The Evolution of the PKK: New Faces, New Challenges

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 23

A PKK Fighter on Mount Qandil

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded in 1974 to mobilize Turkish Kurds to fight for independence from Turkey. During the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK fought a guerrilla campaign against Turkey that claimed over 30,000 lives on both sides. After calling off a five-year-old cease-fire in 2004, the PKK has renewed attacks on targets in Turkey. In recent months, Turkey has stepped up its calls for the United States to take action against the PKK’s bases on Mount Qandil in Kurdish northern Iraq, rejecting the PKK’s offer to declare a new cease-fire and open talks. For the United States, however, solving the PKK issue is difficult since it must weigh its support for Turkey with its need for stability in northern Iraq.

Political Development

The PKK began as a communist movement inspired largely by 1950s and 1960s South American liberation movements. After the group’s founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested by Turkey and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998, the movement grew steadily more moderate. After Ocalan’s capture in Kenya, the PKK retreated to a series of camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their largest base today is in the valleys surrounding Mount Qandil on the Iranian border where some 3,000 guerrillas live, along with approximately 1,000 members of the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the PKK’s sister organization for Iranian Kurds [1]. Since moving to Qandil, the PKK’s goals have receded from winning full independence for Turkey’s 12 million Kurds (who are a majority in approximately one-sixth of Turkey’s land area) to winning greater civil rights and some level of autonomy. The group—with Ocalan still as its nominal leader—has overhauled its communist, Guevara-esque ideology. It now espouses a secularist, democratic ideal strongly influenced by contemporary European states. Abdullah Ocalan’s own solution to the Kurdish conflict is for Turkey’s Kurds to live under a system of “democratic confederalism.” In essence, this is a system where Kurds will rule themselves within a Turkish state with their rights and freedoms protected by EU-style laws.

Since moving to Qandil, the group has tried—largely unsuccessfully—to escape its “terrorist” past. In 2002, it renamed itself KADEK and attempted to portray itself as a non-violent movement. When this failed, it founded Kongra-Gel, a political wing based largely in Europe that aimed to effect a Sinn Fein-IRA-style separation of military and political duties. In 2004, largely due to the failure of the KADEK/Kongra-Gel re-brandings, the group abandoned its cease-fire and renewed attacks in Turkey. In contrast to its 1980s campaigns, when it assassinated judges and political figures and attacked civilian targets around Turkey, the PKK now only pursues military targets within Turkish Kurdistan.

Since moving to Iraq, the PKK has also repeatedly said that it would lay down its arms if its members, including Ocalan, were given amnesty and allowed to return to Turkey to take part in peaceful pro-Kurdish politics. Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, have supported this position. The latest cease-fire effort was announced by Murat Karayilan, perhaps the most senior Kurdish leader on Qandil, on August 31 (al-Jazeera, September 30). The new cease-fire came into effect on October 1, but swiftly collapsed after the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an obscure and radical new Kurdish group, detonated several bombs in Turkish cities (Terrorism Focus, October 17). The Turkish military then claimed that TAK was part of the PKK and reiterated that it would not negotiate with terrorists.

Shifting Support Bases

During the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK’s brutality and extreme violence alienated many of its potential supporters. Turkish Kurds broadly supported the group’s aims, but were repulsed by the group’s indiscriminate violence and in particular its policy of attacking the Kurdish “village guards” who were hired as a local proxy force by Turkey. It also ran kidnapping gangs and protection rackets throughout eastern Turkey. Since the late 1990s, however, the PKK’s more restrained approach has won it a larger following, if not an increase in active members. The imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan has also won the group sympathy that it never enjoyed previously. Earlier this year, more than three million Turkish Kurds signed a petition calling for Ocalan’s release (

Despite carrying out dozens of attacks during the last two years, the PKK is too weak to force Turkey to make concessions. At the same time, the PKK’s TV station Roj—based in Denmark—also gives it influence that few other Kurdish groups can match. The station frequently broadcasts interviews with senior PKK leaders on Mount Qandil, as well as with more junior recruits, and covers Kurdish affairs in greater Kurdistan and Europe. Turkish attempts to have the station closed by haranguing the Danish government have only won it a greater following. For example, in December 2005, 56 Kurdish mayors in Turkey wrote to the Danish government asking that Roj be allowed to continue broadcasting (al-Jazeera, September 29).

