For the first time in four years, the summer is drawing to a close without a major attack by Kurdish militants on the Turkish tourism industry.
Since the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resumed violent attacks in June 2004 it has pursued a two-front strategy: a rural insurgency in southeast Turkey and a bombing campaign in the west of the country focusing primarily on economic targets such as Turkey’s lucrative tourism industry.
The first attack occurred on August 11, 2004, when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated in an Istanbul hotel, killing two foreign tourists and wounding 11 others. Over the next two years, the PKK carried out dozens of similar attacks in which an estimated 22 civilians (seven of them foreigners) were killed and several hundred more injured. The attacks peaked in summer 2006. On June 25, 2006, an IED hidden in a garbage can at an outdoor restaurant in Manavgat in southwestern Turkey killed four people (three of them foreigners) and injured 25. In late August 2006, a series of bombings in Istanbul and the Mediterranean resorts of Marmaris and Antalya left another three dead and over 50 injured, almost half of them foreign tourists.
Alarmed by the potential damage to one of country’s main sources of foreign currency, the Turkish authorities frequently tried to downplay the bombing campaign. Despite numerous eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence to the contrary, the Manavgat bombing was officially attributed to an exploding gas canister in the restaurant’s kitchen. One IED in the heavily built-up center of Istanbul was officially blamed on an exploding can of hairspray, even though the blast rattled windows nearly two miles away.
Starting with the bombings in Istanbul in August 2004, most of the attacks were claimed by an organization calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). There was considerable speculation, particularly in the international media, about the links between TAK and the PKK, with some even suggesting that it was comprised of hard-liners who had broken away from the PKK.
In fact, TAK never existed as a distinct organization. Turkish intelligence reports and police interrogations of captured bombers suggest that the name “TAK” was merely used by the PKK to distance itself from the bombing campaign in the hope of being able to continue to court liberal public opinion in Europe and challenge its inclusion on the EU’s and U.S. State Department’s lists of proscribed terrorist organizations.
The militants used in the bombing campaign were members of the equivalent of a special unit in the PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG). They were selected from among existing HPG members and underwent specialized training in bomb making and sabotage in one of the PKK’s camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. They were then sent to their field of operations in western Turkey. The explosives to be used in the attacks – mostly A4 and C4 bought on the Iraqi black market from stocks formerly belonging to Saddam Hussein’s army – were sent separately. Rather than being told to attack a specific target, the bombers were told to choose their own targets for a list of categories, such as state institutions, economic infrastructure, and the tourism industry. Unlike Turkish leftist and Islamist extremists, the bombers were explicitly told to avoid attacking Western economic targets.
Once they had received their explosives, the militants usually operated alone and had only minimal contact with other members of the organization; female bombers were frequently accompanied by a male, often a husband or lover. Most IEDs were detonated either remotely or by a timing device. Levels of expertise varied considerably. For every IED that was detonated there were always several more that were discovered before they had exploded.
Unlike other extremist organizations in Turkey, the PKK has traditionally not provided its militants with training in tradecraft or anti-interrogation techniques. As a result, the organization is a relatively soft target for penetration by the Turkish security forces, particularly in urban areas where the intelligence agencies now have an extensive network of informers among PKK sympathizers.
Turkish intelligence reports and the continuing widespread use of IEDs in the PKK’s rural insurgency in southeast Turkey suggest that the organization has sufficient stocks of explosives. On May 22, 2007, a suicide bomber killed himself and seven members of the public in an attack on a shopping mall in the center of Ankara. The Turkish authorities blamed the PKK, a charge that the organization denied. However, over the months that followed several more suspected members of the PKK were arrested in urban areas on suspicion of preparing attacks against Turkish civilians and state institutions. But none of them were against the tourism industry. Similarly, the number of claims and public statements issued by TAK has declined dramatically. Although it is still too early to be certain, the evidence so far in 2007 suggests a change in the PKK’s strategy and the demise of TAK.