Mount Qandil: A Safe Haven for Kurdish Militants – Part 2

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 18

A Syrian PKK Member - Photo Courtesy of James Brandon

The following information and assessments are based upon the author’s first-hand observations from his March 2006 visit to Kurdish camps on Mount Qandil. Part 1 of this article can be found in Issue 17 of Terrorism Monitor.

Since coming to Mount Qandil, the PKK has undergone a series of ideological evolutions. As a result, camp politics have become highly factionalized leading to often apparently contradictory statements being issued by rival leaders at various times. In April 2002, the PKK changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK). KADEK announced a commitment to peaceful methods but said that the group’s armed wing would retain its weapons for self-defense. In autumn 2003, KADEK/PKK was renamed Kongra-Gel, which claimed to be a grouping of non-violent Turkish Kurdish organizations. During this process, PKK veterans Cemil Bayik and Murat Karayilan emerged as the most powerful leaders in Qandil. These changes had outward effects. The U.S. State Department, however, updated its list of terrorist organizations to include first KADEK and then Kongra-Gel in January 2004. Kongra-Gel’s armed wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG), renounced the PKK cease-fire on June 1, 2004.

During every re-branding, new factions emerged and splinter groups broke off of the PKK rump organization. This summer, PKK, KADEK and Kongra-Gel all existed, overlappingly, on Mount Qandil [1]. Following one re-branding, Osman Ocalan, Abdullah’s younger brother, left Mount Qandil with several hundred armed supporters to establish his own organization, The Patriotic Democratic Front (Zaman, October 25, 2005).

Qandil and Younger Turkish Kurds

The constant, ineffectual re-branding and resultant proliferation of groups on Mount Qandil, together with the confusing evolution of ideologies from Marxist-Leninist to the latest “Democratic Confederalism,” have disheartened PKK members on Qandil. Yet as the re-brandings have been poorly publicized, the PKK remains a powerful icon among Turkish Kurds.

As a result, a pattern is visible. Eager to join the PKK’s armed struggle, young Turkish Kurds cross into Iraqi Kurdistan and travel to Qandil. Once there, the bucolic, self-sufficient atmosphere of the camps create a vision of how the ideal Kurdish state should be, meshing neatly with Kurdish nationalists’ longtime emphasis on traditional Kurdish dress and rural lifestyles. Yet while this vision of Kurdish-ness inspires young recruits, it also explains why the Mount Qandil camps are not, as the Turkish government claims, a one-stop factory of Kurdish militancy; rather, the camps are an important waypoint for young Turkish Kurds drifting toward violence.

As even a brief visit to Qandil demonstrates, the long-term residents of the camps are those who want an easy, rural life. They are the uncommitted, the unmotivated or those on the run from Turkish authorities. They are people who pose no immediate threat to Turkey. When young Turkish PKK recruits realize that most of these older PKK members in Qandil would rather stay on the mountain than fight in Turkey, they have to make an important choice. Do they stay on Qandil and become dependent on the PKK’s weak and divided leadership, or do they independently return to Turkey to take part in the Kurdish struggle—whether violently or peacefully? Or, do they decide not to play any further role in activism and go quietly home or settle in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The response of many Kurds, simultaneously inspired and disheartened by the atmosphere in the camps, to this question gives Qandil an importance far beyond its obvious role as a “training camp.” For while the PKK’s weapons training and education in Kurdish culture and history incubates a powerful transnational and militant Kurdish identity, the camps are also where young Kurdish radicals can become disenchanted with the PKK’s strategy and leadership. It is this combination of disenchantment, radicalization and militancy among young Kurdish graduates of Qandil that makes the camps most dangerous to Turkey. Qandil has become a place where young Kurds can meet, receive weapons training and then plan to form their own independent cells either back in Turkey or elsewhere in Kurdistan—often against the wishes of the PKK leadership. Turkish Kurds who make this decision to independently split from the PKK are fast emerging as the most potent and unpredictable factor in Turkey’s southeast.

