Assessing the Urban Terrorism Strategy of the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey
Abstract: Since its emergence in the 1980s, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has been a significant source of concern to the state of Turkey. With the escalation of conflict between the Turkish state and the ethnic Kurdish community in the 1990s, the level of violence explicitly increased, and the civilian death toll rose to its highest point. Though the PKK could not ensure absolute authority in large, predominantly Kurdish provinces in the southeast, it gradually shifted to a new strategy —urban violence— to undermine the Turkish state's authority in Kurdish regions. This article looks at the urban terrorism strategy of the PKK to explain why, despite its long-term insurgency experience and demonstrated support, it failed to sustain a successful urban violence strategy.
Bottom-line-up-front: The PKK’s urban terrorism strategy in Turkey is a good example of how does a violent militant organization destabilize the nature of regional order.
Problem statement: How did a Kurdish organisation become a notorious threat to the state of Turkey and regional security?
So what?: According to theories of violent resistance, violence is the only practical and productive tool of mass mobilisation of ethnic insurgencies against political systems. In the case of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, many scholars argue that Turkey's policy of ethnic nationalism has had a decisive role in shaping Kurdish ethnic nationalism throughout these years.
The PKK's Evolution
The Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê/PKK) is the focal point of a violent uprising of dissident Kurds in eastern Turkey. It has engaged in a 30+ year struggle against the Turkish state. Regarding regional security, it offers a significant case for analysis regarding the diverse characteristics of a long-term terrorist campaign. Indeed, the PKK conflict is one of the longest-standing problems. The PKK has had a significant impact on Turkey's modern history. Since its foundation, the PKK has gone a long way of evolution reflecting various levels of violence based on internal and external political dynamics. In the earlier 1980s, the PKK founders Abdullah Ocalan, Kemal Pir, and Cemil Bayik designated the organisation as an ideological and political movement "on the side of independence and democracy." The PKK is more than an ordinary social-revolutionary organisation based on Marxist-Leninist ideology and attached to Kurdish nationalism for many of its members and sympathisers. The PKK's primary goal is to liberate all Kurds of Turkey and northern Iraq and establish independent Kurdistan. Under the leadership of charismatic Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK initially pursued a Marxist/Leninist ideology to increase its influence and relevance.
According to the study carried out by SETA, "the insurgency group quickly reshaped its revolutionary principles to appeal to the Kurdish minority by integrating an ethnonational emphasis. This ideological change significantly improved the PKK's capacity to recruit young people in rural areas and expanded its logistical support networks into neighbouring Iraq and Syria." In this context, the PKK has largely succeeded in appealing to marginalised groups and mainly relied on the impoverished rural population to enlarge its ranks. Like other radical-leftist Kurdish organisations such as Democracy Party, Kurdish Communist Party and People’s Labour Party, the PKK also approached the problems of ethnic Kurds with a class-based analysis and criticism of the traditional feudal Kurdish system in eastern Anatolia and northern Iraq.
The PKK has largely succeeded in appealing to marginalised groups and mainly relied on the impoverished rural population to enlarge its ranks.
However, Turkey's general point is that the PKK is nothing but an ethnic-nationalist separatist movement that aspires to independence by embracing a war of attrition against the Turkish state. Usually, the national-separatist Kurdish groups in Turkey conduct attacks against states in urban areas calculated to mobilise their supporters and gain more attractiveness. The Kurdish question has become endemic during the 1990s and 2000s, impeding Turkey's democratisation process, undermining economic development, particularly in Eastern provinces, and increasing the army's leverage over politics. Turkey's attempts to present the issue solely as a terrorism problem resulted in implementing an intense securitisation problem in these years. As a response to this policy, the PKK embraced a new strategy. It carried out attacks against the security forces in cities and thus attempted to influence non-rural Kurdish sympathisers and pose an armed challenge to state authority in urban areas.
In fact, political violence in Turkey reached the urban areas only after it gained momentum in the country's rural areas. Nevertheless, the PKK's urban terrorism strategy in Turkey between the 1990s and 2000s was partly successful due to its insufficient human and financial resources; and the vast military resources of the Turkish security forces.
Insurgency usually occurs in rural areas rather than urban environments where states can consolidate the control, and therefore scholars conceptualise it as a "rural phenomenon." In a general context, an insurgency or guerilla warfare strategy relies on hit-and-run tactics, which are easier to execute in rural areas than in densely populated urban environments. Nevertheless, the density of urban areas comes with many advantages for insurgency organisations, and it is undeniable that urban insurgency is a unique model compared to other forms of insurgencies.
