Energy Security and the PKK Threat to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 18

In the wake of the conflict in Georgia, the future of energy transportation from the Caspian basin and Central Asia to world markets is once again on the agenda. By looking at the attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in August, we will discuss how growing instability in the region highlights the interconnectedness for Turkey of security of energy pipelines, terrorism and regional stability.

Given the political, military and economic implications of oil and natural gas production and transportation, one can better appreciate the search, on the part of producers, investors and consumers, for cheaper and more secure energy transportation routes. Even a seemingly technical decision over the optimal transportation lines is shaped by political competition. The rivalry is present at all stages of energy transportation including project, construction and management. Such struggles range from securing investment capital to sharing profits, providing physical security, and ensuring political stability in the countries involved.

Today, in addition to their high economic value, energy pipelines play important roles in diplomatic, economic, military and ecological terms. In addition to offering immediate economic benefits to transit and terminal countries, pipelines may act as the building blocks of alliances and boost cooperation among states. Likewise, pipelines may shape domestic politics in countries that are increasingly dependent on imported energy for heating or power.

One strategy that appeals to countries situated astride alternative pipeline routes is to engage in activities designed to undermine the profitability of rival existing routes and render them risky for investors. Since investors will be discouraged from financing projects in volatile and insecure regions, destabilizing rival routes by sponsoring terrorist or insurgent organizations that operate in the transit corridors is a common strategy.

It is widely documented that terrorist groups around the world often attack energy pipelines and the personnel working there. Through acts of sabotage, bombing and kidnapping, terrorist or insurgent groups may seek to derail the construction of pipelines or the flow of oil or gas. Such attacks have occurred in many countries, including Colombia, Nigeria, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Likewise, during the last 25 years, the PKK has threatened the security of pipelines running through Turkish territory and from time to time has mounted actual attacks on them.

Various reasons explain why pipelines are targeted by terror organizations and their sponsors. First, the direct and indirect impact of pipelines on society makes them highly valuable targets. The effects of attacks range from the interruption of heating in winter conditions to environmental disasters, fluctuations in world energy markets, and diplomatic and legal disputes over compensation. These repercussions empower terrorist organizations in terms of bargaining power and propaganda purposes. Second, because securing infrastructure is extremely difficult, the physical vulnerability of pipelines and related facilities make them easy targets. Given the availability of explosives, blowing up pipelines can be accomplished by terrorists easily, further complicating security. Third, since petroleum and natural gas can easily ignite, terrorists prefer to attack them with explosives. Despite many safeguards developed to reduce the impact of sabotage acts and resume the operation of pipelines through quick repairs, overall pipelines are still considered vulnerable targets.[1]

The PKK and Kirkuk-Yumurtalik Pipeline.

Turkey has two strategically important trans-border pipelines, aside from the ones serving domestic needs: Kirkuk-Yumurtalik and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan. When the Nabucco pipeline project is finalized it will connect the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (Turkey) and the Tabriz (Iran)-Erzurum gas pipelines to Austria, feeding extensive European gas networks (see During the deliberations over the selection of these projects, their implementation, and the administration of pipelines, multinational companies had to factor the instability caused by the PKK’s terror campaign into their calculations, making the PKK an indirect player in the game.

Turkey completed the construction of the first strategic oil pipeline, Kirkuk-Yumurtalik, between 1978 and 1984. It was completed in 1984, the year when the center of gravity of the Iran-Iraq war shifted from the Persian Gulf to northern Iraq. Having benefited enormously from oil revenues in financing the war, Iraq negotiated with Turkey to build a parallel line. To undermine the feasibility of Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline, Iran supported the Kurdish peshmerga forces in Northern Iraq and the PKK in Turkey. [2] Coincidentally, the PKK initiated its terror campaign around the same time (Hurriyet, Milliyet, Cumhuriyet, August 18, 1984).