One emerging sign of these trends might be the appearance of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (Teyrbazen Azadiya Kurdistan, TAK) who carried out a series of bombings in Turkish cities in spring and summer 2006. TAK’s operations, often against foreigners, are directly at odds with the repeated calls from Qandil-based PKK leaders like Murat Karayilan for an immediate cease-fire followed by negotiations and an amnesty (Assyrian International News Agency, August 24).

In addition, the camps provide a way for Syrian Kurds to join an armed Kurdish movement. Syria’s tight control over the steppes of Syrian Kurdistan makes militancy much harder there than in Turkey. The death of several Syrian PKK members in clashes just beyond the Iraqi-Turkish border shows the potency of Qandil. It is unclear, however, if such infiltrations are ordered by the Qandil leadership(s) or whether these volunteers headed to Turkey in defiance of PKK commanders.

PKK Actions in Turkey

Although Qandil is far from the frontlines of the Iraq insurgency, there is evidence that PKK-associated Kurds might be learning from Iraq’s Sunni Arab jihadists—particularly if some Turkish Kurds have joined Kurdistan’s peshmerga and have been deployed in Kirkuk, Mosul and further south. In particular, Turkish Kurds observing the Iraqi insurgency may be abandoning the PKK’s Maoist emphasis on rural revolutions in favor of the Arab jihadists’ increasing focus on urban guerrilla warfare. There have been signs of this in recent clashes in the Turkish towns of Hakkiri and Van and in the growing cult of martyrdom in the PKK camps—evidenced by numerous pictures of Vian Jaff [4]. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcon’s recent attacks on foreign civilians also echo the tactics of Iraqi insurgents.

Inadvertently, Turkey has already made a Kurdish shift toward urban warfare more likely, thanks to its massive anti-PKK campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s that destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages in southeastern Turkey. Many of these displaced villagers settled in towns like Sanliurfa, Batman and Diyarbekir. These impoverished but rapidly expanding cities are the ideal place for Kurds to re-apply the Arab jihadists’ military theories rather than trying to challenge the advanced and highly-mobile Turkish army’s dominance of rural areas.

Beyond Qandil

Although Qandil is the largest PKK base in Iraqi Kurdistan, it is not the only one. More PKK fighters are believed to be based around Suleimaniya and at a camp at Hakurk near the Turkey-Iran-Iraq border intersection. Additionally, the PKK has periodically maintained a bureau in Baghdad (Terrorism Focus, July 25). Osman Ocalan also has his own quasi-militant political group called The Patriotic Democratic Front with bases somewhere north of Mosul in the territory of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. Other armed exile groups in Kurdistan include the KDP-I (Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran), based not far from Qandil around Dukan, and Iranian Komola, an Islamist Iranian Kurdish movement. Similarly, the Kurdish satellite channel Roj TV, which the Turkish government accuses of working closely with the PKK, is based in Denmark and is funded and operated by Europe-based Kurds rather than being directed from a James Bond-style lair on Mount Qandil (The New Anatolian, April 24).

Iraqi Kurdish Attitudes toward the PKK

Senior Iraqi Kurdish politicians aim to retain their popular support while remaining on good terms with the United States, Arab Iraqis, Turkey and Iran. The PKK are an increasingly important and challenging factor in this equation. Publicly, Kurdish leaders distance themselves from the PKK and periodically take symbolic action against them. In August 2006, for example, the PUK closed the Suleimaniyah offices of the PKK-linked Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (Zaman, August 27). The PKK, however, are popular among ordinary Iraqi Kurds who cooperate with them extensively around Qandil [5]. The enduring presence of Qandil in Patriotic Union of Kurdistan territory strengthens Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s pan-Kurdish credentials—something that Massoud Barzani perhaps aimed to copy by aiding Osman Ocalan.

