Is the PKK Sabotaging Strategic Energy Infrastructure in a Search for a Superpower Partner?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 42

A recent trend has emerged of attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) on the energy infrastructure that carries oil and natural gas to markets in the West. As early as 2006, PKK leader Murat Karayilan rejected the idea of attacking the international energy infrastructure unless the situation on the ground changed significantly and the Turkish state increased its attacks on Kurds (, July 17, 2006; see also Terrorism Monitor, August 11). Since last August, however, the PKK not only sabotaged the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which carries Azeri crude to Western markets, but also attacked the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which carries Iraqi crude to the West (see Terrorism Focus, November 26).

When closely analyzed, the timing of PKK attacks on energy infrastructure coincides with developments that are of interest to the superpowers, Russia and the United States. For instance, on August 21, 2006, the PKK claimed to sabotage the Iranian natural gas pipeline in the Turkish region of Agri, saying, “the sabotage was a warning message to Turkish and Iranian authorities who conduct joint military operations against the PKK” (Yeni Ozgur Politika, August 22, 2006). However, just four days before the attack, it was announced that Turkey and Iran had agreed on a project to enlarge the capacity of the natural gas pipeline which carries Iranian gas to Turkey in order to sell Iranian gas to Europe (Anadolu Ajansi, August 18, 2006). It is well known that the United States does not want Turkey to sign energy-related contracts with Iran. Despite the fact that Murat Karayilan announced a month before the attack that the PKK would not want to target international energy infrastructure, the PKK nevertheless sabotaged the Iranian gas pipeline.

In fact, a year later, the PKK once again claimed to have sabotaged the Iranian-Turkish natural gas pipeline in the Agri town of Dogubeyazit (Yeni Ozgur Politika, September 11, 2007). Two weeks before this attack, Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding on investing in Iranian-Turkish natural gas projects (NTV, August 19, 2007). Once again, the PKK sabotage came right after Turkey agreed to invest in Iranian energy projects.

The imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, stated in May 2007 that “the existence of the U.S is a reality. We should not be a satellite of the U.S., but it does not mean that we should get in a confrontation with the U.S either. It is OK to build relations with the United States to find a possible solution” (, May 19 2007). The strategic thinking behind the attack could be to send a signal to America that the PKK is an influential player in this region and is ready to serve the interests of the United States.

A similar trend has continued in 2008. The PKK claimed their militants sabotaged the Iranian-Turkish natural gas pipeline in Agri province on May 25 (Yeni Ozgur Politika, May 27). Perhaps not coincidentally, ten days before the attack a Turkish delegate went to Iran to finalize the details of the memorandum of understanding signed a year ago (NTV, May, 15).

On August 5, the PKK targeted the BTC oil pipeline in the town of Refahiye in Erzincan province (Firat News Agency, August 7). Although the official Turkish statement described the eruption as a “technical problem,” it is widely believed that it was PKK sabotage (Milliyet, August 9). It is interesting to note that the sabotage operation on the BTC pipeline came just two days before the Russian-Georgia war broke out. If it was not Russia that ordered the PKK to sabotage the BTC, it is possible that the PKK, by targeting the BTC, wanted to send a signal to Russia it could be of service in return for Russian assistance. The second ranking PKK comander, Bahoz Erdal, stated; “as an economic target we chose to attack the BTC pipeline because we think that attacks like these would stop Turkey from pursuing its aggression toward the Kurds” (Yeni Ozgur Politika, August 9). Erdal’s statement is far from being a persuasive argument, however. The timing of the PKK attacks on economic targets indicate that the PKK is in search of an open or covert state partner who can provide a lifeline for the PKK in return for directed PKK attacks on strategic infrastructure.

For Russia, the BTC pipeline is an alternative energy route that lessens the West’s dependency on Russian oil. However, even during last August’s Russian-Georgian war, Russia could not directly target the BTC because it is aware of the fact that the international community will not tolerate such aggression towards a strategic energy line. The PKK, by carefully assessing the Russian position, might be targeting the BTC to send a signal to Russia that the PKK could be a useful asset for Russian policy.

Perhaps because the PKK has realized that the United States would not want to use the PKK for its strategic interests, the PKK has turned to Russia and other actors in the region. In fact, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, recently stated “I am hearing that the Kurds in northern Iraq have started cooperating with Turkey against the PKK like they did in 1998. [Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud] Barzani and [Iraqi President Jalal] al-Talabani are well aware of the fact that they cannot survive without the PKK in their territory. Thus, they cannot help Turkey to eliminate the PKK. If they do, the PKK would find new allies. Russia, Syria, and Iran would not want the PKK to come to an end” (, October 17).

The most recent PKK attack on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline took place on November 21 in Mardin province (Yeni Ozgur Politika, November 24). The timing of the latest sabotage was also interesting. It was organized four days after U.S and Iraqi authorities finally reached an agreement for a U.S withdrawal plan on November 17 and three days before the Kurdish Regional Government{KRG] of northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad signed an agreement to carry crude oil from the Kurdish region through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline (Radikal, November 26).

Given that the PKK carefully calculates its terror strategy, the timing of all these attacks cannot be merely coincidental. The PKK’s attacks on Iranian-Turkish natural gas lines should be read through the lense of the PKK’s efforts to find a new strategic partner through demonstrating a willingness to do the “dirty work” for the United States against Iranian interests. With the purpose of receiving U.S. support, Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, the leader of an anti-Iranian PKK offshoot, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (Parti bo Jiyani Azadi la Kurdistan – PJAK), visited Washington in August 2007 to seek U.S. support for his organization’s struggle against Iran. Ahmadi welcomed potential American assistance; "We obviously cannot topple the government with the ammunition and the weapons we have now… Any financial or military help that would speed the path to a true Iranian democracy, we would very much welcome, particularly from the United States (Interview with the Washington Times, August 4, 2007). While Ahmadi was visiting Washington to seek support, the PKK was organizing an attack against the Iranian-Turkish natural gas pipeline to “prove” it has the muscle to harm Iranian interests. In the last year, however, the United States has shown no sign that it has any interest in supporting the PKK whatsoever.

The PKK leadership is certain to be alarmed by the developing rapprochement between Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq. If Turkey successfully convinces the KRG to isolate the PKK, the Kurdish militants could target the economic interests of Iraq in general and the KRG in particular by attacking the Kirkuk-Ceyan oil pipeline. In addition, the PKK could carry out attacks on strategic infrastructure to seek favor with Russian officials interested in pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in the region.