PKK Expanding Urban Bombing Campaign in Western Turkey

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 32

A recent series of explosions suggest that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) may be stepping up its urban bombing campaign in western Turkey. On October 2, two Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) exploded within approximately three-and-a-half hours of each other in the Mediterranean port of Izmir, killing one civilian and injuring eight others. On October 7, another IED exploded in Istanbul, injuring five people, none of them seriously (Doğan Haber Ajansı, October 2). Since its resumption of violence in June 2004 following a five year cease-fire, the PKK has conducted a two-front strategy: a rural insurgency in eastern Turkey and a bombing campaign in the western part of the country. The latter has focused primarily on economic targets, particularly Turkey’s lucrative tourism industry. Since June 2004, around 30 civilians, seven of them foreign tourists, have been killed by PKK bombs and several hundred more have been injured.

Although no organization has issued any claims of responsibility, the latest blasts in Izmir and Istanbul bear all the hallmarks of previous PKK bombings. Unlike in eastern Turkey, where the organization has sometimes used quite large devices, the IEDs in the PKK’s urban bombing campaign in western Turkey have been mostly relatively small, based around A4 or C4 explosives and usually concealed in garbage bins or plastic bags. Intelligence reports and police interrogations indicate that the operatives are usually recruited by the PKK from Kurdish migrants from the countryside who are living in the shantytowns that now surround all the major metropolises in western Turkey, such as Istanbul, Izmir and Antalya. The militants are trained in the PKK camps in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq and then sent back to the city in which they were recruited. The explosives are couriered separately to the theater of operations, often weeks or months later. The militants begin their bombing campaign as soon as they receive the explosives. Police interrogations suggest that in most cases they are not specifically told what to attack, but are given categories of targets. The militants are expected to make the final choice of targets themselves, depending on prevailing circumstances and using their local knowledge. The militants tend to operate alone or, if a woman is involved, in pairs. Once their explosives are exhausted, they usually return to the Qandil Mountains.

Images from surveillance cameras in Izmir suggest that the two IEDs, each in a plastic bag, were placed 100 yards apart the previous night by a man aged around 25: one in a plastic bag next to a bus stop and the other in the saddle of a stolen motorbike outside a line of stores. The first detonated at around 7:50 AM, wounding a street sweeper; the second at 11:25 AM, killing a sales assistant from one of the stores and injuring 17 others. Both devices appear to have been fitted with timing devices, although the first exploded when the plastic bag in which it had been hidden was thrown into a garbage bin by the street sweeper. The police in Izmir have come under intense criticism for not conducting a comprehensive search of the area with bomb detection dogs following the first explosion (Radikal, October 3). Police officials in Istanbul said that the IED that exploded on October 7 had been hidden in a garbage can and appeared to have been detonated by remote control when a police officer passed close by (CNNTurk, October 7).

The IEDs in Izmir and Istanbul were the first to cause casualties in western Turkey since May this year. On May 12, an IED on a bicycle saddle in a street market in Izmir killed a street trader and injured 18 others. On May 22, a suicide bomber killed himself and seven bystanders when he detonated an IED in the center of Ankara. The Turkish authorities have blamed the PKK, although the organization has denied responsibility (Gundem, May 25).

During the 1990s, the PKK had an established network under regional commanders in western Turkey. Since its return to violence in June 2004, however, the organization’s operations in the western part of the country have been coordinated from northern Iraq. Once they are in theater, the operatives rarely have any contact with other PKK members or supporters except for the courier who delivers the explosives; this limits the damage if one operative is caught and interrogated. Nevertheless, improved intelligence—most of it coming out of the PKK in eastern Turkey—enabled Turkish security forces to intercept several consignments of explosives during the summer of 2007. It is currently unclear, however, whether the recent series of bombings is the result of the failure to intercept consignments or of a decision by the PKK leadership in the Qandil Mountains to intensify its campaign.

There are also concerns that the PKK may be considering a change in tactics, including the use of large vehicle-delivered IEDs made mostly from chemical fertilizers. On September 11, a panel van containing an IED comprising 580 kilograms of explosive material was discovered by chance in a car park in Ankara, where it had apparently been left prior to being driven to its target (Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 12). Although no conclusive evidence has yet been found, Turkish security officials say that they are 90 percent certain that the PKK was responsible. A cell phone found in the panel van was discovered to have once been used by a suspected PKK militant. The design and composition of the IED were also similar to smaller, remote-controlled devices that had been used by the PKK in attempted assassinations of state officials and members of the security forces in eastern Turkey. A successful expansion of the conflict by the PKK will place further pressure on the Turkish government to respond to the threat.