U.S. Applies Terrorist Designation to Kurdistan Freedom Falcons

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 3

Turkish President Abdullah Gül (L) and U.S. President George W. Bush (R)

Following a full month of Turkish military strikes on bases of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the movement appears to have signaled a switch to urban warfare with the January 3 Diyarbakır bombing in southeastern Turkey that killed seven (Anatolia, January 17; Today’s Zaman, January 19; see Terrorism Focus, January 8). The PKK, while not accepting responsibility, said it was investigating whether some of its elements may have participated. The United States—which provides the Turkish military with real-time intelligence for attacks on PKK bases—immediately condemned the blast and issued a strong message that it would cooperate further with its NATO ally against Kurdish separatist violence.

This new cooperation took immediate form in the January 10 designation of a PKK-allied Kurdish militant group—Teyrêbazên Azadiya Kurdistan (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK)—as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. The move came only two days after a White House visit by Turkish President Abdullah Gül and appears to be a display of solidarity with Turkey in its fight against Kurdish rebels. The terrorist designation of the TAK is aimed at cracking down on the group’s financial support network by blocking their assets and the assets of their alleged accomplices. According to Department of State Spokesman Tom Casey, “TAK is affiliated with the PKK terrorist group and is responsible for multiple terrorist attacks in Turkey, which targeted tourist locations, military sites and government buildings resulting in several deaths” (Anatolia, January 11). It was the latest show of U.S. support to Turkey after commencing the provision of critical military intelligence about PKK hideouts in northern Iraq, information used in four major aerial attacks against the rebel camps since December 16.

The TAK has claimed credit for a number of bombings across Turkey since it surfaced in 2004. While the PKK has tried to shed its bloody image, the new militant group began claiming responsibility for violent attacks in Turkish cities. Although links between the two groups are elusive, the now banned website of the TAK—teyrebaz.com—routinely praised the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, while criticizing the larger rebel group for being “too soft.” The site also revealed that the TAK often recruits PKK members who share the belief that the PKK lacks the necessary will. “Come to duty now with the motto: ‘revenge, revenge, revenge’,” the group’s website urged Kurdish youth in 2006, while providing detailed instructions on how to make homemade bombs with commercial fertilizer, clocks and radios.

The TAK has a few hundred militants—mostly unhappy and unemployed Kurds—operating in small cells in Turkey’s western cities, according to an antiterrorism police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity (author’s interview, January 15). “The TAK amounts to the urban branch of the PKK, although there are differences between the two terrorist groups,” he said.

Most of the TAK’s attacks have focused on the country’s lucrative tourism industry—concentrated in the west—which the rebels say is used to finance Turkey’s military campaign against the rebels. The TAK last claimed a series of bombings in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya and the seaside town of Marmaris that killed three people and injured dozens of foreign tourists in August 2006. “The fear of death will reign everywhere in Turkey,” the group threatened afterward, warning tourists to stay away from Turkey. Naturally, the group drew the anger of European governments, whose citizens were injured in the attacks, while drawing attention to the cause of the rebels. The bombings coincided with EU pressure on Turkey to grant wider cultural rights to Kurds after Ankara allowed limited broadcasts in the Kurdish language and private Kurdish language courses. A TAK statement declared the bombings were acts of revenge for the continued imprisonment of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan (AFP, August 28, 2006).

A senior military official in Ankara said that the intelligence-sharing with the United States was working well, which may result in the TAK taking a larger role in the insurgency in the future. “The [intelligence-sharing with the United States] is up and running and is yielding results. The terrorists feel squeezed and we expect them to increasingly switch into urban warfare with bombs as the principal instrument,” he said on January 17 on condition of anonymity. “We understand that there is some degree of chaos within the PKK and its sub-contractors—including the TAK—as to what strategy to opt for. We also understand that TAK’s activities at this stage may become critical. But the terrorists at the same time wish to refrain from drawing more international anger by harming civilians. That’s the main dilemma they are facing these days.” Should the Kurdish rebels decide to pursue urban terrorism within Turkey as a response to the military pressure being applied to PKK bases in northern Iraq, it is quite likely that the TAK will play an important role in this campaign, particularly in their familiar zone of operations in western Turkey.