Turkey’s Multifaceted Anti-PKK Strategy Continues to Unfold

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 12

Signs continue to emerge that Turkey has adopted a multifaceted strategy to combat the insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Following a series of military operations and economic reforms in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast region, it appears Turkey is now addressing PKK financing achieved through its role in the Eurasian narcotics trade.

This latest phase in Turkey’s strategy is being undertaken in cooperation with Washington, as seen in the May 30 announcement by the United States that officially imposed sanctions on the PKK under the U.S. Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act of 1999. The designation prohibits U.S. firms and individuals from engaging in transactions with the group. A U.S. national security spokesman stated: “Now that the PKK has been designated under the kingpin act, the penalties for doing business with them are much higher… We also now have the authority to target and designate other PKK entities and associates for narcotics activity. Before, we were limited to this group’s terror activities” (Hurriyet, June 2; Today’s Zaman, June 2).

Following a series of visits to the United States by senior Turkish civilian and military officials, culminating in a meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan last November, the governments of Turkey and the United States declared that the United States would provide assistance to Turkey in its efforts to detect and counter the PKK in the field through the provision of real-time, actionable intelligence on PKK facilities and guerrilla movements (see Terrorism Focus, November 6, 2007; Turkishpress.com, October 23, 2007). This was followed in December by the Turkish military campaign that continues to the present. The campaign began with air operations (al-Jazeera, December 16, 2007), leading to a major incursion by ground forces in midwinter—named Operation Gunes—that neutralized hundreds of PKK guerrillas, according to Turkish military sources (see Terrorism Focus, April 9; Hurriyet, March 13). The military strategy proved highly effective, especially compared to the results in recent years when the PKK followed Turkish operations by increasing its use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against Turkish troops with devastating effect.

With respect to the PKK’s involvement in organized crime, the May 30 U.S. designation of the PKK as a drug-trafficking organization is analogous to the November 2007 start of the improved Turkish military campaign in the sense that it signals the onset of a better coordinated campaign, the success of which is highly likely if sufficient follow-through occurs (Today’s Zaman, June 2). It is safe to say that the PKK can count on a campaign against its criminal activities that will be the equivalent of Turkey’s military campaign. It will take a bit longer, especially to fully implement it, but Turkey’s success thus far in its military campaign virtually guarantees that the anti-drug effort will happen and that it will be effective. The situation requires a concerted multi-front effort because terrorist groups such as the PKK long ago recognized the value of moving and selling drugs, trafficking in human beings and moving the resulting revenues to their coffers to acquire weapons.

The U.S. designation of the PKK is merely the latest, most-visible sign of the growing realization of the interconnectedness of terrorism and organized criminal activity, especially the degree of interaction between terrorist groups and organized crime organizations. What the PKK and other groups engaged in criminal activities such as drug trafficking may not yet realize—but will certainly realize in the coming years—is that the effort against criminal activity and illicit finance has matured greatly since the early-to-mid-1990s. A true cooperating international network with a finer and finer mesh to its net has emerged as more and more nations have had it demonstrated to them that criminal activity is fully capable of competing with national governments and, in a number of instances—Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan, to name just a few—capable of rivaling the central government in political power and influence. The continuing development of multinational organizations such as Interpol and Europol and advancements in communications technology now permit investigatory efforts to proceed with much greater speed than in the past.

While it may require patience, cracking down on the PKK’s criminal activities, including drug trafficking, will ultimately be successful. The Turkish strategy is aimed at a significant vulnerability that, until now, has been under-exploited. As is the case with any other enterprise, the PKK must have funds to carry out its activities, whether they be propaganda, arms acquisitions, or simply feeding its personnel on a daily basis. Drying up the group’s source of revenues, even partially, will place considerable restraints on its ability to continue to mount attacks given the lack of alternative sources of income for the PKK and its isolated location in the mountains of northern Iraq.

