Istanbul Bombings Suggest PKK Insurgency May Be Entering a More Ruthless Phase

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 29

The July bombings in Istanbul have raised concerns that the 24 year-old insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) may be entering a new, more ruthless phase.

At around 9:45 PM on July 27, a percussion bomb exploded in a garbage can on Menderes Caddesi, a street in the working class neighborhood of Gungoren in Istanbul. Around ten minutes later, a second, considerably larger improvised explosive device (IED) exploded around 50 meters away from the first. A total of 17 people, including five children, were killed and 154 injured (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 28).

Menderes Caddesi is a pedestrian-only street. At the time of the bombings, it was crowded with people strolling in the relative cool of the summer evening. Turkish media quoted unnamed members of the anti-terrorism branch of the Turkish police as saying that both devices used TNT and were detonated by cell phone rather than a timing device, suggesting that the perpetrators were deliberately trying to cause significant civilian casualties (Hurriyet, August 2; Radikal, August 2). The difference in the size of the IEDs and the ten minute gap between the explosions would appear to indicate that the first device was primarily intended to attract and concentrate bystanders drawn either by a desire to help those injured in the first blast or by simple curiosity, so as to maximize casualties when the second, larger IED was detonated.

Although numerous militant groups have long been active in Turkey, the Gungoren bombings were the first in recent history to seek solely the death of as many Turkish citizens as possible. Even though the tactic has been frequently employed in other countries, it is also the first time that a militant group in Turkey has used a small IED to attract and concentrate people and then a second, much larger, IED to kill them.

Suspicions immediately focused on the PKK. Since returning to violence in June 2004, the PKK has pursued a two-front strategy, combining a rural insurgency in southeast Turkey with an urban bombing campaign in the west of the country. Although around 35 civilians have been killed in the last four years, the bombing campaign has been primarily directed at the Turkish state and the Turkish tourism industry. The numerous IEDs detonated in public areas have all been relatively small and mainly intended to cause panic and depress public morale rather than cause large-scale casualties among Turkish citizens.

On July 28, Zubeyir Aydar, the head of the PKK’s decision-making assembly the Kurdistan People’s Congress (KONGRA-GEL), publicly denied that the organization was responsible for the Gungoren bombings, which he attributed to “dark forces” – an apparent claim that they had been the result of a covert operation by elements in the Turkish security forces (Firat News Agency, July 29). He repeated the denial on August 3, asking, in a reference to the international condemnation of the attack: “Why would the Kurdish Freedom Movement do something which would be so damaging to it?” (Firat News Agency, August 4)

This is misleading. Since June 2004, the PKK has attempted to avoid international opprobrium by conducting its urban bombing campaign through a front organization, known as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). Unlike the situation in eastern Turkey, the PKK has no permanent organizational hierarchy or cell structure in the west of the country. It has conducted its urban bombing campaign through militants trained in the organization’s camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq and then sent to western Turkey, where they are provided with explosives brought by courier.

Since Turkey began to launch air raids against the PKK camps in northern Iraq in December 2007, there has been speculation that the organization might attempt to demonstrate its defiance by staging a mass casualty attack in western Turkey – particularly given its continuing failure to make any headway in its rural insurgency in the east of the country (see Terrorism Focus, January 8).

On July 30, the Turkish police detained ten people suspected of involvement in the Gungoren bombings. Two were subsequently released. On August 2, Interior Minister Besir Atalay announced that the other eight had been charged in relation to the bombings. “All of the dimensions of the attack have been revealed,” said Atalay, adding that CCTV footage from Istanbul’s Mobile Electronic System Integration (MOBESE) tracking and surveillance system had shown two suspects placing plastic bags in the garbage cans in which the IEDs subsequently exploded. Atalay announced that the design of the IEDs was identical to those used in previous PKK attacks. He also claimed that those arrested had been involved in the bombing of a teahouse in the Istanbul suburb of Buyukcekmece on June 15 in which 10 people were injured (NTV, August 2; CNNTurk, August 2).

The Turkish media immediately declared that all of those responsible for the Gungoren bombings were now in custody and identified one of those arrested, Huseyin Tureli, as the person who had planted the bombs. Several quoted unnamed police sources reported that Tuneli was a long-term PKK sympathizer who had been sent from Istanbul for training in the Qandil mountains before returning to the city three months before the attack (Hurriyet, August 3; Zaman, August 3).

Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler issued a statement on August 5 admitting that not all of those suspected of involvement in the bombings had yet been arrested. It has also emerged that all of those still in custody, including Tureli, have so far only been charged with “membership of a terrorist organization” rather than direct involvement in the bombings (Anadolu Ajansi, August 5).

The PKK has continued to deny responsibility. The pro-PKK Firat News Agency claims that Tuneli is merely an impoverished manual laborer, employed in a local textile workshop, and that his absence from Istanbul can be explained by the fact that he was being treated in a private hospital for an unspecified medical complaint (Firat News Agency, August 4). Given the low wages in the Turkish textile sector and the high cost of private medical care in the country, this appears unlikely.

Despite the confusion over the arrests and the PKK’s continuing denials, there is currently little reason to doubt the Turkish authorities’ claim that the organization was responsible for the Gungoren bombing. It is also likely that, if it were responsible, the decision to try to inflict maximum civilian casualties would have been taken very high up in the PKK command chain. There are reports of other would-be bombers having been dispatched by the PKK from northern Iraq to western Turkey. It is currently unclear whether they will also attempt to stage mass casualty attacks or whether, chastened by the international reaction to the carnage in Gungoren, the PKK will direct them towards other targets.