The PKK and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline

The new political geography of the Caucasus and Central Asia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a power struggle between Russia, Iran and Turkey. More importantly, the growing demand for energy worldwide directed the attention of the developed countries seeking to diversify their suppliers to the vast energy resources in these regions. [3] The discussions concerning the transportation of Azerbaijan’s energy resources to the world markets brought Turkey to the forefront, agitating Iran and Russia.

The BTC route emerged as the most efficient option for the transportation of Azeri gas and oil to the West. It was eventually expected to be expanded to carry the rest of the Caspian basin resources. Since the lynchpin of these developments was the transportation of Azeri and Caspian resources to the West in circumvention of Russian-controlled lines, preventing or delaying the BTC project was in the interests of Russia, Iran and Armenia. Russia was concerned about losing its influence in the region and being left outside the calculations concerning the Caspian region. Iran was worried that oil revenues might boost Azerbaijan’s power and increase separatist sentiments among Azeris in Iran. Armenia was naturally irked by the close relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey and by the likely increase in Azerbaijan’s power.

The strategy of Russia, Iran and Armenia was based on portraying the BTC corridor as risky and unstable. Through acts of omission and commission they contributed to this perception in the 1990s. Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan in 1993 and its invasion and ongoing occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh played a role in perpetuating instability in the Caucasus. Russia’s support for Armenia and meddling in the domestic affairs of Azerbaijan and Georgia in 1992-1993 prompted instability in these countries. The escalating PKK violence inside Turkey raised questions about the safety of the transportation corridor, further delaying the project.

During the debates on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK – Turk Silahli Kuvvetleri) came close to eliminating the PKK through a cross-border operation in northern Iraq in September 1992. The PKK had to relocate to camps in Zeli in northern Iraq, far from the Turkish border. The deteriorating conditions forced PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to declare a unilateral ceasefire in March 1993 (Hurriyet, March 15, 1993). In May 1993, during his visit to Turkey, the Azerbaijani prime minister signed the contract for the construction of the pipeline. In the intervening period, the PKK maintained close ties with Iran and Russia. [4] On May 24, 1993, the PKK resumed violence, ambushing a military convoy on the Elazig-Bingol highway, killing 33 recruits discharged from their duties (Hurriyet, May 25, 1993). As the TSK intensified its counter-terrorism operations, the conflict escalated. Consequently, growing instability in the energy corridor forced investors to suspend the project.

Around the same time, Russia and Iran stepped up their efforts to sell Turkey their natural gas. The Blue Stream pipeline (a trans-Black Sea natural gas pipeline supplying Russian gas to Turkey) that increasingly rendered Turkey dependent on Russian gas was initiated under these conditions.[5] Similarly, Turkey signed a contract with Iran for the construction of a pipeline to carry Iranian gas to Turkey. The resumption of the BTC project came only in the early 2000s, after Turkey expended enormous resources to capture Ocalan and bring the PKK violence under control.

New Russian Security and Foreign Policy Doctrine

Russian foreign and security policies in the Putin era were centered on a new doctrine that sought to channel energy revenues to the realization of Russia’s strategic priorities (, February 1, 2006). Rising energy prices after the Iraq war and the increasing demand for oil worldwide provided perfect conditions for implementing this project. The sustainability of this approach depends on the maintenance of Russia’s influence over ex-Soviet countries, and the continuation of the West’s dependence on hydrocarbons and continuing high energy prices.

Russia’s interest in the production, marketing and transportation of oil and natural gas is particularly visible in the case of the BTC, hence in its policies as well toward Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Anxious to diversify energy supply routes and break down Russia’s dominance, the United States and the European countries have grown increasingly interested in the BTC as well as other routes through Turkey. Although, the BTC and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline are buried underground, concerns over their security never fully disappeared. [6]

In this context, the recent conflict in Georgia has refocused the attention to energy security in the Caucasus. Coincidentally, prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Georgia, the BTC came under attack on August 5, 2008, disrupting the oil transportation for 14 days (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 8). The pipeline had been pumping 850,000 to 900,000 barrels per day before the explosion. Although some 200,000 barrels per day were diverted to underused pipelines running through Russia and Georgia, the financial loss over 14 days still came to over 1 billion dollars (see U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Assurance Daily, August 8). The oil that burned, expenses for putting off the fire, personnel and repairs cost another 20 million dollars.

