Under Pressure – The PKK Launches 2008 Campaign

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 7

On April 2, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) issued a statement claiming to have killed 16 militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the loss of three Turkish soldiers during two days of fierce fighting in the province of Sirnak on Turkey’s border with Iraq, suggesting that the PKK’s 2008 campaign is now underway (tsk.mil.tr, April 2). PKK activity has traditionally increased in late March and early April as the spring thaw begins to melt the snow in the mountain passes in the organization’s main battleground in southeastern Turkey and along the infiltration routes into Turkey from its bases in northern Iraq, where most of the armed wing’s 4,000 members wait out the winter. However, Turkish air and ground operations against PKK positions in northern Iraq in December to February have radically changed the political and military environment and look set to ensure that the 2008 campaigning season will be fought under very different conditions to those of recent years.

The Turkish operations in northern Iraq during the winter were the direct result of a change in the PKK’s strategy in fall 2007, when it abruptly launched a series of mass attacks against the Turkish army. The PKK leadership will have been aware that a similar strategy in the early 1990s failed because the Turkish army’s superior firepower—particularly its ability to deploy F-16 fighters and Cobra helicopters—enabled it to inflict an unsustainably high level of casualties as PKK units attempted to withdraw. The PKK leadership appears, however, to have calculated that even if its own forces suffered heavy losses, they would be able to kill enough soldiers to increase the public pressure on the Turkish government to strike at the organization’s camps in northern Iraq. The assumption was that this would be prevented by the United States—thus handing the PKK a major propaganda victory. To their surprise, Washington bowed to Turkish pressure in November 2007 and not only allowed Turkish F-16s to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq but also began to provide Ankara with intelligence on the organization’s movements in the country. On February 21, three battalions of Turkish commandos launched an attack on PKK forward bases in the Zap region of northern Iraq, which has long been one of the organization’s main staging areas for infiltrations into Turkey. By the time the commandos withdrew on February 29, the TGS claimed that they had killed 240 PKK militants for the loss of 27 members of the Turkish security forces (see Terrorism Monitor, March 24).

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the PKK has often implied that it was in contact with U.S. officials and even had tacit U.S. support, something which was also believed by many Turkish nationalists. Washington’s decision to allow Turkey to launch cross-border operations exposed this claim as a fiction. In the weeks following the first Turkish air raid in December 2007, the references to the United States in the PKK’s propaganda and internal literature became increasingly vitriolic. Perhaps more importantly, the Turkish cross-border operations also intensified the pressure on the Iraqi Kurds to clamp down on the PKK and at least move to confine the organization to its camps in the mountains even if they could not move against it militarily. As a result, in addition to demolishing the PKK’s belief that its bases in northern Iraq were immune to military attack, the Turkish cross-border operations also forced the organization onto the defensive psychologically by demonstrating its international isolation.

A Shift in Leadership?

In the past, major strategic decisions—such as the one to resume the armed struggle in June 2004 after a five-year lull—were taken by the PKK’s founder Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on the Turkish prison island of Imrali since 1999. Ocalan would communicate his decisions during meetings with his lawyers in jail. They would then be couriered to the PKK leadership in the mountains of northern Iraq, which would be responsible for formulating the details of how they were to be implemented.

All of Ocalan’s meetings with his lawyers are monitored by the Turkish security forces. However, the decision to start staging mass attacks in fall 2007 appears to have caught the Turks unprepared, suggesting that it was taken not on Imrali but in the mountains of northern Iraq. The decision-making processes within the PKK leadership are opaque. PKK propaganda maintains that decisions are taken by the organization’s leadership after harmonious consultation with its members. Turkish propaganda insists that PKK decisions are taken by a coterie of powerful individuals who are locked in a permanent power struggle. Reports of internal divisions in the PKK, conspiracies and attempted assassinations of rival factions are a staple of the Turkish media. Some of the stories are probably true. Others are undoubtedly disinformation planted by Turkish intelligence.

The PKK currently appears to be dominated by three individuals, all of them long-term veterans of the organization—Murat Karayilan, who is chairman of the PKK Executive Committee; Cemil Bayik, who was one of the founders of the organization in 1978; and Fehman Huseyin, the commander of the HPG (Hezen Parastina Gel, or the People’s Defense Force). Both Karayilan and Bayik were born in Turkey and are based in the PKK’s main camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, around 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the Turkish border. In recent years, they appear to have been working closely together. Huseyin, who also uses the nom de guerre of Dr. Bahoz, was born in Syria and is believed to spend a large proportion of his time in the organization’s forward bases close to the Turkish border, such as those in the Zap region.

