The Many Faces of the PKK

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 25

Kurdish guerrillas have fought Turkish forces for almost a quarter of a century. Focusing attention solely on the approximately 5,500 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters, however, obscures the full dimension of the problems and threats faced by Turkey (Today’s Zaman, June 28). An examination of the full scope of the Kurdish organizations behind the PKK provides a better picture of the situation. Covert terrorist wings, which provide at least a modicum of deniability to the political organizations that sponsor them, are a long-standing modus operandi in international relations. The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades serve that purpose for Hamas; the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO) for Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran; the Black September Organization (BSO) for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); and the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG) for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. In addition to pursuing its own agenda, the PKK has performed this function—that of a “Cat’s Paw”—for the countries that have helped sustain its operations. Over the years, the PKK has enjoyed safe haven and received regional intelligence information from Syria, the use of training camps in Lebanon, bases in northern Iraq and support of various kinds from Greece, the Soviet Union and Iran.

The fundamental foundation of the PKK is the Kurdish people, estimated to number approximately 25 million worldwide. In a culture still based largely on allegiance to family and tribe, without the support of local leaders throughout “Kurdistan” (present-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan and Armenia), recruitment of new guerrillas to replace their killed and wounded would be more difficult if not impossible. It is highly likely that, in addition to sending their children off to war, Kurdish families contribute other items needed by the PKK, including food, housing and small sums of money. As will be seen, however, monetary contributions from impoverished small farmers cannot begin to sustain an effort of the PKK’s size and scope.

The Kurdish political organization in Western Europe is vocal and moderately effective, although this is in part because the “Kurdish Question” provides a reason for some European states to continue to reject Turkey’s long-pending application for EU membership. Kurdish institutes, cultural centers and associations exist throughout Western Europe, including Paris, Stockholm, London, Brussels and Berlin. Analogs to those are present in both the United States and Canada. A 65-member Kurdish Parliament in Exile was formed at The Hague, Netherlands in 1995. In an effort to enhance its image, the PKK changed its name to the Kurdish Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) in 2002. The use of that title and others, however, did not prevent the international community from continuing to list the organization as a terrorist group (U.S. Department of State, January 13, 2004).

The public relations apparatus is also outspoken and persuasive in presenting the Kurdish cause to the world, beginning with the rejection of the charge that PKK fighters are terrorists and the denial that PKK operations have resulted in civilian casualties (Christian Science Monitor, July 9). Newspapers, radio and television stations, magazines and up-to-date internet websites all carry messages sympathetic to the Kurdish cause. Kurdish-related news and culture are carried on outlets that range from state-controlled to private, varying by country. Within this media mix, a website can even be found devoted to news about imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and descriptions of the conditions of his prison accommodations on the island of Imrali, in the Sea of Marmara ( As would be expected, Kurdish-related media outlets have flourished in northern Iraq within the self-proclaimed “Kurdistan” since the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.

In addition to a continuing flow of recruits, the PKK, like any other military organization, requires frequent re-supply of its store of weapons and munitions. Terrorism Focus reported on June 26 that Kurdish representatives in Europe were gaining access to Italian- and Portuguese-manufactured weapons and munitions in developing states in Asia and Africa and from Russia and its affiliated former republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States (Today’s Zaman, June 12). Recent investigations by Japanese authorities revealed the presence of PKK sympathizers in Asia among the 300-odd expatriate Kurdish community in Japan. Eight Turkish Kurds were arrested between November 2006 and April 2007 on suspicion of violating Japanese immigration laws. Among the incriminating evidence found during searches of the homes of the eight were several dozen books and photographs of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and a PKK flag carrying Ocalan’s portrait. Several suspects admitted during the investigation that they were supporters of the PKK; one individual was identified by others as being an actual member of the PKK. Among other subjects, Japanese police questioned the suspected PKK sympathizers about having collected funds for militant activities (Yomiuri Shimbun, June 28).

Along with receiving the aforementioned contributions from the Kurdish community and soliciting funds from members of the Kurdish diaspora, the PKK has engaged in a variety of criminal activities to raise funds for its political and military efforts. Among those deeds are said to be narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, extortion, human smuggling, abduction of children and money laundering. As for the scale of PKK operations, British Security Services sources are quoted as saying that the PKK was responsible for 40% of the heroin sold in the European Union (Turkish Gazette, November 2, 2006).

The foregoing presents a picture of a multi-faceted organization with a near-worldwide presence and revenues, at least in past years, amounting to millions of dollars annually. While not differing from the characterization of the PKK as a terrorist group, this picture presents a fuller view of the overall architecture of Kurdish terrorism. More importantly, with continuing revenue flows, a relatively secure geographic base and a supportive population, the picture reveals a PKK capable of continuing operations for the foreseeable future. Most importantly, the picture carries with it the lesson that affecting a relatively small number of bank accounts or disrupting a number of arms deals could have a leveraged effect greater than attempting to deal with thousands of PKK guerrillas on the battlefield each spring.