In a general context, an insurgency or guerilla warfare strategy relies on hit-and-run tactics, which are easier to execute in rural areas than in densely populated urban environments.
In the early 2000s, the PKK brought their insurgency to large local centres in eastern Turkey like Sur, Nusaybin, Cizre, Yuksekova, and Shirnak to consolidate its resources in these zones and gain local Kurds' support. The Kurdish urban terrorism phenomenon emerged in the southeastern part of Turkey because of the long-existing social networks and lack of solid political identity compared to Kurdish communities residing in western regions of Turkey.
The earlier study claims that though in the 1980s, urban insurgencies have been the most accessible kind to defeat. However, the most recent PKK-led attacks in big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir in the aftermath of 2015 failed peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK suggest that this may no longer be the case. Although the PKK and its affiliated groups such as People's Defense Forces (Hêzên Parastina Gel/HPG), the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), and others desperately attempted to take the war against the Turkish state to city streets. Their actions in rural areas did not go beyond attacks on police stations and administrative buildings.
While investigating the roots of the urban terrorism strategy of the PKK in Turkey, it is essential to identify the primary motivation that attracts many Kurds to politically motivated violence. According to previous studies, the economic and social differences of the Kurdish southeast in Turkey may be seen as critical reasons for the PKK's attractiveness.
Defining the PKK's Urban Terrorism Strategy
Several theoretical approaches explain the urban terrorism phenomenon, its deadly consequences, and the ways of countering it. Audrey Cronin developed a concept that mainly focused on the urban terrorism issue in Turkey, claiming that this phenomenon mainly emerged in the rural southeast of Turkey due to strong social networks among ethnic Kurdish communities. Simultaneously, Cronin identifies the reasons for the failure of such a phenomenon in the western part of Turkey due to the lack of similar social networks and the Turkish government's unconstrained use of military force in big and developed cities.
The PKK launched its campaign of violence in 1984 as a rural-insurgency organisation seeking territorial separation. The PKK's actions have claimed around 40,000 lives and displaced millions of people. According to the International Crisis Group data, since July 2015, militant attacks and clashes with the PKK have killed at least 1,285 security force members, including 876 soldiers, 302 police officers, and 118 village guards. Nevertheless, heterogeneity exists in the conceptualisation of the PKK, whether it is an insurgent organisation or a terrorist organisation. According to Mustafa Unal, an examination of the PKK's characteristics indicates that the PKK is considered an insurgent organisation actively using terrorist tactics. In the case of the PKK, it is safe to note that embracing violent strategy is categorised as a terrorist organisation in scholarly works of Kelsey Larsen (2008), Andrew Kydd & Barbara Walter (2006), Kemal Kirisci & Garcth Winrow (1997) rather than insurgency. According to Ariel Merari, "insurgents exploit terrorism whenever possible because it is one of the easiest modes of struggle." This thesis put forward by Merari accurately defines the nature of the PKK and its attacks in urban areas.
According to the International Crisis Group data, since July 2015, militant attacks and clashes with the PKK have killed at least 1,285 security force members, including 876 soldiers, 302 police officers, and 118 village guards.
The definition of the PKK's urban terrorism strategy also requires an understanding of why big cities are so crucial for the organization and what it wants to change by perpetrating attacks in urban areas? There are several potential reasons why certain radical non-state actors target cities: 1) cause anarchy and chaos, 2) undermine the governments' authority in cities 3) generate economic and military damage, 4) gain legitimacy, 5) provoke the mobilisation of sympathisers. Although the rural areas are critically important for the PKK’s strategy, urban centres have been an effective instrument and location for ideological propaganda and the political struggle of the organization. Cities offer a wider audience for radical insurgent and terrorist campaigns that cannot be hidden from the public view. Some important characteristics of urban areas also need to be considered, such as infrastructure, financial institutions, and population, which contain opportunities and risks for urban terrorism.
The complexity of modern urban areas makes them highly vulnerable to attacks. Johan Niezing contends, "the incumbent state forces can take advantage of the same environmental characteristics. The physical and administrative infrastructure allows states to exercise close control over the area and its population. Electronic devices, such as cameras, and vigilance through the wiretapping of phones facilitate the control over the population and city centres."
As such the PKK organisation has significantly shifted its strategy since 2011 by increasing its footprint in urban, rural and mountainous areas. Following this, Bruce Hoffman’s study shows that governments' counterinsurgency efforts against urban terrorism are successful 58% due to the presence of security forces and a large number of non-politicized people not related to rural conflicts, whereas countering mixed urban/rural terrorism is successful only 21%. Consequently, the PKK militants maintain their main activities in rural and mountainous areas while conducting attacks in regional cities. The PKK and its proxy forces recognise the value of combining rural and urban approaches to foment crisis in cities.
