Kurdish Activism in Europe: Terrorism versus Europeanization

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 13

Two very different forms of Kurdish activism oppose each other in Europe. The largely unnoticed development of opposing forces could be exploited by European diplomats to terminate terrorist activities carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and soften Europe’s relationship with Turkey. The “old” form of Kurdish activism consists of terrorist attacks, training and fundraising in Europe by PKK members. The “new” form of activism relies on legal and democratic means. While the former takes advantage of the lack of European counter-terrorism cooperation, the latter finds its force in the new powers implemented by the European Union (EU). The reinforcement of the “new” Kurdish activism, and the weakening of the “old” terrorism, could facilitate the process of Turkish adhesion to the EU.

The Kurdish Human Rights Project

The latest illustration of the new Kurdish activism occurred earlier this month, when the Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) filed a lawsuit against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in pursuit of compensation for repeated Turkish bombings and attacks in northern Iraq. The ECHR, based in Strasbourg, France, enforces the European Convention of Human Rights, established in 1950. The KHRP claim was introduced on behalf of Muslim and Chaldean Christian villagers in northern Iraq who say they lost their homes during Turkish air raids last December (The Guardian, June 9). Ankara approved cross-border raids in northern Iraq in October 2007, arguing that the Iraqi government and U.S. troops were not doing enough to crack down on Kurdish terrorists. Occasional bombings started in November and intensified in December, followed by a ground incursion on December 16 and a major raid on PKK bases last February. More recently, Turkey launched another raid on June 9, according to Iraqi security officials (Reuters, June 10). In total, Turkish troops have allegedly killed hundreds of Kurdish rebels from the PKK and the Iranian-Kurdish Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK).

The KHRP is a London-based organization defending Kurdish rights. It focuses essentially on international human rights mechanisms but also conducts fact-finding missions and awareness-raising on human rights abuses in the Kurdish regions. Kerim Yildiz, director of the KHRP, participated in two fact-finding missions to the border regions between Turkey and Iraq in November 2007 and January 2008. Yildiz claims:

“Bombardments have caused serious disruption for local people, including displacement and the destruction of property, livestock, arable land and woodland. The psychological effects of such bombardments, particularly on children, are enduring and extremely worrying… KHRP witnessed the aftermath of the recent Turkish air raids: the destruction of mosques, schools, hospitals and farmland, along with the killing and injuring of villagers. More than 50 civilian villages were affected in the opening bombing raid of 16 December alone… Civilians are clearly being targeted in what should be condemned as an act of aggression and a violation of international law” (The Guardian, January 23).

It is not the first time that lawsuits were filed against Turkey at the ECHR. In fact, the KHRP has a long history of such trials, including many favorable outcomes. There is even a precedent from a 1995 case establishing that Council of Europe members could be held accountable for human rights abuses committed beyond their borders—as occurred in the new case entered by the KHRP. However, the difficulty in this particular case will be to demonstrate Turkish responsibility for alleged civilian deaths—as in the 1995 case where the KHRP failed to prove that Turkish soldiers had killed seven shepherds in northern Iraq.

Adjusting to New Political Realities

The ECHR is a very important institution in Turkish-Kurdish shared history. Indeed, the court took a decision concerning Abdullah Ocalan that modified both Kurdish activities in Europe and the Turkish relationship with the EU. Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, was arrested in 1999 in Kenya and condemned to death by Ankara, although Turkey had maintained a de facto moratorium on executions since 1984. However, European pressures—the EU had accepted Turkey as a potential candidate shortly after Ocalan’s arrest—and a decision of the ECHR forced Ankara to delay Ocalan’s execution. In 2003, the ECHR stated that Ocalan had not been tried by an “independent and impartial tribunal” and requested that Turkey retry him. This decision was confirmed in 2005. Holding strongly to its European aspirations, Ankara finally abolished the death penalty in 2001 and commuted Ocalan’s death sentence to life imprisonment in October 2002.

