The seizure in eastern Turkey on July 8 of three German mountaineers by a unit of the People’s Defense Force (HPG), the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was the first time in more than a decade that the organization had kidnapped Western tourists. The kidnapping is believed to have been a reaction to a crackdown by the German authorities on pro-PKK media outlets in Germany and appears to indicate a new willingness to explicitly target nationals of countries whose governments are regarded as being hostile to the organization.
The three mountaineers, all male, were members of a group of 13 who had arrived in eastern Turkey on July 6 to climb the 5,137-meter high Mount Ararat. They received a permit from the Turkish authorities and were accompanied by a Turkish guide. At around 10 PM local time on July 8, after setting up base camp at around 3,200 meters, the group was approached by five HPG militants, who delivered a lecture in broken English on the PKK’s armed struggle before kidnapping three of the climbers at gunpoint.
Following their release, the three mountaineers said that the militants were part of a 15-member HPG unit. For 12 days, their captors forced them to march at night and conceal themselves during their day, before releasing them unharmed on July 20. (Firat News Agency, July 22).
German Crackdown on Roj TV
On July 9, the HPG released a statement via the pro-PKK Firat News Agency (based in the Netherlands), confirming that its members had “detained” the three German mountaineers and vowing not to release them until Germany abandoned its “hostile policy against the Kurdish people and the PKK” (Firat News Agency, July 9).
The statement appears to have been referring to a recent German crackdown on organizations affiliated with the pro-PKK Roj TV television channel. Roj TV has been based in Denmark since March 1, 2004, operating under a license granted by Danish authorities and broadcasting via satellite to both the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and the Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Roj TV also had production companies in other European countries, including Belgium and Germany.
On May 7, German police raided premises belonging to the locally-registered Viko Fernseh Produktion GmbH in the western city of Wuppertal. Viko was responsible for supplying Roj TV with a number of programs, including the daily “Good Morning, Kurdistan” (Der Spiegel, July 13). On June 19, the German Interior Ministry dissolved Viko and confiscated all of its assets. It also prohibited Mesopotamia Broadcast A/S, Roj TV’s parent company, from all activity in Germany (Deutsche Press-Agentur, June 24).
The PKK in Germany
There are estimated to be around 500,000 ethnic Kurds living in Germany. The PKK itself has been officially outlawed in the country since November 23, 1993. The ban followed a series of attacks by the organization’s supporters on Turkish-owned properties in Germany on November 4, 1993, in which some 60 travel agencies, banks and restaurants were vandalized and one person killed.
Until recently, the ban was only strictly enforced on the PKK itself. Many of its support organizations were allowed to operate with relative impunity. The PKK continues to recruit Kurds living in Germany—and occasionally even ethnic Germans—to join its armed struggle against Turkey. However, it usually prefers to draw on Kurds living in rural areas inside Turkey and, to a lesser extent, in Syria and Iraq, as local recruits adapt more easily to the often arduous living conditions in the battlegrounds of the mountains of southeast Turkey. From the PKK’s perspective, the main importance of the Kurdish diaspora in Germany is its potential for fund-raising and propaganda.
In addition to conducting fund-raising events, the PKK levies regular financial contributions from sympathizers in the Kurdish community in Germany which, together with income from activities such as narcotics trafficking, are believed to be the organization’s main source of financial support. German authorities estimate that contributions from PKK sympathizers in the country generate revenue of at least $15 million a year, some of which is channeled into propaganda activities and some into the armed struggle itself (Der Spiegel, July 13).
Since returning to violence in June 2004 after a five-year respite, the PKK has been careful to avoid antagonizing European countries for fear of triggering a crackdown on its support organizations in Europe and in the hope of eventually reversing the 2002 decision to include the PKK on the EU’s list of proscribed terrorist organizations. During its first insurgency in 1984-1999, the PKK explicitly targeted visitors to Turkey, killing and injuring foreign tourists in a series of bombings in an attempt to damage one of Turkey’s main sources of foreign currency. During the early and mid-1990s, the PKK also kidnapped foreign tourists in southeast Turkey, including 19 seized in eight separate incidents on July 5, 1993. In each case, the foreign tourists were well-treated and eventually released unharmed.
