On August 28, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (also known as the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, Teyrêbazên Azadiya Kurdistan, or TAK) set off several bombs in the Turkish cities of Marmaris, Istanbul and Antalya. The attacks, the latest in a series, killed three people and injured 21. The bombings illustrated the secretive group’s growing ability to carry out multiple simultaneous operations. The attacks also demonstrated TAK’s growing threat not only to Turkey, but also to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) self-appointed role as sole defender of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
Just two years ago, in mid-2004, the group carried out its first attacks. These earliest bombings were largely small and non-lethal, but from 2005 onward the TAK launched more deadly attacks—notably killing five foreign tourists in their bombing of the resort city of Kusadasi on July 16, 2005 (BBC, July 16, 2005).
At present, little is known about the TAK’s size, leadership or ideology, although the group probably has only a few dozen active members. The group is presumably secular-leaning; however, its signature attacks on foreign tourists raise the possibility of a broader anti-Western agenda in common with the then-Marxist PKK during the 1980s and 1990s. Although there is no precise information, it is possible that the TAK was founded by Kurds who disagreed with the PKK’s softening stance toward Turkey. Since the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the PKK’s goals have shrunk from demanding full independence for Kurdistan to the granting of cultural rights and some form of limited autonomy to Turkish Kurds. Although Turkish politicians and media argue that the TAK is a front for the PKK, it is more likely that the group is a rival and potential successor to the PKK.
There are important ideological differences between the PKK and the TAK. While the PKK mainly attacked military and political targets—for example, targeting army bases and assassinating judges—the TAK has deliberately attacked Turkish and foreign civilians. The geographical spread of TAK attacks also suggests that its members live in Kurdish migrant communities in western Turkey and in Istanbul, rather than in the Kurdish heartlands of the southeast that were the focus of PKK actions.
Additionally, while the PKK now issues carefully-worded demands, intended to be the basis of negotiation, the TAK’s sporadic statements are deliberately uncompromising. The TAK’s violent and nihilistic rhetoric is also remarkably similar to that of radical Islamists—although without the Islamic references—perhaps indicating the growing influence of jihadi methodology even among secular Middle Eastern groups. For example, after one minor bombing in Istanbul in March, one TAK press release stated: “We declare to the public that our people are not without protection. The Kurdish people will not remain defenseless. From now on, every attack against our people will be met immediately by even more violent acts. We will start to harm not just property, but lives too. With our actions, we will turn Turkey into hell. The bomb attack in Kocamustafapasa [an Istanbul district], carried out by our action team was just a warning” (al-Jazeera, March 31). TAK statements are only rarely issued, and the TAK gives a low priority to communications. It briefly ran a website at http://www.teyrebaz.com, but when that was taken off-line, it was never replaced.
There are other indications of a growing rivalry between the PKK and the TAK. From mid-August, Murat Karayilan, a senior PKK commander on Mount Qandil in northern Iraq, declared that a new PKK cease-fire would come into effect on September 31 (KurdMedia.com, August 24; Terrorism Monitor, September 21). The TAK, however, dealt the cease-fire a probably fatal blow when they carried out a triple resort bombing on August 28. Kongra-Gel, a branch of the PKK, swiftly condemned the August 28 TAK attacks, perhaps fearing that the violence would make Ankara less willing to compromise on Kurdish issues (Firat News Agency, August 30). Within days of the attack, the Turkish prime minister and the army’s chief of staff both said that they would not recognize the PKK cease-fire and would continue to treat the group as a “terrorist organization.” The TAK attack, therefore, dealt a blow to both Turkey and the PKK.
The TAK, therefore, appears less a front group or successor to the PKK than a marginal, but more radical, alternative. Although Turkey may struggle to tackle the TAK in the short–term on account of its secretive nature and its low-risk style of attack, unless the group can produce a more positive ideology it is unlikely to ever become more than an irritant between Turkey and its Kurds.