Reports of PKK involvement in drug trafficking are not new, of course, and certainly are not unknown to the Turkish government. It is the government’s coordinated approach that is the innovation which will pay dividends. All estimates of criminal activity are difficult at best; the consensus, however, is that the PKK—sitting astride the crossroads—controls in one way or another the great majority of drug trafficking between Central Asia and the lucrative markets in Western Europe and beyond. In the year 2007 alone, Turkish officials reported seizing 31 tons of opium and 13 tons of heroin (Today’s Zaman, May 27). One recent estimate by Lieutenant General Ergin Saygun, deputy chief of the Turkish General Staff, judged the PKK’s annual revenues at €400 to €500 million—roughly $640 to $800 million if true. Of those amounts, according to General Saygun, it is believed that 50 to 60 percent is derived from drug trafficking (Turkish Daily News, March 13).

As has been the case with Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, the PKK began its involvement in drug trafficking in the 1980s by extorting money from other traffickers and then shifting more and more directly into moving the drugs themselves. Interpol, for example, has claimed that the PKK, in one way or another, was behind fully 80 percent of the European illicit drug market in 1992 (Today’s Zaman, June 2). More importantly, and from the perspective of the PKK itself, Dr. Sedat Laciner, writing in the Journal of the Turkish Weekly, has stated that drug trafficking is the “main” source of the PKK’s funds and that “Turkey has become one of the crucial narcotics centers of the world,” warning that illicit drugs transiting Istanbul and other Turkish cities to Western Europe are transformed into not only terrorist violence but also a corresponding loss of power and authority on the part of Ankara. This, of course, makes the full implementation of the Turkish strategy even more urgent (Journal of the Turkish Weekly, June 1).

Notwithstanding the enhanced cooperative effort against drug trafficking, cooperation from some of Turkey’s allies has been uneven. While singling out and praising Germany for its efforts, Turkey has been quoted as mentioning specifically what it considers to be deficiencies in anti-narcotics activities on the part of a number of Western European nations—Austria, Italy, Belgium and Denmark among them. The continued presence of ROJ-TV, the PKK television outlet in Denmark, has come in for special emphasis in Turkish pronouncements. The Netherlands and Belgium, self-professed partners in the war on drugs, are reported to be home to producers of a good portion of the synthetic drugs in Western Europe, including the infamous “Ecstacy” (Today’s Zaman, May 27).

Two other legs in Turkey’s strategy also are unfolding concurrently. First, Ankara has already announced steps to deal with the weak economy of its southeastern region and the long-suffering Kurds there, many of whom become prime candidates for PKK recruitment activities. Showing the importance that the region has to Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan announced on May 27 an allocation of an additional $15.5 billion in funding to complete the Southeast Anatolian Project—underway since the early 1980s—with an estimate that the program would create four million new jobs in the impoverished southeast (Milliyet, May 28).

Secondly, Turkey’s relations with Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq are already much closer than would have seemed possible only a year ago. The Iraqi Kurdish administration has announced additional steps to counter the PKK that include establishing additional checkpoints, closer screening at airports for PKK members, and directing the closure of a number of PKK and PKK-affiliated offices. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani described the official visit of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Ankara as “valuable and positive,” words that would have been unthinkable only a year ago (Kerkuk.net, March 17).

The United States, as well as all other nations affected by terrorism, actually has a considerable stake in this joint effort against the PKK’s criminal activities, in that success against the PKK will serve as a template for similar campaigns against other terrorist groups that have similar architecture. Al-Qaeda, for example, also has a “distributed” structure similar to that of the PKK, with key personnel, facilities, functions and interests in a large number of nations around the world. Moving funds to where they are necessary then becomes even more essential to al-Qaeda than, for example, to a group such as Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, isolated in a single valley in Peru. Maintaining watch, therefore, on Turkey’s efforts to combat PKK drug trafficking will be well worth the time and effort for many nations combating the fundraising activities of their own terrorist groups.