The casualties suffered since the beginning of June in Turkey’s military operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members in its southeast region provide a disturbing illustration of the spread of technology and techniques among terrorist groups. Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) have been used by the PKK with deadly effect, killing both Turkish troops and civilians. In recent years, there has been a shift in PKK strategy; the organization now seems to prefer the use of IEDs over direct armed attacks against the Turkish military. More than 30 such attacks by the PKK have been carried out in the past six months alone (Today’s Zaman, June 12).
IED use is increasingly appearing in conflicts around the world. It has long been utilized by Lebanon’s Hezbollah against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in southern Lebanon. It has been employed against U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, causing hundreds of deaths. Most recently, IEDs have been used in Afghanistan in growing numbers. This lethal technology is presently creating problems for Turkey’s military.
Turkey’s latest series of offensives in southeastern Turkey were in response to ongoing attacks that have intensified in yet another predictable spring offensive by Kurdish irregulars. At least 14 members of Turkey’s security forces have been killed by Kurdish insurgents thus far in June. Most of these deaths were caused by remotely detonated land mines (New Kerala, June 13). That figure continues the pace of casualties in May, when the deaths of 33 Turkish military members were reported by the Turkish military (Today’s Zaman, June 12). On May 25, suspected PKK members bombed a cargo train traveling from Bitlis to Elazig near Lake Van in southeastern Turkey, causing eight cars to derail (Today’s Zaman, June 5). Fourteen Turkish troops were taken out of action on June 4—eight killed and six wounded—in a PKK suicide attack on a Turkish checkpoint using hand grenades (Ria Novosti, June 6; Turkish Weekly, June 5). Four members of the Turkish military contingent in southeastern Turkey were killed on June 7 when a remotely detonated mine destroyed their vehicle (Anatolia News Agency, June 8). At least 14 people were taken to hospitals in Istanbul following the explosion of a device, possibly a percussion bomb, detonated outside a store on June 10 (Anatolia News Agency, June 10). From the very outset of the present operation, IEDs have exacted a mounting toll.
The fundamental problem in countering IEDs faced by Turkey, as well as every other military force including the United States, is that most conventional military forces are easily identifiable when they are deployed. An IED, on the other hand, can be any type of object. IEDs have taken the form of cans of cooking oil, piles of trash alongside a road, vests and belts worn on persons’ bodies, automobiles, dead animals, cellular telephones, luggage, radio/CD players and even the bodies of slain comrades. The list is virtually endless, constantly changing and limited solely by the demonstrably fertile imagination of the terrorist bomb-makers active in recent years. Advances in the miniaturization of electronics also have enhanced the IED threat greatly. Cheap, readily available triggering devices such as cellular telephones, pagers and oven timers make IEDs even simpler to construct and easier to conceal.
The odds greatly favor the likelihood that many of the components for the IEDs being used against Turkish troops and civilians are being obtained within Iraq, a fact that does not bode well for Turkey. In terms of supply, Iraq is virtually one large ammunition dump, with millions of tons of munitions lying around and in many cases simply ripe for the taking. This ensures that the PKK and others carrying out attacks on Turkey will have a continuing supply of IED components for many years. Basing and operating within Iraq also allows the PKK to train and deploy its members against Turkey from the sanctuary of a contiguous sovereign state, thereby at least slowing the military response, as is happening in this latest operation (Agence-France Presse, June 12). Iraq, of course, is also a crossroads and meeting place among trained members of al-Qaeda, as well as former members of the Saddam Hussein regime, who may be willing to impart knowledge of IED manufacturing on the PKK.
The PKK is said to also be active in international arms-procurement markets, primarily Eastern and Western European, through its representatives in those locations. Forensic examination by Turkish authorities in 2005 and 2006 revealed that the PKK obtained most of its weapons from Russia and its affiliated former republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. A growing portion of the weapons and explosives, though, was found to have originated in Turkey’s Western European NATO allies—landmines from Italy and A4 explosives from Portugal are two prime examples. Neither Italy nor Portugal intentionally ships such materials to the PKK; however, PKK representatives reportedly monitor sales to developing countries in Africa and Asia, intervening in those locales to obtain needed munitions (Today’s Zaman, June 12).
The compelling reason for the use of IEDs, in this case by the PKK, is that they are great equalizers. Turkish military officials have said that between 3,500 and 3,800 PKK members are in northern Iraq and up to 2,000 are inside Turkey (al-Jazeera, June 12). A face-to-face battle by relatively lightly armed PKK irregulars against up to 200,000 Turkish troops, including armor and artillery, would be tantamount to Kurdish suicide. This accounts for the aforementioned shift to the increased use of IEDs by the PKK during the past four years (Today’s Zaman, June 12). Continuing to kill its Turkish foe, albeit slowly, while declaring cease-fires and appealing to the court of world opinion through the media, is a strategy that has worked successfully elsewhere, including in Iraq.
Given the number of deaths from IEDs of more-experienced, better-equipped U.S. and Israeli troops in recent years, Turkey is likely to see the number of its troops killed and injured by IEDs climb further. Based on the number of successful bombing attacks recently against Turkish civilians, IED use in urban settings can be expected to continue as well. In asymmetrical warfare, IEDs have become the weapon of choice for the weaker foe.