PKK Leadership Under Pressure in the Post-Öcalan Era

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 39

Every year the number of attacks by and on the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) mounts, seemingly by the day. Relatively infrequently, though, the world is permitted a glimpse of the PKK’s shadowy mid- and upper-level leadership figures, those who have recruited, trained and deployed Kurdish guerrillas against the citizens of Turkey and other nations.

Leadership is at least as important in terrorist groups as it is in all other types of organizations. The ability of a group’s leaders to impart its ideology and manage its activities spells the difference between success and failure. Historically, terrorist groups lacking adequate leadership figures have vanished quickly from the landscape; witness Belgium’s Communist Combatant Cells (CCC) and the eminently forgettable “Alfaro Vive, Carajo!” (Alfaro Lives, Damnit!) of Ecuador, both of the 1980s. The perseverance of the PKK, despite decades of Turkish military efforts to counter it, is a testament to the commitment and persistence of their leadership, as well as to the “roots” the PKK has put down with the Kurdish people. Another measure of the strength of an organization and its membership is the tenure of top operatives. In that regard, a number of the members of the PKK’s upper ranks have been in place for over two decades, a sign of their commitment to the PKK and of the group’s trust in them.

As befits its paramilitary character, the PKK employs a pyramidal organizational structure. At the top is, ostensibly, the Leadership Council. In the past the Council, like in many other communist-type organizations, existed to rubber stamp the decisions of its founder and supreme leader, the now-imprisoned Abdullah (“Apo”) Öcalan. In contrast with most other designated terrorist groups, the PKK has many female members at levels from top to bottom. The PKK finds itself in a “tug of war” between the need to conceal the identities of its members (especially those of key individuals) and to conduct negotiations with others. This makes the drawing of an organizational chart inevitably somewhat less precise.

One name recently associated with the Leadership Council is Murat Karayılan (“Black Snake”), now in his 50s. Turkey reportedly believes that Karayılan has been the key PKK leader since the 1998 capture of Abdullah Öcalan. Cemil Bayık (“Cuma”), described as one of the two most powerful figures in the PKK (, July 12), attended the PKK’s first Congress in 1978 and was appointed deputy secretary general at that time. Testimony given during Abdullah Öcalan’s trial in 1999 indicated that Bayık had been in training camps in both Lebanon and Syria. In addition, Bayık was said to have played a role in the transfer of funds from Europe to the PKK’s coffers and to have spent time in Iran as well (World Bulletin, November 7).

Given the central nature of finance to any organization, the name Rıza Altun must appear on the PKK organization chart at the top level. Altun was one of the founders of the PKK and was its chief financial operator, having been stationed in Western Europe. Altun was reported to have been one of the four senior PKK officials killed in a suicide bombing at a PKK rear base in northern Iraq in July (see Terrorism Focus, September 25), but that report was quickly denied by the PKK. Other figures believed by a variety of sources to be in PKK decision-making roles at the group level in the post-Öcalan era are Nizamettin Toğuç (, November 24, 1999), Duran Kalkan, Rostam Joudi (Asia Times, March 14) and Bubeyir Aydar, the latter having been expelled from Turkey’s parliament in 1994 (World Bulletin, November 7).

Below the Leadership Council, the fundamental dichotomy in the group’s structure is that of military and political division, in line with the PKK’s policy of using military activities to achieve political ends. On the military side, one of the highest-ranking PKK members is a Syrian Kurd, Fehman Huseyin, who goes more commonly by the name Dr. Bahuz Erdal (or Ardal). Erdal is described as the commander-in-chief of the People’s Defense Forces, the PKK’s military wing. In a recent interview, Erdal claimed that the PKK had members throughout Turkey in both rural and urban centers (Al Jazeera, November 2).

On the political side, perhaps the most senior member is Abd al-Rahman Jadarji (Cardirci) of the self-described “Diplomatic Commission” (, August 10). Jadarji was interviewed most recently on his role in effecting the November 4 release of eight Turkish troops captured by the PKK in October (AFP, November 4). Sozdar Avesta (, November 4) and Mizgin Ahmed (The Guardian, October 26), both female, are reported by the PKK to be members of the group’s political bureau, along with Bozan Tekin (Takeen).

As always, the terrorism-counterterrorism dynamic has the punch-counterpunch characteristic of a boxing match. Recent accounts of enhanced intelligence sharing about the PKK between the United States and Turkey (Turkish Daily News, November 26) have been followed by even more recent reports that the two most important PKK leaders—Murat Karayılan and Cemil Bayık—have been captured and rendered to Western Europe in preparation for their extradition to Turkey (Today’s Zaman, November 23). If the report is true—for the claim has been denied by Turkish officials—it would represent the most severe test of the organizational resiliency of the PKK since the 1998 capture of Abdullah Öcalan.