These economic losses aside, the security of the BTC corridor and reliability of Turkey as an alternative supply route again came into question, as in the 1990s. During the invasion of Georgia, the Russian army did not destroy the BTC pipeline but some railways and trains used for oil transportation were destroyed. The interruption of the railways and the sabotage of the pipeline temporarily forced Azerbaijan to divert some of its crude oil through routes controlled by Russia (RFE/RL, September 2). In the wake of the Georgian crisis, Azerbaijan is wary of the idea of bypassing Russia entirely in energy transportation, as reflected by the cool reception U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney received during his September 3 visit to urge Baku to commit to pipeline routes that would avoid Russian territory. [7]

In the coming days, the debate on energy security and alternative energy corridors is likely to intensify. If Turkey cannot counter economically and politically costly attacks on pipelines in its territory and prevent instability in the surrounding regions, it will face enormous consequences. Not willing to incur billion dollar losses in every attack, multilateral corporations might explore alternative routes, and seek compromise with the PKK to cease its attacks on the pipelines. As a country aspiring to become a major transportation hub connecting Middle Eastern and Caspian hydrocarbon reserves to Europe, Turkey will come under pressure to ensure security at home and in its neighborhood. Through its diplomatic initiatives, such as the proposal for a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, it has sought to stabilize relations in the Caucasus region (Today’s Zaman, August 19). Likewise, it has to restore the credibility of its territory as a secure route, especially given its plans to push for the Nabucco pipeline and discussions on the integration of trans-Caspian pipelines into the BTC.

Turkey’s ambitions will paradoxically make it a target of the actors seeking to discredit the routes stretching through Turkey. As long as Turkish territory remains one of the main theaters of battle over energy transportation, the interest in the PKK either from Turkey’s regional competitors or from the West will not cease. The motivations that led the PKK to sabotage the BTC in August are unclear. In any case, this move shows that the PKK closely follows regional developments and is in search of new roles and potential supporters. By targeting the BTC pipeline, the PKK might have been attempting to find new strategic partners. There are grounds to be concerned that the PKK may be receiving limited international support, though as of yet no definitive evidence is available. This sabotage was the PKK’s first attack on the BTC; interestingly, it came on the eve of the crisis in the Caucasus. As the attack broke with the movement’s long-standing caution in avoiding alienating Europe and the United States, it is possible the PKK may have received guarantees from other potential sponsors. Given Russia’s record of limited support for the PKK in the past (such as harboring PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan), the August 5 PKK attack on the BTC pipeline may have to be analyzed within the context of broader debates on the future of energy transportation in the region and Russia’s attempts to solidify its dominant position as the major supplier of Caspian and Central Asian energy reserves.


1. See “Threats to Oil Transport,” Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, n.d.,; “Terrorism and Oil Make Volatile Mix,” Pipeline & Gas Journal, May 2006, pp.32-33.

2. Nihat Ali Ozcan, PKK (Kurdistan Isci Partisi) Tarihi, Ideolojisi ve Yontemi, Ankar, ASAM Yayinlari, 1999, pp.222-237.

3. A. Necdet Pamir, Baku-Ceyhan Boru Hatti, Ankara: ASAM Yayinlari, 1999.

4. For PKK-CIS relations, see reports submitted to the 5th Congress of the PKK, Vol. 2, Damascus, 1995, pp.569-586; on PKK-Iran relations, see pp.553-567.

5. Firat Gazel, Mavi Akim, Istanbul: Metis Yayinlari, 2003).

6. For an account of the motivations of regional actors to destabilize the BTC, see: Gal Luft, “Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline: Not Yet Finished and already Threatened,” Energy Security, November 4, 2004 .

7. Mete Goknel, “Kafkas Krizinin Ardindan Enerji Kaynaklari Konusundaki Gelismeler,” September 11, 2008,