Despite these accomplishments, the successes of neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan have clearly not reignited Kurdish ambitions in Turkey as was widely predicted before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Largely as a result of being based in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, the PKK has reached a point of equilibrium whereby it cannot be destroyed by Turkey nor can it successfully pressure Ankara into granting Kurds more civil rights, let alone any form of regional autonomy.

Military Attacks

Since ending its cease-fire in 2004, the PKK’s attacks have never reached the intensity of its 1990s offensive. It is unclear if this is because the Turkish military has become more effective or if the PKK is unwilling to call for a return to all-out fighting. Most attacks have targeted Turkish military patrols in the mountainous rural regions near the southeastern Kurdish towns of Van, Hakkiri and Bingol. The military superiority of the Turkish army, however, has become increasingly apparent in recent months.

While the PKK is armed with landmines, grenades and AK-47s (as they were in the 1980s), the increasingly sophisticated Turkish military can field greater numbers of modern helicopters, surveillance systems and night-vision equipment. This growing imbalance is leading to heavy PKK casualties. For example, seven PKK fighters were killed during an engagement on November 17, while Turkey only lost one soldier.

Internal Disputes

The heavy losses incurred in recent attacks have intensified the leadership struggles that are underway within the PKK. Although the PKK remains ostensibly loyal to its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, splits are emerging within the Qandil leadership—and between Kurds based on the mountain and Kurds in Europe—over the PKK’s strategy. Aggravating these disputes is the fact that although Ocalan, the group’s leader, is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, the group has not successfully delegated power. A further factor is the group’s probable need to coordinate its actions with the legal Turkish Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party. Some believe that this alliance would be the PKK’s attempt to establish its own version of the IRA-Sinn Fein alliance.

Presently, the group’s center of gravity oscillates between Murat Karayilan, a moderate Ocalan loyalist in Qandil, Zubeyir Aydar, the head of Kongra-Gel in Europe and Abdullah Ocalan himself. Such disputes are common in the PKK—particularly during the turbulent 2002-04 period when the group consolidated itself in Qandil, unsuccessfully rebranded itself and then canceled its 1998 cease-fire. The group has also survived other splits. For instance, Ocalan’s brother Osman and several hundred supporters founded their own group, the Patriotic Democratic Front, near Mosul (Zaman, October 25, 2005). Yet depending on which faction triumphs in these disputes, the group might alter its military and political strategy.

Few of the PKK’s leaders can dispute that the group has failed to achieve its stated aims, and it is clear that the present strategy of cease-fires and attacks against the Turkish army has failed to win concessions from Ankara. For radical PKK members dissatisfied with the present leadership, one strategy is a return to outright terrorist tactics. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons have shown how easily Turkey’s tourist industry can be damaged. (Similar attacks by Islamic militants in Sinai and Bali furnish further examples.) Less radical members might, however, argue that the PKK should copy PJAK’s emerging tactics. In recent months, PJAK, which is also based on Qandil, has begun attacking oil pipelines in western Iran (IRNA, October 2). The PKK may well adopt similar tactics, which are also used extensively by militants in Iraq, with the vital Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline being the most obvious target.

Islamist Challenge

One threat to the PKK’s dominance of the Turkish Kurdish issue is the increasing religiosity of Turkey’s Kurds. Kurdish movements have traditionally constructed their identities in ideological opposition to the ruling regime—whether in Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Syria. Thus, when Turkey was a pro-U.S. military dictatorship, the PKK was founded as a communist revolutionary movement. In order to oppose Iran, PJAK, the PKK’s Iranian sister, today emphasizes its secularist, democratic and pro-Western values; for instance, it focuses on women’s rights and the environment. Therefore, as Turkey adopts an increasingly Western and European outlook (not withstanding the success of the AKP party), Kurds have started drifting toward Islamism. It is not clear how this will affect the PKK. The rise and fall of Kurdish Hezbollah in the 1990s illustrated the latent potential for Kurdish Islamist movements, as did the rise of Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the past, however, the PKK has altered its ideology and goals with changing circumstances, allowing it to survive serious setbacks.