When the Turkish commandos withdrew from northern Iraq on February 29, Karayilan described their departure as a victory for the PKK. At a ceremony to induct 100 new recruits into the HPG on March 8, a commander with the nom de guerre of Kocer Urfa delivered a speech lauding what he described as the “Zap victory,” predicting that it would inspire many more Kurds to join the organization. It is possible that, if it is repeated enough by the PKK’s propaganda outlets, such creativity will be believed by some of the organization’s rank and file. However, it is difficult to imagine that the PKK leadership is unaware that the cross-border operation of February 21-29 was not only a military defeat for the PKK but demonstrated how badly the organization had miscalculated when it decided on a change of strategy in fall 2007.

Arrests and Protests

On March 14, the Turkish NTV television channel reported that PKK member Nedim Sevim had been detained on an Interpol Red Notice after apparently trying to pass through Rome’s Fiumicino Airport with a forged passport. Sevim is alleged to be one of the leading figures in the PKK’s fundraising operations in Europe (NTV, March 14). Within days of his detention, stories began circulating in the Turkish media quoting unidentified “terrorism experts” as claiming that a faction of the PKK close to Karayilan had betrayed Seven to the Italian police as part of a power struggle between Karayilan and Huseyin. According to the reports, Seven is close to Huseyin and had recently replaced an associate of Karayilan’s as head of PKK operations in Europe (Anadolu Agency, March 19; Today’s Zaman, March 20). Such reports are probably part of a disinformation campaign by Turkish intelligence. Nevertheless, over the months ahead the internal cohesion of the PKK is likely to come under considerable strain until it can achieve a demonstrable success in order to compensate for the setbacks it suffered this past winter. However, it is unclear how such a success can be achieved.

In recent weeks, there have been several arrests in Turkish cities of alleged PKK militants with A4 and C4 explosives, suggesting that the organization is planning to continue the urban bombing campaign that it launched in August 2004 using mostly small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) (Anadolu Agency, March 15, 24; Hurriyet, March 15; Vatan, March 31). In late 2007 and early 2008, the Turkish security forces seized large quantities of ammonium nitrate, which was allegedly procured by the PKK in preparation for mass-casualty attacks using a vehicle-delivered IED. Previous PKK attempts to use large, vehicle-delivered IEDs have been counterproductive. Most recently, on January 4, a car bombing in Diyarbakir targeting a bus carrying military personnel ended up killing six civilians, five of them teenage students (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 10). It is unclear whether the PKK is prepared to risk eroding its public support by staging a similar bombing. Nor has it demonstrated that it has the ability to carry out a more sophisticated attack, such as the assassination of a high-ranking government official.

There is no doubt that PKK supporters were heavily involved in the clashes between demonstrators and police during celebrations to mark the Kurdish New Year of Newroz (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 25). On April 1, another of the demonstrators died from his injuries, raising the death toll to three, with several hundred more injured (Radikal, April 2). The PKK’s propaganda outlets have made extensive use of footage and photographs of members of the security forces attacking Newroz demonstrators. It is unclear whether the PKK will attempt to stage more violent demonstrations or, more dangerously, seek to incite ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds.


As the snow continues to melt, the PKK can be expected to mount operations against Turkish military targets in the mountains of southeastern Turkey. Although it remains capable of inflicting casualties, the organization does not appear to be strong enough to achieve either a major victory or a sustained string of minor successes. Most critically, it can no longer feel safe in northern Iraq and faces the prospect not only of casualties from Turkish cross-border raids and air strikes but also of severe disruption to its supply lines and logistical infrastructure.

Even if the PKK has tried to reinvent the Turkish cross-border raid into the Zap region as a victory, it was nevertheless a battle that the organization never expected to have to fight. Indeed, far from securing a major propaganda victory, the PKK’s ill-chosen change of strategy in 2007 means that it is likely to spend most of the 2008 campaigning season on the defensive. Under such circumstances, maintaining its internal unity and simply surviving may be the best that it can hope for.