Kurdish Militants and Turkey’s New Urban Insurgency
Turkey is experiencing a wave of terror violence, linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). These two non-state actors are also at war inside Syria, where the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the PYD, is currently waging an effective offensive to take territory from ISIL in northern and eastern Syria. What can we learn from the PKK’s tactics, the Turkish military’s response, and the implications of the new Kurdish insurgency in Turkey?
Kurdish Suicide Attackers: SVBIED Threat to Ankara
On March 13, two suicide bombers affiliated with the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), female Seher Cağla Demir and male accomplice Özgür Ünsal, detonated a car bomb next to a crowded bus stop in Ankara’s Kızılay neighborhood. The attack killed 37 civilians and injured more than one hundred. The Turkish government said that the bomb is similar if not identical to the one used in a February 2016 attack in the same neighborhood. In the February attack, Abdülbaki Sömer, an ethnic Kurd from Van, detonated a similar car bomb just outside the Turkish Air Force Building as staffers and family members were boarding shuttle busses for the commute home. The blast killed 28. The TAK took credit for the bombing, claiming that it was in retaliation for imposition of a 24-hour curfew and security operations in Cizre, Turkey.
TAK is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that maintains some sort of operational link to the PKK’s leadership. The exact nature of that operational link is unclear, but has been discussed persuasively by credible experts, including Aliza Marcus. Reports suggest that that TAK takes orders from Bahoz Erdal (Fehman Hüseyin), a Syrian Kurd, who also heads to the PKK’s military wing, the HPG.
Reports that the two bombs were identical suggest that there is a common bomb-maker, or at least a group of people with similar knowledge about bomb design working together to facilitate the TAK attacks. This further implies that key individuals, perhaps operating as a cell, remain at large in Turkey, despite a number of arrests after the February and March attacks. The Turkish government has indicated that Sömer and Demir fought with the Syria-based Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG), the PKK-linked militia currently fighting against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, and against Turkish-backed Arab-majority rebels west of the Euphrates. More importantly, these attacks raise larger questions about the PKK-led insurgency in Turkey. Whereas the previous iteration of this conflict was confined to mountain passes in the Kurdish-majority southeast, the current conflict is now being fought in urban centers throughout Turkey — a strategy PKK leaders have hinted at since the mid-2000s, but never fully operationalized.
A Network Based in Turkey
If one assumes that the same group is behind both attacks, the use of similar bombs is not surprising. A suicide bomb, generally, has a very simple detonator, usually a switch similar to a lamp, doorbell, or plunger on a French press coffee maker. If the bomb maker opted for a more sophisticated design, it could have had two switches and a safe mode engaged while the attackers were in transit or the vehicle parked.
The Kurdish militants also took successful steps to avoid detection by Turkish police. The bombers were male and female, perhaps posing as couple, and they used an older model BMW, reportedly first stolen in Viranşehir, Urfa. It is unclear when or where these bombs were built, although anecdotal evidence suggests that it was in Turkey. In both cases, reports indicate that the vehicles were procured in Turkey, suggesting the bomb was placed in the cars at or near the places where they were stolen. Taken together, these reports point to a Turkey-based network, rather than one that answers to leaders in Syria.
The YPG and its political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have denied having any part in either attack. The PYD has ample incentive to not target Turkey. The United States has emphasized this point in private meetings with the group and has, reportedly, put pressure on the PYD/YPG to maintain a cease-fire with the Turkish government. The PYD also has an interest in consolidating its gains in Syria and protecting its long front line with ISIL. Privately, PYD officials are quite candid about their stance towards Turkey. Officials openly state that they cannot fight a standing army, and therefore have an incentive to keep the Turkish military out of the Syrian conflict.
Regardless, there are obvious links between the YPG and the PKK, raising the possibility that members from the latter could have fought in Syria with the former before returning to Turkey. However for the aforementioned reasons, it is unlikely that the fighters are sent with direct orders to carry out attacks against Turkish targets, although reports do indicate that the YPS — an urban youth militia affiliated with the PKK — are using tactics learned in Kobane to aid in the waging of an urban insurgency. Demir was reportedly in Syria in 2014 before leaving, presumably for Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan. She first went missing in 2013.
