PKK Repeating Itself: Not Part-Time Guerilla But Full-Time Terrorist Organization – Analysis


By Suleyman Ozeren

The PKK terrorist organization has intensified its attacks in recent months. The organization has been benefiting from instability in the region emanating from the Syria crisis. In some parts of northern Syria, where the Kurdish population represents the majority, the PKK-affiliated PYD quickly organized itself. The PKK has enjoyed long-time support from the Kurdish population, especially in the Afrin and Koban provinces. But clearly, the Assad regime opened avenues for the PKK to distract Turkish authorities from the Syria crisis.

Iran has claimed to wage a war against PJAK, a PKK-affiliated group in its territory. But the recent attacks by the PKK in Şemdinli have proven that Iran has started to work with the PKK.

The current PKK flag used since 2005
The current PKK flag used since 2005

These two recent developments show that the PKK has once again become an instrument of “incentive operations” for Syria and Iran. Nevertheless, the Syria crisis provided the PKK an ample opportunity, which is not limited to engaging in new terrorist attacks. When the Assad regime faced resistance from opposition groups, namely the Free Syria Army, Assad started to use the PKK card and opened safe-havens and provided camps and logistics. More importantly, by being silent to bold attempts to create self-governing regions by the PYD, the Assad regime provided a playground for the PKK to enjoy wide areas of operation. These areas were quickly filled in by the members of the PKK terrorist organization.

Any change in the ideology of the PKK?

The PKK terrorist organization was established by Abdullah Öcalan and a group of his friends who adopted Marxist-Leninist ideology in 1978. In those years, the Marxist-Leninist worldview had begun to attract great attention from the youth movements in Turkey. In that period, many terrorist organizations that adopted Marxist-Leninist ideology were established.

The separatist organization has defined all its elements such as goals, strategy, etc. according to Marxist-Leninist literature. The group stated in its period of establishment that the regime to be adopted by the “Independent Unified Kurdistan” is to be founded on a “people’s war,” which would be a socialist order.

In the current situation, it is observed that the fundamental ideology of the PKK terrorist organization is Kurdish nationalism and that its discourse is still shaped around Marxist/Leninist literature to a great extent.

Before the 2000s, the PKK terrorist organization had the establishment of an Independent Unified Kurdistan as its primary aim and announced its primary struggle strategy to be “Long-Term People’s War,” which depended on rural segments and was expected to be concluded through urban revolts. Its organizational model is based on party, front, and army organizations.

When leader of the PKK Öcalan was captured, the organization resorted to a reduction of views and announced a new aim, which is a “constitutional citizenship based on a democratic republic” and put forth those activities called “civil disobedience” as the primary struggle method.

Nevertheless, the separatist organization has now set “democratic autonomy” as its aim and has developed a discourse that is “in case not realized through legal means, this aim will be realized through a revolutionary people’s war which will be extremely bloody.” While threatening the government and public opinion with a “revolutionary people’s war,” the terrorist instigator also continues to give directions to the leadership cadres and partisans of the separatist organization so as to set the ground for a “revolutionary people’s war.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK has enjoyed recruiting many individuals who complained about policies toward the southeastern part of Anatolia. Harsher counterterrorism policies then pushed people away from mainstream into the hands of the PKK. But the last decade witnessed significant change in government policies toward not only the southeastern part of Anatolia but also the Kurdish issue. Along with billions of dollars of investment, legislation has been amended to widen fundamental rights and freedoms.

The region has enjoyed positive discrimination in terms of economic investment as well as incentives for the business sector. In short, for the last decade the government dedicated tremendous effort to improve life quality in the east and southeastern parts of Turkey.

The PKK has reacted to these policies in different ways. While the organization modified its organizational structure, ideological expressions, and labels, it has never changed its methodology, which is the use of indiscriminate violence. On the one hand the organization extensively used the words democracy and peace, on the other hand it continued to use violence toward those who were critical of the PKK. Even some of the intellectuals in Turkey miscalculated the recent modification of the PKK. To these intellectuals, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) was not a continuum of the PKK and the KCK was an attempt to disarm the latter, which was not the case. The recent attacks and developments have shown that the KCK was rather a tactical change which was a reaction to the developments in Turkey and in the world. Especially in the post- 9/11 era, out of fashion ways and discourse were no longer welcomed by the international community, so the PKK has modified itself in such a way that it is able to enjoy its flexible presence in Europe. Second, the level of democratization in Turkey forced the PKK to change the language it had been using to fit in the changing environment. The organization gained some degree of success in creating confusion in people’s minds. But things changed after the PKK increased its terrorist attacks, which have targeted military, police, and civilians.

Also in recent weeks, two major incidents have captured national attention in Turkey. The first incident was a planned attack against the Şemdinli district of Hakkari. The attack in principal was aimed at capturing the district to show the world that “the PKK has been for a guerilla war against Turkish forces.”

PKK’s own version of a Kurdish spring!

