The January 4 detonation of a large, vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) in the city of Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey appears to mark a new phase in the 23 year-old insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Shortly before 5 PM local time on the evening of January 4, five people were killed and 67 injured when an IED exploded outside a school in the center of Diyarbakır. Members of Turkish security forces later told journalists that the device had been hidden in a car parked along a route known to be used by personnel buses carrying members of the locally-based 16th Armored Brigade of the Turkish army. The device was apparently detonated by cell phone when an army bus carrying 46 soldiers passed along the street. The injured included 30 soldiers, but all of the dead were civilians, four of whom were students from a nearby school. No reliable information is available on the size of the IED, although the Turkish media quoted local police officers as estimating it to be equivalent to 80 kilograms of A4 plastic explosive, which would make it the largest IED ever used in a PKK bombing. The blast shattered glass over a 500 meter area and was reportedly heard throughout the city (Radikal; Vatan; Milliyet; Hürriyet; Sabah; NTV; CNNTurk, January 5).
Since it resumed its armed struggle in June 2004, the PKK has pursued a two-front strategy: a rural insurgency in largely Kurdish southeastern Turkey and an urban bombing campaign in the country’s more developed west. The bombers are usually trained in the PKK’s main camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq and then dispatched to western Turkey. Once they are in theater, a stock of explosives and detonators is couriered in to them. Most of the IEDs previously used have been relatively small in size, typically consisting of a few kilograms of A4 or C4 plastic explosive with a simple detonating device. Although the current bombing campaign has cost around 30 lives—including those of seven foreign tourists—its primary purpose has been not to inflict casualties but to exert political pressure on Ankara and effect economic damage, particularly to Turkey’s lucrative tourism industry.
There has been an upsurge in bombings in western Turkey since the military launched a series of air raids on PKK camps in the Qandil mountains in December 2007. On December 24 a suspected PKK militant was arrested as he attempted to board the Istanbul subway with a backpack containing 3.5 kilograms of A4 explosives, dozens of ball bearings and a detonating device attached to a cell phone (Sabah; Vatan; Yeni Safak, December 25, 2007). The following day one person was killed and six injured when an IED hidden in a garbage can exploded in the Sefaköy neighborhood of Istanbul (Hürriyet; Milliyet; Zaman, December 26, 2007). On December 28 three people were slightly injured when an IED hidden in a garbage can exploded in the Istanbul neighborhood of Şişli (Anadolu Ajansı, December 28, 2007). During the last week of December, more than 100 cars were torched across Turkey—around three quarters of them in Istanbul—apparently by PKK sympathizers protesting the Turkish air raids on the Qandil mountains (NTV; CNNTurk, December 31, 2007). On its website, the PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG), extolled those responsible for torching the cars and called on “the youth of Kurdistan” to use whatever incendiaries they could find to protest the Turkish air raids ().
The HPG has also admitted that one of its units carried out the January 4 Diyarbakır bombing, although it claims to be awaiting further information on the circumstances leading to the high civilian death toll. However, given that the IED was in a vehicle parked outside a school on a route taken by military buses on a weekday afternoon, it is unlikely that those responsible for the bombing were unaware of the possibility of extensive civilian casualties.
There is also evidence to suggest that the decision to begin using large, vehicle-borne IEDs was taken well before the Turkish air raids of December 2007. On September 11, 2007, Turkish police discovered a Mercedes panel van packed with explosives in a parking lot in the center of Ankara, where it had apparently been temporarily parked prior to being driven to its target. The date and the fact that the PKK had never before used large vehicle-borne IEDs caused suspicions to fall initially on radical Islamist groups. Although Turkish security forces are still unsure of the van’s intended target, forensic evidence taken from the vehicle has pointed to the involvement of known PKK militants (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 12, 2007).
Perhaps more worryingly, on January 1, Turkish security forces reported that they had seized 500 kilograms of ammonium nitrate—a common oxidizing agent in IEDs—in raids on PKK safe-houses in the town of Lice in southeastern Turkey (Anadolu Ajansı, January 1). To date, the PKK has no record of using large quantities of ammonium nitrate in its IEDs. However, when taken together with what now appears to have been a PKK device discovered on September 11 and the size of the IED used in Diyarbakır on January 4, the cache of ammonium nitrate would appear to indicate the PKK’s insurgency is now entering a new phase in which it is prepared not only to use large vehicle-borne IEDs, but also to countenance extensive collateral civilian casualties.