After the arrest of Ocalan and the major Turkish step toward EU candidacy in 1999, Kurdish activists in exile “modified their structural, organizational, and strategic operations to adjust to a new political reality. Abandoning the original goal of an independent Kurdistan, activists instead pursued national minority rights in Turkey” [1]. They quickly realized that Turkish efforts toward attaining the precious European membership could be used in order to advance their own agenda. The new strategy included the targeting of European institutions—instead of focusing exclusively on Turkish and European government officials—and the creation of friction between the EU and Turkey in order to generate social and political reforms in Turkey.

Europeanization of the Kurdish Movement

This new strategy developed by the Kurdish diaspora has sometimes been termed the “Europeanization” of the Kurdish movement [2]. Europeanization consists of the development and use of a Kurdish network in Europe whose aim is to promote Kurdish rights in Turkey through the European supranational system. The means available are exclusively democratic: Petitions, demonstrations, lobbying, and political representation. The European power centers targeted include the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights.

The European Council, where the heads of European governments gather, is the institution charged with the evaluation of the Turkish candidacy file. Therefore, it should constitute a prime target for the Kurdish diaspora. However, it appears that only in a few cases did Kurdish activists interact with the European Council—probably because it is easier to lobby the national governments. In December 2002, for instance, the KHRP sent a 13-page briefing on the Kurdish situation in Turkey to the European Council. The European Commission issues annual reports on Turkey’s compliance with the accession criteria—the so-called Copenhagen criteria. However, the bureaucratic style of the European Commission makes it difficult to apply pressure. The Council of the European Union, where the European ministers meet, is the most important decision-making body of the EU. In May 2002, the Council decided to put the PKK on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations. As a result, the Kurdish National Congress (KNC), a Brussels-based Kurdish organization, demanded the revision of the decision and filed a case at the European Court of First Instance. In April 2008, the Court of First Instance stated that the decision to blacklist the PKK and freeze their assets was illegal under EU law. The ruling constrains the EU to more transparency in its blacklisting process, but does not require it to remove the PKK from the list or to unfreeze PKK assets (AP, April 3). The European Parliament held several major debates on the Kurdish question, notably due to individual parliamentarians’ initiatives, but also due to Kurdish lobbying. Finally, the work of the KHRP at the ECHR has already been detailed previously in this article, although it should be underscored that the Council of Europe is not part of the EU, but is a legal body specialized on human rights that counts 47 members.

The PKK Network in Europe

Not all the actions undertaken by Kurdish activists in Europe are democratic and non-violent, however. The PKK and PJAK—its Iranian offshoot (see Terrorism Monitor, May 15)—control a vast network in Europe. According to the State Department’s latest Country Reports on Terrorism, “Germany led Europe in maintaining action against the militant Kurdish separatist group Kongra Gel/Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KGK/PKK), which raised funds, often through illicit activity, to fund violence in Turkey, but coordination problems across borders in Europe blunted some successful arrests” [3]. PKK activities were observed in Austria, Belgium (media production), Cyprus (fundraising and traffic route), Denmark (media production), France (fundraising and money laundering), Germany (attacks), Italy (fundraising), Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Germany constitutes the hub of the PKK network in Europe with approximately 11,500 members, according to a recent German report (Turkish Daily News, April 19). Last year, in Germany, the PKK conducted 15 terrorist operations, most of them arson attacks, against Turkish interests such as travel agencies, banks and mosques. In total, 38 PKK members were arrested in the EU in 2007 [4]. PKK activities in Europe also include paramilitary training. In November 2004, Dutch security forces shut down a PKK training camp in Liempde, arresting 38 people who were allegedly training to prepare terrorist attacks in Turkey.

Besides terrorist attacks and paramilitary training, the PKK has developed an extensive network of fundraising across Europe, most of which relies on illegal activities. According to figures presented at a NATO meeting in November 2007, the illicit narcotics industry is the PKK’s most profitable criminal activity [5]. Lieutenant General Ergin Saygun, deputy chief of the Turkish General Staff, estimates the PKK’s annual revenues at $640 to $800 million, of which 50 to 60 percent is derived from drug trafficking (Terrorism Monitor, June 12). Drug revenues from Europe include street sales and “taxation” of non-PKK-produced drugs. Other illegal activities include money laundering, human-trafficking and the prostitution racket.

