Technological Innovation and the Turkish Armed Forces’ War on the PKK

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 30

How does the introduction of new technologies affect the search for alternatives in counter-terrorism operations? To answer this question, we examine the changing characteristics of terror attacks carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since 2004 and the means employed by the Turkish Armed Forces (Turk Silahlı Kuvvetleri – TSK) in responding to this multi-faceted challenge.

The PKK resumed its terror campaign in 2004, which it had halted in August 1999 following the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK terror campaign differed from the earlier phases in many respects, most significantly in terms of tactics. The PKK, a constantly adapting organization, has acquired new tactics and methods from the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, which enhanced the effectiveness of its attacks at the operational level. Similarly, by gaining access to military explosives it could inflict higher damage compared to past operations carried out with explosives designed for civilian use. Moreover, it has started to use advanced light weapons, communication systems, and night surveillance equipment.

The PKK took advantage of a growing availability of high explosives and new techniques, and adapted its strategy. The dissolution of the Iraqi army generated an enormous supply of military explosives and the PKK did not have problems in acquiring and transferring them to Turkey. In addition, it could recruit professionals to train its militants in bombs. Former officers of Saddam’s army or Iraqi Kurds sympathetic to the organization were perfect candidates for the job. Between 2003 and 2005, the PKK is believed to have acquired 2.5 tons of explosives (Sabah, December 29, 2005; for the amount of explosives captured by the TSK and the number of incidents involving explosives in 2008, see Ironically, advances in Turkey’s telecommunications infrastructure also contributed to the PKK’s more effective utilization of explosives through the spread of wireless phone networks along the railroads and highways.

Similar to insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, the PKK uses improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in roadside bombings. The PKK carried out roadside bombings in the 1980s and 1990s, but these bombs used a much simpler design: TNT bars or bazooka projectiles in a plastic box fortified with ammonium phosphate, attached to a mechanical triggering system. In most cases, the triggering system would not work or lacked precision, which resulted in missed targets. More advanced techniques have enabled the PKK to place remote-controlled bombs not only alongside roads but also in military positions or landing sites for helicopters in rural areas. Such a mechanism brought down a helicopter that crashed in Bingol in December 2006 (Star [Istanbul], December 9, 2006).

The PKK also benefited enormously from the weapons, equipment, and ammunition abandoned by the disintegrating Iraqi army. The supply of rifles, machine guns, night surveillance equipment, mines, and combat vehicles granted the organization the capability of carrying out sustained operations without running into logistical difficulties.

The new setting put the PKK in a relatively advantageous position at the tactical level, forcing the TSK onto the defensive, which continued well into September 2006. Highways and railroads were considered so dangerous that the Turkish army was forced to use helicopters for simple transportation needs. This development interfered with logistical support of Turkish forces deployed through a wide area, increasing the cost of providing security in the region. The precautionary occupation of helicopter landing sites by commandos before landing became a necessity. The defensive measures slowed down the transfer of forces on the ground, making them easier targets. Most significantly, this situation lowered the morale of security personnel.

The PKK achieved this result with a small number of well-trained terrorists. Almost 20% of its active militants were trained in explosives. The strategic goal of the organization was to confine the Turkish forces in their bases and barracks, so that it could reassert its control over local population and claim the upper hand in the conflict.

The TSK suffered many casualties. The growing number of incidents and accompanying losses of personnel caused friction between the military and the government and drew criticism from the Turkish public (Aksam, August 6, 2005). After his appointment as the Commander of Land Forces in 2006, Ilker Basbug (who takes over as the new Chief of Staff this month) initiated a new strategy against the PKK comprising new political, diplomatic, and military openings, backed by the government. In order to regain the initiative and boost morale, the TSK pursued new measures intended to increase operational and tactical pressure on the PKK.