Iraqi Kurds, however, are largely unwilling to sacrifice their own independence or prosperity for the sake of Turkey’s Kurds. Likewise, Iraqi Kurds do not bear a particular grudge toward Turkey, whose policies have deliberately helped Iraqi Kurdistan to flourish economically and politically. At the same time, however, in the event of a large scale Turkish offensive, Iraqi Kurds would likely be happy to help PKK members come down from Mount Qandil and blend into the local population—thus nullifying any Turkish military action.

Turkish Military Build-up

In recent months, Ankara has renewed its threats to invade Kurdistan to tackle the PKK. It has been making such threats since at least 2003 and briefly sent a mechanized brigade into Kurdistan in 2001. Turkish troops have also previously crossed the un-fenced Iraqi-Turkish border to fight PKK infiltrators up to several miles inside Iraqi territory [6]. In the last six months, Turkey has also persuaded Iran to shell Mount Qandil, and on several occasions in August Turkish jets reportedly bombed Mount Qandil (The Journal of Turkish Weekly, August 22; al-Jazeera, August 26). Turkey has also deployed an extra 60,000 troops to the Iraqi border region and repeatedly leaked information suggesting that an all-out assault is imminent.

Ankara, however, knows that a massive ground offensive reaching 60 miles into Kurdistan will force the United States to choose between the Kurds and Turkey. Ankara is increasingly aware that the historic causes of the close U.S.-Turkey axis—a shared fear of the USSR and then Saddam Hussein—no longer exist and that Turkey’s cooperation with Iran against the Kurds runs entirely against U.S. interests. In contrast to Turkey’s lessening usefulness, Iraqi Kurdish support is vital to the United States in Iraq. In addition, PJAK, the PKK’s Iranian Kurdish allies, are potentially one of Washington’s strongest hands against Iran if used in conjunction with nascent Azeri and Arab separatist movements. For these reasons, Ankara is unlikely to force the United States to choose between an increasing Islamic and Iran-allied Turkey and the secular Kurds.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sabre-rattling comes in the context of Turkey’s 2007 elections when he needs votes from nationalists as well as from his religious constituency. Blaming the resurgent Kurdish troubles on foreign meddling and threatening military action is an easy way to both deflect blame and win the support of secular nationalists.


If the Turkish army launches a large-scale assault on Qandil, it forces the PKK to move on, to alter its ideology and to find new modes of operation. When the United States destroyed al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan, it temporarily threw Osama bin Laden’s movement into flux. This caused a ripple of unplanned and largely ineffective al-Qaeda attacks, but also fragmented the movement, broke chains of command and caused trained al-Qaeda members to disperse and disappear underground. Once underground, the movement was forced to evolve, and its least effective members were caught or killed. It learned from its mistakes and then re-constituted itself into a more disciplined and effective form. There is every reason to believe that a Turkish move against Qandil would have a similar effect. A strike—whether by ground, or air—would not destroy the movement. Instead, it would damage and shake up the PKK’s aging, ineffectual and factionalized leadership, enflame the Kurdish sense of victimhood and pave the way for younger, more intellectually mobile people to take over. The present situation is a stalemate that favors Turkey; military action would shatter this situation with consequences that cannot be easily predicted. Turkish economic and diplomatic pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan to control the PKK is likely to prove more effective—if less dramatic.


1. Author interview with Assad Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, member of the PKK leadership council, PKK base camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 22, 2006.

2. Author interview with Seb Walker, Reuters correspondent in Iraqi Kurdistan from 2003-2005, August 2006.

3. Author interview with Peshwaz Faizulla, Suleimaniya, Iraq, March 2006.

4. Vian Jaff was an Iraqi-Turkish Kurd who set herself on fire in Ankara to protest against Turkey’s policies toward the Kurds.

5. Author interview with Azad Jundiani, PUK spokesman, Suleimaniya, Iraq, March 2006.

6. Author interview with Assad Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, member of PKK leadership council, PKK base camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 22, 2006.