The PKK has developed an impressive propaganda industry in Europe as well. According to Lieutenant Colonel Abdulkadir Onay, the PKK owns two news agencies (including Firat News Agency based in the Netherlands), four television stations (including Roj TV and MMC TV in Denmark, and Newroz TV in Norway), 13 radio stations (including Denge Mezopotamya radio in Belgium), 10 newspapers (including Yeni Ozgur Politika in Germany), three publishing houses (including Roj Group in Belgium), and many websites (including Kurdistan Youth Freedom Movement in Denmark, Kurdistan Italia in Italy, and Kongra-Gel in Germany) [6].

Although some measures have been taken to disrupt the PKK network in Europe, most of it remains intact. In 1999, for instance, Britain banned Med TV, a pro-PKK satellite station, and France banned its successor Medya TV in 2004. However, Roj Roj-TV still broadcasts legally in Denmark, although it was recently sentenced to pay a fine of $6 million by the Belgian Ministry of Finance (see Terrorism Focus, April 1). Similarly, the German Interior Ministry shut down Yeni Ozgur Politika in September 2005, but the Federal Administrative Court overturned the Interior Ministry’s decision. Undeterred, the German Interior Ministry announced a ban on Roj TV this month, on the grounds that it encourages PKK violence and serves as an instrument of recruitment for PKK attacks in Turkey (Anatolia, June 24).

Two essential things are missing in Europe in order to eliminate the PKK network. First, a clear line must be drawn between legal Kurdish lobbying activities and the illegal PKK network. As the former replaces the latter, Turkish and European partners will be able to improve their relationship. Second, European counter-terrorism agencies must enhance their regional collaboration in order to bring PKK and PJAK activities in Europe to an end.


There are two contrasting Kurdish movements in Europe. The pan-European “Kurdish movement” saw the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan and the Turkish accession process as an opportunity to improve the situation of Kurdish Turkey through legal and democratic means. Hence, they developed a new lobbying force, using various pressure tools including lawsuits, briefings, petitions or demonstrations. The PKK network, on the other hand, has not changed and continues to exploit European lack of coordination. The PKK still uses and supports terrorism activities both in Turkey and in Europe. Therefore, nothing is more distinct than the use of the EU’s strengths by the Kurdish movement, and the use of the EU’s weaknesses by the PKK.

Surprisingly, European diplomats and security agencies have failed to notice and capitalize on this evolution. However, the Europeanization of the Kurdish movement offers a formidable avenue to improve the EU-Turkish relationship and eventually lead to the accession of Turkey to the EU. The last report released by the European Parliament was still very critical toward Turkey, although it underscored some improvements, notably the modification of article 301 of the Penal Code (formerly outlawing the “denigration of Turkishness”), which was seen as the biggest restraint on freedom of expression in the country (EurActiv, May 22). France—whose president Nicolas Sarkozy is opposed to Turkish accession to the EU—will take over the EU presidency next month. With Sarkozy in this role the relationship between Turkey and the EU is not likely to improve soon despite efforts to “Europeanize” the Kurdish movement.


1. Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “Political Movement and Leverage Points: Kurdish Activism in the European Diaspora,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 22(1), 2002, p.91

2. See for instance Andreas Blätte, “The Kurdish Movement: Ethnic Mobilization and Europeanization,” Paper Presented at the EUSA 8th International Biennale Conference, March 2003.

3. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism, April 30, 2008.

4. Europol, TE-SAT 2008 – EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, April 2008.

5. Abdulkadir Onay, “PKK Criminal Networks and Fronts in Europe,” The Washington Institute, Policy Watch no.1344, February 21, 2008.

6. Ibid