Monday, August 25, 2008

The PKK Is Not Monolithic

Rather than the PKK, the Firat News Agency is reporting that the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) carried out the most recent terror attacks in the western cities of Mersin and İzmir. This is more reason to dismiss of tired thinking of the PKK as a monolithic organization void of its own complexities and inner conflicts. Further, since it is not at all clear what TAK's relation is to the PKK, there is all the more reason to adopt a more nuanced analysis of Kurdish terrorism that breaks from more of the same finger-pointing at the singular evil of the PKK. Further, and despite arguments that TAK is nothing more than a cover for the PKK's more violent activities, it becomes paramount to consider TAK as an organization acting outside of the PKK's central command structure. Below is analysis from James Brandon at the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor that appeared soon after TAK claimed responsibility for the August 2006 bombings in Marmaris, Istanbul, and Antalya. These attacks targeted foreigners and radically broke with the normal pattern of PKK violence.
At present, little is known about the TAK's size, leadership or ideology, although the group probably has only a few dozen active members. The group is presumably secular-leaning; however, its signature attacks on foreign tourists raise the possibility of a broader anti-Western agenda in common with the then-Marxist PKK during the 1980s and 1990s. Although there is no precise information, it is possible that the TAK was founded by Kurds who disagreed with the PKK's softening stance toward Turkey. Since the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the PKK's goals have shrunk from demanding full independence for Kurdistan to the granting of cultural rights and some form of limited autonomy to Turkish Kurds. Although Turkish politicians and media argue that the TAK is a front for the PKK, it is more likely that the group is a rival and potential successor to the PKK.

There are important ideological differences between the PKK and the TAK. While the PKK mainly attacked military and political targets—for example, targeting army bases and assassinating judges—the TAK has deliberately attacked Turkish and foreign civilians. The geographical spread of TAK attacks also suggests that its members live in Kurdish migrant communities in western Turkey and in Istanbul, rather than in the Kurdish heartlands of the southeast that were the focus of PKK actions.

Additionally, while the PKK now issues carefully-worded demands, intended to be the basis of negotiation, the TAK's sporadic statements are deliberately uncompromising. The TAK's violent and nihilistic rhetoric is also remarkably similar to that of radical Islamists—although without the Islamic references—perhaps indicating the growing influence of jihadi methodology even among secular Middle Eastern groups. For example, after one minor bombing in Istanbul in March, one TAK press release stated: "We declare to the public that our people are not without protection. The Kurdish people will not remain defenseless. From now on, every attack against our people will be met immediately by even more violent acts. We will start to harm not just property, but lives too. With our actions, we will turn Turkey into hell. The bomb attack in Kocamustafapasa [an Istanbul district], carried out by our action team was just a warning" (al-Jazeera, March 31). TAK statements are only rarely issued, and the TAK gives a low priority to communications. It briefly ran a website at http://www.teyrebaz.com, but when that was taken off-line, it was never replaced.

There are other indications of a growing rivalry between the PKK and the TAK. From mid-August, Murat Karayilan, a senior PKK commander on Mount Qandil in northern Iraq, declared that a new PKK cease-fire would come into effect on September 31 (KurdMedia.com, August 24; Terrorism Monitor, September 21). The TAK, however, dealt the cease-fire a probably fatal blow when they carried out a triple resort bombing on August 28. Kongra-Gel, a branch of the PKK, swiftly condemned the August 28 TAK attacks, perhaps fearing that the violence would make Ankara less willing to compromise on Kurdish issues (Firat News Agency, August 30). Within days of the attack, the Turkish prime minister and the army's chief of staff both said that they would not recognize the PKK cease-fire and would continue to treat the group as a "terrorist organization." The TAK attack, therefore, dealt a blow to both Turkey and the PKK.

The TAK, therefore, appears less a front group or successor to the PKK than a marginal, but more radical, alternative. Although Turkey may struggle to tackle the TAK in the short–term on account of its secretive nature and its low-risk style of attack, unless the group can produce a more positive ideology it is unlikely to ever become more than an irritant between Turkey and its Kurds.
Reading over the coverage of the recent terrorism perpetrated against Turkish cities in the west of the country, I am particularly disturbed by the myopic treatment of the PKK as a monolithic. While this is nothing new, the singularity with which the overwhelming majority of Turks with whom I have spoken speak of the PKK is one of the many reasons to be skeptical about solving the Kurdish question. The PKK is an unbelievably tricky and sensitive subject in Turkey, and not a topic about which I asked too many questions for fear of alienating friends and raising emotions to a level at which it is simply not possible to have the kind of frank and open discussion necessary to forging better understandings. Just as al-Qa'ida is for so many Americans, the PKK is too often perceived as an 'all-evil' entity, and while the terrorism either group commits is truly despicable, at some point it becomes necessary to analyze the groups' motives, methods of operation, and reason for existence.

The most frequently cited example of PKK terror is the group's targeting of unarmed school teachers in 1993. As hostilities between PKK terrorists and the TSK (and their deep state proxies) were heating up in the early 1990s (see Feb. 4 post), the PKK savagely murdered Turkish school teachers who the Turkish government assigned to the southeast. These teachers were faced with the decision of reneging on their government obligation to complete their assignment or to risk death at the hands of the PKK. The memory of murdered school teachers is one of many memories the Turkish public carries in their mind when they think of the PKK. Of course, most significant is that the struggle against the PKK affects every Turkish citizen quite directly insofar as the Turkish state mandates every male citizen perform military service. As a result, many Turks have relatives who have perished in fighting the PKK, or as a result of being the target of PKK terrorism carried out against military facilities. Thus, the PKK, and understandably so, is an emotionally-charged issue that is very difficult to discuss (for an example, see the story of Bülent Ersoy, June 1 post).

This said, it is time to eschew simplistic thinking of the PKK as a monolithic organization out to destroy the Turkish state and kill innocent Turks. Rather, Turks need desperately to realize the PKK as a complex organization that exists in a political climate. Most importantly, it is important to understand the PKK as having plenty of factions within the organization. If the PKK is an enemy to the Turkish state, and it most certainly is, it is to the Turks advantage to get to know the organization from the inside out. (This is to say nothing of the benefit to be had in simply thinking of the political situation that has resulted in support of the PKK in the southeast--thinking akin to imagining oneself in another's shoes.) As with the all too frequent shortcomings of my own country to rise to such a level of analysis, it is increasingly frustrating to see Turks enraptured by the FauxNews-type media coverage that so often seems to characterize reportage of Kurdish terrorism. Further, sometimes coverage is all the more disconcerting in that it is so inflammatory that it leads some Turkish citizens to carry out acts of terror against their Kurdish counterparts (see June 25 post and this story on violence against Kurds that ran in the Turkish Daily News on Aug. 3).

Media coverage of the most recent bombings in Mersin and İzmir, as well as of the Güngoren bombings that most Turkish papers are attributing to the PKK despite the organization's consistent denial, refers only to "the PKK" as the guilty party. Although the Zaman papers did run a story about factionalism within the PKK in reference to the German hikers kidnapped in July (July 16 post), Turkish journalism routinely fails to examine the complexity of the PKK (for examples, click here for an analysis of PKK terrorism from Today's Zaman and here for an example from the Turkish Daily News).

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