Tackling the PKK: New Directions for Turkey’s Special Forces

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 14

Recent counter-insurgency operations of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in northern Iraq have once again brought to the forefront its highly trained Ozel Kuvvetler Komutanligi (OKK – Special Forces Command). The OKK deployment comes as Turkey reorganizes its large conscript army to create a smaller, more professional force in which Special Forces and commando groups will play a large role in tackling threats from terrorists and insurgents.

Turkish special forces were first formed in 1952 under the name of National Hunter Brigades. These units’ equipment and training support came from the United States. The purpose of the formation was to have forces available to carry out operations behind enemy lines, including intelligence gathering and commando operations. Due to the growing threat posed by terrorism, the National Hunter Brigades were reorganized and renamed in 1992 as the Special Forces Command (Zaman, September 18, 2006). Since 1992, Special Forces units have been assigned to carry out counter-terrorism and rescue operations as well as conducting domestic security duties and guarding high-ranking military leaders. They report directly to the TSK Deputy Chief of General Staff.

Training of the Special Forces

The OKK members are selected from professional military officers assigned to the 1st and 2nd Commando Brigades, namely the Bolu Mountain Command Brigade and Midyat 3rd Commando Brigade. After selection, they are taken to training programs at Foca Gendarmerie School where they are expected to complete a three and a half year physical and mental training course.

Training programs include language education, ideological training, physical exercise, asymmetric warfare, and regular combat training. The ideological training includes the doctrines of Kemalism, the political history of Turkey and additional courses that are considered necessary to instill core values of the Turkish Republic. The physical and combat training has two sections—the first section, also the major section, is held in Turkey, covering general and advanced training. General training includes parachute jumping, survival ability, underwater and land combat training, fitness training, interrogation techniques, psychological warfare, asymmetric warfare, winter warfare and public relations. The advanced training includes landmines, demolition techniques, advanced weapons training, intelligence methods, combat expertise and psychological warfare. The second part of this course, which is held abroad—usually in the United States—includes specialization in Special Forces and Ranger training.

The Special Forces participate in joint NATO exercises as well as organizing joint exercises with Turkey’s close allies, including Central Asian Turkic countries and some Balkan countries. For instance, the 1st Anadolu-2007 Special Forces Exercise, hosted by Turkey, was conducted with the participation of Special Forces teams from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia in October/November 2007. Turkmenistan participated in the same exercise as an observer. The aim of Anadolu-2007 was to enhance the relations among the Special Forces of the participating countries, to exchange experiences and knowledge and to increase interoperability capabilities (tsk.mil.tr, November 2007).

OKK Operations against the PKK

Starting from 1992, OKK operations helped reduce activities of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) significantly. OKK units took major roles as frontier forces when the TSK conducted cross-border operations into northern Iraq. At the invitation of Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani in 1995, the Turkish military opened new bases in the region. While regular forces were deployed to the bases in Bamerni, Batufa, and Kaimasi, the OKK forces opened offices in the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil where Talabani and Barzani’s headquarters, respectively, are located (Milliyet, June 3, 2007). Due to the destabilization of northern Iraq, the Turkish troops were expected to “observe the developments, including the PKK’s activities, which may endanger Turkeys’ security and report to Ankara” (Milliyet, March 8).

One of the best known OKK operations was the kidnapping of Semdin Sakik, one of the leaders of the PKK. This operation was conducted in 1998 in Dohuk province of northern Iraq. The Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) was cooperative in that operation, which brought a degree of fame to the OKK forces in Turkey. The most spectacular and politically significant operation was carried out with the help of CIA—the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, founder and leader of the PKK, in Nairobi in 1999.

Conflict with the United States

Activities of Turkish Special Forces in northern Iraq caused two major crises between Turkey and the United States. The first crisis developed when U.S. troops detained a dozen OKK troops in April 2003. The U.S. brigade commander, Col. Bill Mayville, accused the Turkish Special Forces of using the pretext of accompanying humanitarian aid to arm Turkmens in the city of Kirkuk, creating a destabilized environment that could be used as a pretext by Turkey to send a large peacekeeping force into Kirkuk. The OKK commandos were escorted back over the border (Time, April 24, 2003).