This would suggest that she was in Turkey for some time before carrying out the recent bombing, underscoring the likelihood of a Turkey-based TAK/PKK cell that is facilitating these latest attacks. Indeed, in all three cases — Demir, Ünsal, and Sömer — the trigger for the attacks appear to be linked to the violence in Turkey’s southeast, rather than the PYD’s activities in Syria — despite the sharing of best practices from the YPG’s war with ISIL. Moreover, the similarities in the attacks — and the likelihood of a common Turkey-based bomb-maker — do point to a Turkish security failure. Alternatively, the TAK network behind this attack may not be taking direct operational orders from the PKK’s leadership, and therefore acting independently, and using effective measures to ensure that it evades detection.
The Turkish Response and Kurdish Politics
These attacks also come amid rising violence in Turkey’s southeast. The Turkish government’s imposition of a 24-hour curfew to facilitate military operations in Sur, Diyarbakır lasted for 102 days, before it was lifted recently in favor of a partial curfew from sunset to sunrise. The military used similar tactics in Idil, Cizre, and Silopi, imposing 24-hour curfews, clearing the cities of insurgents, and then easing the curfew somewhat and installing checkpoints in and around these areas.
Now, the Turkish military and police forces are active in Nusaybın, Şırnak, and Yüksekova. Turkish officials have indicated that they expect the PKK to launch a spring offensive, once the snow melts in mountain passes separating Iraq from Turkey. The locations of Turkey’s military operations suggest a clear awareness about the looming offensive: The military is moving to encircle the areas around Nusaybin and Şirnak, the two overland routes from Syria and Iraq. These operations, combined with a strong push to expand the definition of terrorism, may, in part, explain the government’s decision to prevent the holding of Newruz (new year) celebrations in Dersim, Hakkari, Mersin, Mardin, Urfa, Silvan, and Istanbul.
These areas have large Kurdish populations, prompting fears about street protests and clashes with security forces. These actions, however, help undergird the PKK’s overarching narrative that it is fighting for the “people” against an “oppressive state” intent on denying all Kurds their rights. The Turkish government has sought to counteract this messaging, taking care to frame its operations as an offensive against the PKK — and not “Kurds.” Still, the combination of events in Syria and the recent events in Turkey have had a boomerang effect: The PYD’s military successes against ISIL in Syria have raised cross-border feelings of pan-Kurdish nationalism, driving upward pressure on already PKK-sympathetic parliamentarians from the Kurdish-majority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to sharpen their criticism of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The AKP leadership, in turn, withdrew support for a cease-fire with the PKK in late March 2015, before the PKK itself declared the process “null and void” in July. In reality, both sides are at fault for the current cycle of violence, despite their best efforts to blame each other for the rising death toll.
The cycle of violence now pits the PKK against the Turkish state, with the urbanites in Kurdish-majority cities bearing the brunt of the military actions of both sides. This has prompted many in Kurdish-majority cities to criticize the PKK, a fact that the Turkish government is keen to exploit. However, equal amounts of anger have been levied against the government’s heavy-handed security tactics and for the lack of financial assistance given to the now 355,000 IDPs inside Turkey.
Thus, while there is currently considerable anger with the PKK, the dynamics don’t suggest that those committed to the PKK’s larger goal of autonomy are ready to break with the group. In fact, just the opposite appears to be occurring, owing to the developments in northern Syria and recent efforts to prevent Kurdish gatherings in Turkey. This feeling, in turn, is driving elements of Turkish decision-making; and now the prevailing sentiment is that the government must use military force to coerce the PKK to make concession at a future peace negotiation.