In a statement issued after the three German mountaineers were released on July 20, the HPG declared that it always abided by the Geneva Convention and that, to date, the PKK “had not engaged, and would not engage, in any attack or initiative targeting civilians” (Firat News Agency, July 21). This is disingenuous. Since returning to violence in June 2004, the PKK has pursued a two-front strategy, combining a rural insurgency in southeast Turkey with a bombing campaign against civilian targets, including foreign tourists, in the west of the country. Over the last four years, the bombing campaign has killed around 35 people—including seven foreign tourists—and injured several hundred more. However, the PKK has attempted to distance itself from the bombing campaign by maintaining that it was carried out by an autonomous group of hard-line Kurdish nationalists known as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). In reality, TAK militants are trained in the PKK’s camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq and dispatched to western Turkey with explosives supplied by the organization (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 7, 2007). In recent years, the PKK has occasionally seized Turkish civilians and members of the Turkish security forces, but until the raid of July 8 it had not kidnapped any foreigners since the 1990s.
Change in Strategy or Individual Initiative?
In a July 21 statement, the HPG repeated an earlier claim that the unit which seized the three German mountaineers had been acting on its own initiative (Firat News Agency, July 21). For reasons which are not immediately clear, the statement has been used by the pro-government Turkish media as proof that the kidnapping was ordered by Fehman Hussein, the commander of the HPG, without the knowledge or consent of the head of the PKK’s Executive Committee, Murat Karayilan, who is subsequently reported to have demanded Hussein be executed for irrevocably alienating the German government (Today’s Zaman, July 16).
Claims of internal divisions within the PKK and reports of the deaths of both Hussein and Karayilan appear regularly in the Turkish media. Although it is possible that there are tensions between Hussein and Karayilan, most such reports are probably part of a disinformation campaign by Turkish authorities to try to undermine the PKK’s morale. Given the PKK’s often draconian response to insubordination within its own ranks, it is highly unlikely that a single HPG unit commander would have decided to kidnap foreigners without explicit authorization. The alacrity with which the HPG issued a statement confirming the kidnapping and demanding concessions from the German authorities appears to confirm that the operation received prior approval from the high command.
In fact, contrary to the claims of the Turkish media, the kidnapping was consistent with an abrupt hardening in PKK rhetoric after German authorities outlawed Roj TV. In late June, the PKK Executive Committee issued a statement warning that “it is the German Government which is responsible for all the resulting negative consequences of this policy,” calling on Berlin to abandon “its hostile policy against the Kurdish people and its liberation movement” (Der Spiegel, July 13). The phrasing was almost identical to the statement issued by the HPG after the mountaineers had been seized.
At the beginning of July, Turkish police forwarded intelligence reports to the German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (Bundeskriminalamt – BKA) indicating that there was a possibility of attacks and kidnappings against German citizens. On July 2, the BKA sent messages to the interior ministries of the 16 German states warning of possible attacks and kidnappings against Germans in Turkey (Der Spiegel, July 13).
It is unlikely the PKK leadership expected the seizure of the three mountaineers would force the German government to lift the ban on Roj TV. The kidnappings were probably mainly designed to generate publicity and serve as a defiant demonstration of the organization’s strength, not only to the German government but also to the PKK’s Kurdish constituency. The PKK is aware that it is never going to defeat the Turkish security forces on the battlefield. Since resuming its insurgency in June 2004, the PKK has used violence to try to pressure the Turkish authorities into granting Kurds greater political and cultural rights and to assert itself as the main representative of the country’s Kurdish minority. It will have been aware that many of its current and potential supporters in the Kurdish diaspora in Germany would have regarded mere verbal protests as an inadequate response to the closure of Roj TV. It is also possible that the PKK believed that the kidnappings would serve as a deterrent, both against further measures against its support groups inside Germany and against similar attempts by governments in other countries.
The PKK is unlikely to have intended—as it threatened—to hold the three German mountaineers until there was a change in German government policy. In announcing the mountaineers’ release, the Turkish authorities claimed that the hostages were freed when the HPG unit was forced to abandon them after being encircled by Turkish security forces (NTV, CNNTurk, Anadolu Ajansi, July 20). In contrast, the HPG declared that it had already agreed to release the three climbers to representatives of human rights groups and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) at 8:00 PM on July 20, but that the approach of Turkish military units had resulted in them bringing the time forward to 12:00 PM to avoid the possibility of the hostages being caught in a firefight (Firat News Agency, July 21). What is known is that, when it kidnapped foreigners during the 1990s, the PKK always eventually released them unharmed, apparently in return for the publicity their detention had generated rather for any concessions from the authorities. It currently remains unclear whether the kidnapping of the mountaineers is likely to be a one-off reaction to the German crackdown on Roj TV or whether further kidnappings of Germans or other foreign nationals are likely to follow.