Monday, August 11, 2008

PKK Steps Up Attacks

There is still question as to whether the PKK had a role in the Güngören attacks, but no observer of the terrorist organization doubts that there are significant goings-on inside the organization at the moment. The PKK has stepped up its attacks in the past year, and is now carrying out attacks in urban centers throughout the southeast. Such attacks have not been seen since Öcalan's capture in 1999 and the PKK-declared ceasefire that followed. More disconcerting are the series of attacks carried out in western cities outside the southeast. These include the suicide bombings in Ankara in July 2007, and possibly the Güngören attacks, although the PKK has denied responsibility for the attacks and İstanbul authorities have been far too quick to draw a narrative.

Most analysts are unsure as to what the increased attacks mean for the terrorist organization. Has the PKK lost control of its central command function therefore leading to an onslaught of violent and disorganized attacks? Is the organization so desperate that it is risking further alienation in the eyes of European governments who might otherwise be sympathetic to the organization's stated ends? The kidnapping of three German climbers by a PKK commander who seemingly acted out of command (July 16 post) is cause to think that the organization might be undergoing some internal challenges, but just what the future holds for the PKK is yet to be determined. A recent attack in İstanbul's Üsküdar district on Thursday raised additional concerns about PKK violence inside Turkish cities. To heighten concerns is fear that the PKK might be behind recent forest fires in Marmara and Antalya provinces, as well as a declaration from the organization that it had a hand in bombing the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that carries Azeri oil through Turkey for Western export.

Here are a few excerpts of analysis from Emrullah Uslu at the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor:
The fighting between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has intensified in recent months. Turkish air raids on the PKK camps in northern Iraq have resumed since mid-July. Between July 10 to July 16, 36 PKK members were killed, and there were reports the PKK’s military commander, Fehman Hüseyin (a.k.a. Dr. Bahoz Erdal), was seriously wounded in one of the air strikes (Hurriyet, July 18). Huseyin has not appeared in any pro-PKK media outlet since mid-July despite PKK denials of his injuries (Yeni Safak, July 18). At the end of the month, Turkish fighter jets hit a cave believed to be used as a bunker in the Quandil Mountains, killing 30 to 40 PKK members who took refuge there (Hurriyet, July 30). Turkish fighter jets also carried out three major raids (July 23, 27, and 29) against PKK camps in the Qandil Mountains and the Zap district of northern Iraq. For the month of July overall, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) claimed between 75 to 100 PKK members killed in various operations carried out by Turkish security forces (, press releases for July).

To counter these attacks, the PKK has intensified its operations against Turkish security forces. One pattern is clear: in its recent attacks, the PKK has targeted not only military convoys and barracks in rural areas but also civilians and police stations in city centers. The Kurdish militants even threatened to set fire to forests in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Marmara regions.

. . . .

In terms of numbers lost in the TSK-PKK battle, it is impossible to obtain independent verification of the claims coming from either side. However, one of the most important aspects of the TSK’s campaign has been the infliction of significant damage to the communications capacity of the PKK. With growing U.S. surveillance and intelligence sharing, the PKK’s military leaders have started avoiding the use of telephones. Moreover, the PKK’s long range radio communication infrastructure was seriously damaged. Thus, starting from the beginning of 2008, the PKK may have relocated militants with training on how to prepare and detonate bombs to the metropolises and told them to detonate bombs whenever they find it suitable.

If bombing attacks such as the one in Gungoren are not planned by the PKK’s central authorities, it could signal a growing weakness in the PKK’s command and control structure. The PKK is traditionally known for its rigid top-down command structure. In order to keep the organization intact and to maintain discipline, PKK leaders have not hesitated in the past to kill senior militants who deviate from the command structure, such as Kani Yilmaz and Hikmet Fidan, who left the organization to form a nonviolent alternative group, the Patriotic Democratic Party (Partiya Welatparezen Demokraten Kurdistan – WPD-K). [1] If the recent bombing in Istanbul were carried out without approval from the PKK leadership, it could be a sign that the PKK’s strict hierarchy no longer controls its members. Except for the May 6 assault on the Aktutun border station, the PKK’s recent assaults on police stations and military barracks have not produced any significant damage to Turkish security forces. Undeterred by these small-scale attacks, Turkish security forces have intensified their counter-terror campaign within Turkey’s borders and northern Iraq, which, at the very least, should provide a psychological advantage over the PKK.

Given the present sensitivity of international markets to even minor disruptions in oil supply, the PKK attack on the BTC pipeline risks raising international anger against the PKK cause. Nations on the receiving end of the BTC supply are unlikely to tolerate the PKK as a destabilizing force in their vital energy corridors. The attack suggests the PKK may now be in such a difficult position that it is prepared to gamble with its very existence against the international community.
For the whole analysis, click here.

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