The recent arrest in Istanbul of three members of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front (DHKP-C) on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and attack U.S. companies suggests that, though weakened, Turkey’s most dangerous militant Marxist organization still retains the will and capacity for violence.
On March 5, following a month of surveillance , the Turkish police arrested three DHKP-C militants in the Beylikduzu neighborhood of Istanbul. In a subsequent raid on a DHKP-C safe house in the neighborhood of Kucukcekmece, police seized an AK-47 assault rifle, pistols, ammunition, explosives, 35 kilos of ammonium nitrate, and a remote-controlled toy car that had been wired to a detonator. When the three militants were paraded before the Turkish media on March 9, the police alleged that they had been planning to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) as Erdogan arrived at his Istanbul residence in the Uskudar neighborhood on the Asian shore of the city. The police claimed that, during the raid on the safe house in Kucukcekmece, they had recovered diagrams of Erdogan’s residence and a list of the addresses of U.S. companies active in Turkey. Under interrogation, the militants are reported to have confessed that they had been planning to use the remote-controlled toy car to detonate the IED in order to circumvent the jammers employed by Erdogan’s bodyguards to block the frequencies used by cell phones wired to detonators.
The DHKP-C has its roots in the Turkish leftist student movement of the 1970s. Its ultimate aim is to establish a Marxist state in Turkey through violent revolution. The DHKP-C was previously known as Revolutionary Left (Dev Sol). In 1990-92, Dev Sol assassinated approximately 120 people, mostly police officers and retired high-ranking members of the Turkish military. However, in 1991, in protest at the U.S.-led military campaign to evict the Iraq from Kuwait, it bombed more than 20 U.S. and NATO military, commercial, and cultural facilities in Turkey and assassinated two U.S. citizens and one British national.
In 1992, as it came under increasing pressure from the Turkish security forces, Dev Sol split amid violent factional infighting. In 1994 the main faction renamed itself the DHKP-C. The organization’s military wing is composed of a network of Armed Propaganda Unit (SPBs), which normally consist of three-member cells. Traditionally, the DHKP-C has recruited primarily, though not exclusively, from Turkey’s heterodox Alevi minority, particularly from the provinces of Tunceli and Tokat in central Anatolia, which both have large Alevi populations.
Over the last 14 years, the DHKP-C has continued to target the Turkish security forces, leading Turkish and foreign corporations, and government officials. However, the fading ideological allure of communism has reduced its ability to establish a broad support base in Turkish society. In October 2000, the organization further degraded its already declining operational capabilities by launching a campaign of hunger strikes to protest conditions in Turkish jails, which are estimated to hold around 900 DHKP-C members and supporters. Over the last eight years, nearly 100 DHKP-C members and supporters have starved themselves to death and several hundred more become permanently disabled, without extracting any concessions from the Turkish authorities.
The DHKP-C is also now heavily penetrated by the Turkish intelligence services; as a result most of its planned operations are thwarted before they can be realized. For example, in summer 2003, intelligence reports enabled Turkish security forces to foil an attempt to assassinate Erdogan as he attended the wedding of his son Bilal in Istanbul.
Nevertheless, the DHKP-C continues to conduct small-scale operations – such as firebombing facilities associated with Turkish and foreign corporations, bank ATMs, and branch offices of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and it has occasionally come close to staging a successful high-profile attack. In June 2004, an IED being transported by bus by a DHKP-C militant in preparation for an attack on the NATO summit in Istanbul exploded prematurely, killing the militant and three other passengers. In June 2007, a plot to assassinate Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul by detonating an IED as his car passed under a bridge near Izmir was only foiled when security officials happened to notice the DHKP-C militants attaching the explosives to the bridge.
As its capabilities have declined, the DHKP-C has begun to use suicide attacks. It staged two successful attacks against the Turkish police in 2001. In July 2005, a DHKP-C militant with explosives strapped to his body managed to enter the Ministry of Justice building in Ankara before being restrained by security officials and shot dead as he tried to flee.
The March 5 arrest of what appears to be a SBP unit in Istanbul indicates that the DHKP-C is continuing to plot attacks. The organizations’ propaganda lists Western interests, particularly those associated with the United States, as well as officials and facilities of the Turkish government and security forces as legitimate targets for violence. The organization’s weakened capabilities and the high level of penetration by the Turkish intelligence services suggest that most plots – like the one to assassinate Erdogan – will continue to be foiled. However, there is still a possibility that one will succeed.
(Aksam, Hurriyet, CNNturk, Cihan Haber Ajansi, March 10)