The PKK organisation has significantly shifted its strategy since 2011 by increasing its footprint in urban, rural and mountainous areas.
Although its urban insurgency failed in major cities, the PKK had secured an increase in its military capabilities and its number of recruits due to changing regional geopolitical environment in Syria and Iraq. Primarily, the PKK militants took an active part in military campaigns in these countries, thus gaining extensive battlefield experience.
However, the PKK's urban terrorism strategy was hardly successful in the light of Turkey's security forces' robust military response to the organisation and its affiliations in populated Kurdish neighbourhoods. Considering the firm response of the Turkish security forces in Kurdish populated regions, the PKK slightly began focusing on large urban areas. Insurgents operating in urban areas deliberately use the population as cover to remain anonymous. The rapid industrialisation of urban areas in Turkey gradually attracted radical pro-Kurdish organisations.
The PKK and the Urbanisation of Insurgency
Today, urban terrorism or insurgency is increasing as the dual demographic trends of rapid population growth and urbanisation change the notion of the armed struggle. Unable to reach tangible results in rural areas, organisations moved to their followers into the cities. In a diverse country like Turkey, Kurdish separatists established so-called "liberated zones" in some provincial cities in the 1990s, which enabled them to tie up the government's security forces. However, the Turkish Armed Forces have enormously increased its assets and personnel in provincial cities and conducted hundreds of operations against the pro-PKK cells across the country in recent years.
Unable to reach tangible results in rural areas, organisations moved to their followers into the cities.
Until the 2000s, the PKK was principally engaged in defensive operations in Turkey's eastern provinces by challenging local security forces and governmental bodies, including civil disobedience-type activities. However, the PKK's severe defeats in the southeastern rural areas in 2009 became another fundamental reason for taking the fight to urban areas. During the urban violence led by the PKK in 2015-2016, the Turkish Armed Forces physically isolated cities like Diyarbakir and Mardin and, with the air power and artillery support and thwarted the Kurdish militia. Such urban surges were made possible by increased urbanisation of Kurdish regions and the concentration of a large proportion of young Kurds in and around cities that provided critical support to the PKK during the clashes with the security forces.
Furthermore, the Turkish government initiated the Kurdish Opening to settle the conflict through dialogue and end the decades-long bloody conflict. The Turkish government's serious steps towards reconciliation with the PKK strengthened the legitimacy of the process and increased optimism on both sides. However, the changing rhetoric of the Turkish government toward the Kurdish issue and geopolitical realities in the region swiftly undermined the peace process. Turkey's enlargement towards Syria and northern Iraq in 2013, where ethnic Kurds mainly concentrated, resulted in the PKK's withdrawal from the peace process. As a result, the PKK had begun to strengthen its urban presence and youth networks in the Kurdish region of Turkey. The PKK's influence among the local Kurdish youth and a growing number of sympathisers led the government to accuse the organisation of using them and preparing for a new war.
Turkey's enlargement towards Syria and northern Iraq in 2013, where ethnic Kurds mainly concentrated, resulted in the PKK's withdrawal from the peace process.
The active phase of the PKK's new urban terrorism strategy began in 2015 when the peace talks with the Turkish government yielded no results. Indeed, the harsh stance of the AKP government on the Kurdish issue and its position to hostilities in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane in 2014-15 led to the mass riots in Turkey's extensive urban areas. Hence, with the resurgence of the conflict, pro-Kurdish groups began digging trenches and building barricades in the streets of cities like Cizre, Şırnak, İdil, and Silopi in Şırnak province. The Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement played an active role in this street uprising; a PKK-affiliated urban group operated between 2013-2015.
Whereas the PKK cultivated the organisation itself, its teenaged members conducted several attacks against security forces in urban areas. In response, the government-imposed curfews. The government's response to the seemed to have been effective in stemming the violence. However, it became insufficient in neutralising the urban terrorism problem completely.
In this context, it is essential to emphasise that there is no definitive theory to define government responses to urban terrorism or insurgency. However, some scholars usually refer to two main theory methods: conciliatory and repressive. According to Dugan and Chenoweth, both methods are based on rational choice and deterrence perspectives, and "repressive actions of government raise the costs of terrorism whereas conciliatory efforts increase the benefits of abstaining from terrorism."
