman, PUK chief Jalal Talabani has publicly sided with Turkey against the PKK’s latest offensive. Amid reports that Iraqi Kurdish members of the PKK are leaving the terrorist organization to join KDP’s pashmargas, former KDP official and current Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zabari promised not to allow PKK to remain in Iraq. Yet, the PKK’s support from Europe continues. The organization is estimated to raise close to $20 million in Western Europe, especially in Germany, despite a ban on PKK activity there for the last 10 years.

In view of its weaker military position vis-à-vis the Turkish government, especially when compared to its glory days of the early-to-mid 1990s, the PKK might need to launch spectacular attacks to garner popular support, which is not what it was a decade ago. The seizure of almost 150 pounds of C4 plastic explosives from PKK terrorists, mostly in urban centers by Turkish security forces in the last six months, and the recent assassination attempt against the governor of an eastern Turkish province with a radio-detonated car-bomb, which missed the target but killed three bystanders, are indications that PKK is inclined to launch high profile attacks in order to send a message to its supporters that it retains the capability to hit Turkey where it hurts. PKK had targeted the Turkish tourism industry in the past, planting bombs at favorite tourist spots, and killing and kidnapping foreign tourists in an effort to hurt the Turkish economy, not to mention its history of using female suicide bombers in deadly attacks against security and civilian targets.

If the PKK attacks so far this year are any indication, a projection can be made for the remainder of the year, which would put the level of PKK terrorist violence in Turkey back at the late 1980s levels at around 400 contacts and around combined 200 casualties annually on both sides.


Ali M. Koknar is the owner of AMK Risk Management, a private security consultancy with offices in Washington, DC and Turkey, specializing in counter-terrorism and international organized crime.

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