The second major crisis, which is known as the “hood incident” (cuval olayi) erupted when U.S. soldiers raided an OKK compound in Sulaymaniyah in July 2003. The Special Forces men were hooded, detained and interrogated for 60 hours. A senior American official accused the Turkish soldiers of having been involved in a plot being planned against municipal officials in the region (Hurriyet, October 24, 2003). The “hood incident” became a symbol of deteriorating bilateral relations for some and an expression of U.S. dominance over Turkey for others. In the following years, three generals who were in charge of Special Forces were forced to retire as a consequence of the event (Radikal, August 3, 2006). The incident later became the opening scene of “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” a 2006 Turkish film which became a sensation at the box office with over 4.2 million viewers and a record revenue of nearly $20 million. The movie was regarded as a “virtual revenge” against the United States, as the hero in the deeply nationalistic and largely fictional movie took vengeance on corrupt U.S. commanders (Turkish Daily News, January 6, 2007).

The incident led to the reshuffling of the OKK in 2006. The OKK’s leadership status was upgraded from major general to lieutenant general. The number of personnel was slated to be increased. Moreover, under the OKK, two new brigades—1st and 2nd brigades—were formed. Whereas before the personnel increase the OKK had 7,000 soldiers, that number is expected to double by the year 2009 (Radikal, August 8, 2006).

A Role in Northern Iraq

Since 2006 the Special Forces have been involved actively in cross-border operations against the PKK. For instance, in April 2006, Turkish troops using infrared cameras spotted PKK terrorists crossing the border near the town of Cukurca, after which a Special Forces team of around 100 soldiers proceeded to cross the border into Iraqi territory. The go-ahead to send in the Special Forces team was reportedly given from Ankara (Journal of Turkish Weekly, April 30, 2006). When PKK members organized an attack on the Daglica border brigade in October 2007, killing 12 and kidnapping eight soldiers, the Special Forces once again crossed the border to rescue the kidnapped soldiers (Hurriyet, October 25, 2007).

Since December 2007, the Special Forces’ operations have taken a new direction. It seems that the quarrel between the U.S. military and the OKK is over, with the former antagonists now sharing information on the PKK’s activities in northern Iraq. The first Special Forces operation based on American intelligence sharing was carried out in December 2007 (Hurriyet, December 2, 2007). As of January 2008, additional Special Forces troops were sent to the Turkish military bases in northern Iraq to intensify counter-terror activities against the PKK (Sabah, January 10).

Since the United States and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) disapprove of large-scale Turkish military operations in northern Iraq, it would be very difficult for Turkish authorities to send thousands of troops to chase the PKK. The last large-scale military operation, Operation Sun, conducted in February 2008, received harsh criticism from the United States and the Kurds of northern Iraq, compelling the Turkish military to finish the operation in a short span of time. Yet Turkish cross-border operations against the PKK have continued since then. The PKK’s casualties—as given by the TSK—indicate that Operation Sun, by killing 266 PKK militants, delivered a major blow to the PKK. It is also true that smaller-scale cross-border operations—air strikes followed by Special Forces operations—have also caused significant losses for the PKK. For instance, in January, the 53 PKK were killed; in February when Operation Sun was conducted the loss was 266; in March, 74; in April 70; in May, 218; and in June, 36 (Aksam, July 5). If this information—claimed to be based on military intelligence—is correct, it shows that TSK operations supported by effective and actionable intelligence, air strikes and follow-up Special Forces strikes are as effective as large-scale military operations.

Given that the international community may not tolerate large-scale military operations in northern Iraq, and large troop deployments on the Iraqi border harm the military’s image in the eyes of Kurdish communities on both sides of the border, the military leadership may consider frequent small-scale military operations. Under the current conditions, they might be as successful as large scale operations. This reasoning may lead to increasing the Turkish Special Forces’ involvement in cross-border operations. Such operations would direct Turkish strategy away from larger operations to smaller, tactical, and high-tech supported operations. In fact, Land Forces Commander Gen. Ilker Basbug has made it clear that starting from 2009, six TSK commando brigades will consist of professional soldiers rather than conscripts.


In addition to Turkey’s attempts to reorganize its Special Forces, the PKK’s recent decision to move its militants to camps that are close to the Turkish border would make the Special Forces more important than ever. Sources claim that 700-750 militants moved to Harkuk camp 10 miles from the Turkish border; 175-200 militants moved to Basyan region, also 10 miles from the border; 600-650 militants moved to the Metina-Zap camps six miles from the border; and 250-300 militants moved to the Sinath-Haftanin camps three miles from the border (Aksam, July 5)

It is not yet clear what might have led the PKK leadership to make such a decision. Nonetheless, recent developments indicate clearly that the fight between the PKK and Turkish forces will intensify on the border. If the United States continues to provide actionable intelligence, it means that Turkish forces will continue conducting small scale cross-border incursions into the above-mentioned camps. In this case, the technologically upgraded Special Forces will be the leading forces conducting those operations.