Moreover, this attack was to distract the world’s attention from Syria to Turkey. In a way, the PKK tried to create its own version of a “Kurdish spring” within the borders of Turkey. In short, it attempted to seize a moment created as a result of the Syria crisis.

But there are several points which disqualify any allegation that PKK is creating a so-called Kurdish spring. In the Arab world, the opposition groups represent the oppressed people who have been struggling against the totalitarian regimes. These regimes have killed thousands of civilians to stop the movements that were trying to overthrow the current anti-democratic rulers.

On the contrary, the PKK itself became a group just like these regimes because it has been trying to establish control over its base population. This situation has intensified through the establishment of KCK elements within society. There are many incidents in which members of the KCK have kidnapped businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians to forcefully gain their support, money-wise and politically. In the past, people suffered from the mishandlings of the state, but now the KCK has become a source of oppression and torment for the same society. In recent years, while the state and the government undergo dramatic change in terms of empowering democracy and the welfare of the region, fearing the loss of a ground for exploitation, the KCK elements used force, threats, and coercion to manipulate the Kurdish population in the southeastern part of Anatolia.

Moreover, while the PKK has been closely working with the Assad regime, at the same time it is claiming that it is for its version of the Kurdish spring in Turkey. This allegation was also expressed by members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The interesting part of this development is that while the BDP and PKK support the Assad regime to try to obtain new collaboration between each other, they are talking about a Kurdish spring in Turkey. In short, they seem to bring about spring for the Kurdish population by killing them. In numerous attempts even in Ramadan, PKK militants, hiding among people who were attending mosques, opened fire at security forces. The aim was to force the security forces to engage the members of the PKK so that civilian casualties might occur. Thankfully, the security forces were very cautious to avoid any civilian fatalities. In Şemdinli, the PKK tried the same tactic but could not succeed. The sole purpose of the PKK is giving a picture for the international community that consists of the security forces killing civilians.

Any change in the tactics of the PKK? Guerilla versus terrorist organization

The PKK had begun its activities based on a people’s war ideology in 1978, and in 2011, the PKK called its fundamental strategy a “revolutionary people’s war.” The PKK killed many civilians, including infants, babies, men, and women during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2012, in Gaziantep, a car bomb by the PKK killed 9 civilians, including babies and children.

The PKK has showed tactical moves and made statements which represented different sentiments, such as democracy and peace. But the recent attacks in Istanbul in 2010 and in Gaziantep in 2012 showed once again that the inherent sense of the PKK’s understanding has never changed.

What the PKK has achieved over the years is creating a psychological environment that has a capacity to alienate any alternative understanding or idea. It has rejected any common sense that denies violence as a means of achieving a political agenda. Just like the Shining Path in Peru, the PKK uses violence and coercion to not only suppress the targeted government but also the population, which the PKK claims is to defend their rights.

From time to time, groups like the PKK can be seen as a guerilla group but not a terrorist organization. The focal point in this kind of discussion is that if a group does not kill civilians and if they target just the government security forces then this group can be labeled as a guerilla one. Although there is no clear-cut difference between a guerilla or terrorist organization, most of the time mass media abroad consider the PKK a guerilla or even freedom fighting one.

On the contrary, the PKK has killed hundreds of civilians in the past, and the recent attacks showed that this group has never refrained from targeting civilians. The difference between the PKK and other groups in the world is that when civilian casualties occur, the PKK prefers to deny the fact, and instead blame an “uncontrolled group within the PKK” or the state. This common tactic of assuming no responsibility is to avoid criticism from abroad. By doing that the PKK is also trying to avoid being labeled as a terrorist organization.

The investigation in Gaziantep clearly indicated that the attack was planned, organized, and executed by the members of the PKK. The location of the attack was selected to inflict a maximum number of losses in human life. Just like the similar bomb attacks in Güngören in 2008 and in Taksim, Istanbul in 2010, civilians were the target of the Gaziantep attack.

Target selection alone cannot be an indicator of whether a specific group is a terrorist organization or a guerilla group. Even with this indicator in hand it is obvious that the PKK is a terrorist organization. It does not matter whether from time to time it uses guerilla tactics. Even in those types of attacks the PKK deliberately targeted civilians, including Kurdish people.

The PKK is similar to the Shining Path in terms of its appetite to kill civilians. In a way, it considers this kind of target selection a method of showing its potential to the people and the state. In its methods and tactics, the PKK has not changed a bit.

As the Syria crisis worsens, the PKK will benefit from the situation in the region. Stability is critical in the region and the PKK is trying to steal the moment to prove itself as a reliable ally to Iran and Syria. In such times, allies such as the U.S. should do more in supporting Turkey over the PKK issue. It is unfortunate that European countries were silent or at best were too slow to condemn the Gaziantep attack. Terrorism is an issue over which no immunity is granted to any country. Therefore European countries should also do more to prevent the PKK from getting support from their social bases in these countries in terms of recruitment and financing activities.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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