Governments' offensive (repressive) actions do not usually result in a decline in attacks, whereas conciliatory methods decrease the number of attacks. In the case of the PKK, the Turkish government's deterrence-based military responses did not resolve the problem. However, they accelerated the social detachment of the Kurdish minority from the state and furthered their involvement with the separatist forces led by the PKK. In addition to military strategies, the Turkish government also responded with legislative measures to deter the Kurdish violence, such as state of emergency declaration (1987), intermittent curfews, frequent police raids to private offices, municipalities, and detention of all sympathisers linked with the PKK.
With these strict measures imposed between 2015-2016, the Turkish security forces have drawn the PKK and its proxies out of big cities like Diyarbakir, Siirt, Cizre, and Silvan. As a result of intensive military operations of security forces, in June of 2016, the PKK lost its last urban stronghold in Nusaybin, retreating to its traditional rural environment and decreasing its activities in urban areas. However, the conflict with the PKK did not become less intense as the western cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and capital Ankara were also hit by attacks. The Global Terrorism Data (GTD) indicates that of 690 total attacks recorded in Turkey, 24 took place in the western part of the country, while 22 of these attacks occurred in urban settings. Also, these attacks were qualitatively different from previously conducted attacks in the southeast and included large-scale suicide bombings in Ankara and Istanbul. Nevertheless, the scale of violence in the western part of Turkey never approached the level of urban conflict seen in the eastern part of the country. This is because the pre-existing social networks of the Kurdish community in the southeast enabled militant organisations like the PKK. In contrast, the significant Kurdish minority residing in western Turkey has not possessed such networks.
The Global Terrorism Data indicates that of 690 total attacks recorded in Turkey, 24 took place in the western part of the country, while 22 of these attacks occurred in urban settings.
The PKK's propaganda work among urban Kurdish ethnicity in the west does not score significant results compared to homogenously Kurdish of the southeast. Indeed, that the western regions are home to Turks, Kurds, and other ethnic minorities is a crucial factor that isolated the PKK-linked social networks and prevented the growth of activities. Furthermore, whilst ethnic Kurds in western urban areas might share a strong political identity, they do not necessarily engage with separatist-militant organisations like the PKK. The scale of sympathisers and militant recruitment of the PKK in southeastern regions and compared to western regions, combined with the weaker shared social and political identity among Kurds, supports the idea that the urban terrorism phenomenon emerged in Turkey's southeast because of the pre-existing social networks within the ethnic Kurdish community.
The PKK's decade-long armed struggle against the Turkish state caused heavy casualties on both sides. For many years, coercing local people, intimidating, disrupting, and discrediting the security forces have been the main pillars of the PKK's strategy. The scrutinisation of the PKK's activities suggests that the organisation successfully achieved recognition as a serious and influential non-state actor both at domestic and international levels. However, the level of violence in its attacks in rural and urban areas and prolonged tactics against the ethnic Kurdish community in the southeast largely limited the PKK's room to manoeuvre.
Moreover, the PKK's renewed urban terrorism strategy failed to turn into an insurgency of a mass character, though it successfully carried out a series of attacks in urban areas. Indeed, the PKK's urban strategy aimed at destabilising Turkey's security and political environment whilst exercising the illicit functions of a state. With its violent tactics and methods, the PKK and affiliated militants gradually entered cities in the east and southeast, mainly relying on rural operational elements. The PKK's urban terrorism strategy can be assessed as a totalitarian strategy to establish autonomy in predominantly Kurdish regions. In this vein, the PKK's dual strategy of seeking greater legitimacy abroad and employment of violent tactics based on their perceived effectiveness was useless during the urban surge in 2015-2016. The full support of the PKK in the east and southeast has always been under question as there were two types of supporters: core supporters and transitive supporters. While core supporters demonstrated irreversible character and complied with the radical ideology, transitive supporters sought peaceful resolution and political participation to avoid unnecessary violence.
The full support of the PKK in the east and southeast has always been under question as there were two types of supporters: core supporters and transitive supporters.
In summary, the PKK urban terrorism strategy did not reach key priorities such as establishing permanent presence and rule in key urban areas, diminishing the role of the state in the southeast, stirring mass revolt of the Kurdish youth in the southeast against the state during the most recent violent campaign in 2015-2016. However, it still poses a threat to the security of the Turkish state. The fact that Turkey has spent around $1,5 trillion in counter-terrorism operations in the last 25 years, and keeps increasing military expenditures indicates that the local government sees the urban terrorism phenomenon as a real source of threat.
Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington. Fuad holds an M.A. degree in Political Science and another Executive Masters's degree in Terrorism and Countering-Radicalization studies. Currently, he is an MSc. degree candidate in Defense and Diplomacy at the University of Durham in the U.K. He can be found on Twitter at @fuadshahbazov. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6479-1425 The views contained in this article are the author's alone.
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