The PKK could possibly respond to growing Islamism among Turkey’s Kurds by becoming more Islamist itself and perhaps even seeking new Islamist backers. Yet, since most Muslims quickly dismiss all Kurds as Israeli “stooges,” it is more likely that the PKK will attempt to retain its democratic and secular principles. The PKK may, however, seek to strike a balance by mixing some Islamic elements into its existing theories. It might even attempt to create a sort of democratic and nationalist Islamist Kurdish ideology—much like the Islamic Union of Kurdistan purportedly aims to do in Iraqi Kurdistan.

At present, senior PKK leaders, although maintaining their anti-imperialist left-wing identity, are baffled that the United States is unmoved by their proven commitment to secularism, sexual equality and lately democracy. “We believe in the same things as the United States. We believe in the freedom for all people and for all women. We believe in democracy and in free speech. We believe that religion should be far from politics,” said Assad Abdul-Rahman Chaderchi, a member of the PKK’s leadership council on Qandil [2].

Growing Threats to the PKK

In recent months, there have been signs that Turkey and Iran are devising plans to deal with the PKK and PJAK. Since April, Iran has occasionally bombarded Mount Qandil and launched minor cross-border forays, while Turkish jets struck camps there on August 23 (The New Anatolian, August 23). On November 20, Turkey’s ambassador to Tehran announced that Iran and Turkey had agreed to cooperate against the PKK. Both Tehran and Ankara have recently deployed large numbers of troops to their border with Iraqi Kurdistan. The United States has also appointed General Joseph W. Ralston as a special representative to Turkey to deal with the PKK, while Iraqi Kurds have closed offices of the pro-PKK Democratic Solutions Party in Arbil (Turkish Daily News, July 5).

Nevertheless, these developments should not be over emphasized. Turkey has been threatening to enter Iraq to tackle the PKK as early as 2002, while there is little incentive for the United States to take action against the PKK, a movement that has always been a low-priority for Washington.


Turkey wants the United States to eject the PKK from northern Iraq. This requires the full cooperation of the Iraqi Kurds, whose support the United States desperately needs. Even if the PKK is forced to abandon its base on Mount Qandil, it is unlikely that Kurdish attacks within Turkey will be stopped, as the root causes of their discontent—poverty, second-class citizenship and discriminatory laws—remain largely unaddressed. Furthermore, as the rise of the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks has shown, a weakening of the PKK simply facilitates the rise of more aggressive groups. If the PKK is ejected from Mount Qandil, most of the PKK fighters would be able to relocate to other parts of Kurdistan or to return to Turkey covertly.

For the United States, tackling the PKK question means deciding between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, and between its commitment to Ankara and its support for secularism and democracy in the Middle East. In addition, the U.S. military is unlikely to be able to differentiate the PKK from PJAK, its interlinked Iranian equivalent, or to tell either apart from Iraqi Kurds. Recent media reports even suggest, albeit on very tenuous evidence, that the United States is starting to aid PJAK.

Turkey, meanwhile, cannot embargo the Iraqi Kurds economically since the U.S. military in Iraq depends on supplies brought from Turkey into northern Iraq (for example, food and fuel). At the same time, an all-out Iranian-Turkish attack on Mount Qandil would not only invite a harsh U.S. response, but also provoke Iraqi Kurdish leaders to publicly resurrect their ambitions for a Greater Kurdistan. This would unleash regional chaos on a scale that even Ankara’s most hawkish generals would be loath to contemplate.

One solution is for the United States to encourage Turkey to grant amnesty to PKK members, allowing them to return to Turkey and to take part in conventional politics (similar to Bulent Ecevit’s amnesty in 1974). This would also help Turkey’s European Union ambitions by allowing a greater de-militarization of Turkey’s southeast, while overturning European skepticism about Turkey’s human rights record and undercutting the basis for Ankara’s deepening alliance with Tehran. Yet, because Turkey’s military leadership is confident that the army can contain the PKK militarily, it sees no need to compromise. In addition, because the PKK’s Qandil leadership has themselves proposed such an amnesty, the Turkish public would view such a step as “surrendering to terrorists.”


1. For more information on Mount Qandil and PJAK, please see Terrorism Monitor Issue #12, Issue #17 and Issue #18.

2. Author interview with Assad Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, member of PKK leadership council, PKK base camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 22, 2006.