An increasing number of recent reports detail what appear to be the signs of growing stress within the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). First, there are reports of numbers of people leaving the PKK, a sign of a beleaguered organization, not one that is thriving. It should be noted that estimates of the size of the PKK membership range from a low of approximately 3,000 to as high as 10,000 people. Those estimates are obscured by location—”2,000 PKK militants in Turkey and another 3,500-4,000 in northern Iraq”—by the possible inclusion of other groups’ members and by outright inflation by members of the PKK leadership as well as by Turkey (Today’s Zaman, July 22). Insurgent groups, including terrorist groups, historically are notorious for providing inflated membership figures in order to enhance their image. Correspondingly, countries being attacked have characterized the threat from insurgent groups as being larger than they actually were. While keeping in mind that the figures put forth by the parties involved on all sides are meant to serve their own purposes, defections for a variety of reasons clearly have been underway for some time.
Reminiscent of Italy’s 1980s success against the Red Brigades using the provisions of its 1981 “Pentiti” law, the “Repentance Clause” provisions of Turkey’s Penal Code (Article 221/2) offer similar rewards to, in this case, PKK members. Providing further insight, a PKK defector, Gul Kirtan, revealed to Turkish authorities that the “large” numbers of people being set free under this act has worried the PKK’s leadership “a lot” (Hurriyet, July 28). Overall, Turkish military authorities have reported that operations in 2007 thus far have resulted in the surrenders of 75 PKK members, over 20% of the 362 Kurdish guerrillas taken out of action (Anatolia News Agency, September 3). As many as 3,000 people are said in separate reports to have left the PKK and to now be serving as members of the Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga units, although no timeframe for the 3,000 defections was given (Hurriyet, July 18). In an organization in which one of its own leaders, Murat Karayılan, claims to command as many as “10,000” troops, however, the loss of 3,000 people must be more than a little disconcerting regardless of the timetable (Turkish Daily News, July 23).
Much more ominous from the standpoint of the organization than the loss of its troops, however, are the reports, quickly denied by the PKK leadership, of a suicide attack in July at the PKK base in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains that was said to have killed four of its senior leaders (Daily Star [Beirut], July 30). Indicative of the seriousness of the PKK internal dispute and the organizational level to which the disputes have apparently risen, the meeting at which the suicide bomber reportedly detonated his device included as an attendee Riza Altun, one of the founding members of the PKK and its chief financial operator (Agence France-Presse, July 28). It may be that after almost three decades of armed conflict, with uncounted numbers of fiery speeches by PKK leaders urging Kurdish youth to take up arms and attack Turks, all of which has not moved Turkey’s southern border one inch, the tensions within the PKK are spilling over into internal conflict.
The PKK defections reported previously, and many others, are a testament to the sometimes brutal treatment of the group’s members. As many as 1,500 PKK members are reported to have died at the hands of the group (Today’s Zaman, July 31). At the mid and upper levels of all terrorist groups, there is no shortage of competent, confident individuals jockeying with each other for higher positions. With Abdullah Ocalan being “away” for an extended period of time now, members of the mid- and upper-level PKK structure likely are exhibiting signs of their competition for higher rungs within the group’s leadership. Given the military character of terrorist groups, such competition closely resembles that within organized crime gangs and makes competition in the corporate world pale by comparison.
It also must at least be considered that other “hands” external to the PKK are involved in a number of possible ways in fostering or fomenting this intra-group conflict to aid their own cause. Other Kurdish groups—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—both long-time rivals for the allegiance of the Kurdish people, may very well see such maneuvering as an opportunity to enhance their own relative numbers and strength at the expense of the PKK. Turkey, of course, would benefit greatly from any weakening of the PKK.
Whether these tenuous signs of PKK internal strife continue, diminish, or even lead to the group’s breakup remains to be seen. The signs that the PKK is experiencing stress at present, however, are unmistakably clear.