On the diplomatic front, talks with Iran and the United States bore fruit. In particular, the U.S. decision to open northern Iraq’s airspace to Turkey, and Iran’s collaboration gave the TSK a decisive advantage against the PKK. The launch of air strikes against the PKK’s safe havens in Northern Iraq in the winter 2007, supported by U.S.-based actionable intelligence, had a devastating impact on the PKK. The actionable intelligence limited the area and time available for militants’ mobility, and the PKK gradually lost the initiative.

The TSK also moved to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to increase its intelligence-gathering ability. As an interim solution, the military leased a number of Heron UAVs from Israel (ANKA, March 3) and accelerated the project for developing domestically made UAVs (Savunma Sanayii Mustesarligi – Undersecretariat for Defense Industries; The intelligence gathered by the UAVs led to the TSK’s many successful operations in 2008. The TSK’s ability to observe PKK activities in real-time and conduct surprise attacks demoralized the organization. The training of Turkish personnel, the availability of equipment, and the coordination among security forces on the one hand and cooperation between the United States and Turkey on the other all played a important roles in turning actionable intelligence into effective operations.

Turkey’s introduction of preventive measures against the PKK’s IEDs and the TSK’s tight grip on the organization reduced roadside bombings considerably. The TSK’s tactical superiority in land operations on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border limited the maneuverability of the militants. Turkish airstrikes hit the PKK’s communications infrastructure. Moreover, effective use of jamming devices, temporary suppression of wireless phone systems, closer inspection of land routes and railroads, and increased border protection contributed to this outcome (CNNTurk, January 25).

The lynchpin of the TSK’s new strategy was increased tactical intelligence capability. With this advantage, the TSK partially abandoned its previous tactical concept based on control of an operational area through high number of soldiers and superior firepower. The new concept was based on a hybrid strategy, which in addition to the control of terrain, is based on the maximum utilization of highly swift and mobile professional units with rapid reaction capability. These tactics accounted for the growing number of PKK casualties (see

The PKK’s response to this new strategy was manifold. It regrouped its armed militants into smaller formations and dispersed them into a wider geographic area as well as among the civilian population. It also refocused its attacks, concentrating on spectacular targets using northern Iraq as the base of operations. Lastly, to reduce the pressure on its armed militants, it initiated bomb attacks and suicide bombers against civilian targets:

• First, the PKK reduced the number and activities of its militants. The 10 to 20 member operational groups it traditionally used were reduced to as few as 5 members. The declining visibility of its militants, however, translated into reduced influence of the organization in the region. The militants also started to penetrate into new areas, operating in a larger terrain and carrying out secret activities away from their bases, for their traditional areas were now closely watched. The PKK hoped the TSK would spread its forces thin trying to cover a wider area, which may eventually hollow out the TSK’s superiority in intelligence. To impede the TSK’s intelligence-gathering capability even further, PKK militants started embedding themselves with local people in upland summer meadows and increased their activities in areas with high civilian density.

• Second, the nature of the PKK’s attacks changed. On the one hand, its military attacks targeted border stations in stunning attacks from its rear bases in northern Iraq. The most spectacular operation was the raid against the Daglica border patrol in October 2007. The PKK also intensified its attacks against police stations.

• Third, it authorized the killing of civilians, charging them as “collaborators” and sought to carry out bomb attacks in metropolitan areas. Particularly in Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakir it was able to inflict harm on a significant number of civilians. The police also averted many attempts before terrorists could detonate bombs (NTV-MSNBC, September 11, 2007).

Nonetheless, the PKK is far from reversing the tide. Currently, its militants are able to take advantage of summer conditions, giving them greater mobility and access to shelter and food. As the winter approaches, however, the conditions will worsen for the PKK militants. Severe winter conditions will reduce their movement and their confinement in caves requiring heating will render them more vulnerable to the TSK’s intelligence-gathering and high-tech military operations.

Counter-terrorism requires an ability to develop and adopt creative, swift, and flexible responses to changes in tactical and operational conditions brought about by new technologies. No technological innovation will settle the struggle decisively, as long as the combatants take advantage of new advances. The lessons the TSK has gained from its fight against the PKK show that what has worked in the past cannot guarantee battlefield success in the days to come in a future full of technological uncertainty.