A Worsening Cycle of Violence
This latest wave of violence appears to be the new normal, raising the possibility that the fighting may soon resemble a classic insurgency. The two TAK bombings in Ankara reflect these tactics and may even point to a broader set of problems — the bulk of the Kurdish forces are young, poorly trained members of the group’s youth militia, dubbed the YPS. The YPS are a local militia, whose ranks are culled from young people living in the cities they argue they are fighting to “liberate” from Turkish occupation. In many instances, these are the children of Kurdish families uprooted during previous Turkish–Kurdish clashes during the 1990s, where sizeable populations were forced from rural areas to the urban areas now undergoing the bulk of the fighting. The PKK’s more elder members have warned of the more radical youth for years, oftentimes when pushing its own leadership to come to terms with some of the Turkish government’s demands for peace.
The more hardened PKK fighters appear to be advising these elements, albeit in small numbers. In a revealing interview four days before the March 13 Ankara attack, PKK leader Cemil Bayık, suggested that he could send more PKK fighters to fight alongside the YPS, with the goal of “the fall of Erdoğan and the AKP.” His comments also suggested “this was a new era in the people’s struggle,” and he said that “there will be fighting everywhere,” rather than isolated clashes in the mountains. The interview also revealed another interesting insight: Bayık and his security personnel were being constantly buzzed by a surveillance drone, either a Turkish Heron or a U.S. MQ-1B that provides surveillance for the Turkish military.
There are ongoing Turkish military efforts to conduct a decapitating strike with a manned aircraft cued by a drone. This constant presence of drones may point to Turkey disrupting the PKK’s direct command and control over units in Turkey and Syria, despite the continued and ideologically rigid allegiance the group’s fighters have for the group’s founder, Abdüllah Öcalan. This emphasis on total war signals a near-term escalation, at the very least. In the expected spring offensive, the PKK could combine its older tactics of hit-and-run attacks in mountain passes, continued YPS/PKK fighting in urban centers, while small, operationally independent actors carry out suicide attacks in Turkish cities. Such a strategy would be a continuation of the PKK’s current tactics, and may in fact embody Bayık’s references to the group’s new strategy.
This type of insurgency is not easily defeated. The killing of YPS members, for example, may not dent the PKK’s ability to continue to carry out attacks. Counterintuitively, it could be generating a larger sub-set of hardened fighters, skilled in combat, independent of direct PKK leadership training. This new cadre, fighting with PKK support, does seem to be operating independent of the PKK’s military leadership in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. This raises the possibility that the PKK is atomizing, with cells operating independently, albeit with the same longer-term goal: Kurdish self-governance in southeastern Turkey mixed with what the YPS argues is a fight for “dignity and democratic freedoms.”
The latter demand makes the waging of an effective counterinsurgency more difficult. Despite claims to the contrary, the Turkish military does appear to be following basic counterinsurgency tactics, crystallized in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency field manual. However, because the YPS is so well embedded in these cities, the fight has devastated urban areas, prompting the government to pledge to rebuild them in short order.
The heavy fighting has forced hundreds of thousands to flee, perhaps beginning a new cycle of disaffection, displacement, and violence, similar to developments in the 1990s. The internally displaced who fled Idil, for example, reportedly settled in Batman and Mardin, while those from Cizre are now residing in Siirt, Mersin/Adana, Gaziantep, and Istanbul. It is unclear when these people will be able to return to their homes, raising the possibility that they could settle in these areas permanently. This could blunt the effectiveness of unrealized plans to rebuild these areas — a plan that would probably have the support of Kurdish mayors in Diyarbakır, despite the overarching tensions. Yet these reconstruction projects are also boosting the number of security personnel in these cities, raising the possibility that the PKK will attack these “soft targets.”
These dynamics point to an escalation of violence in the near term, not a return to a cease-fire or the winding down of the current low-level insurgency. Instead, the conflict has become static as the Turkish military continues to clear cities, only to see PKK/YPS melt into the local population and then re-emerge in a different city outside of the declared military zones. This is already the case in Sur, where the Turkish military is now fighting YPS insurgents. As Turkish forces have cleared certain areas, the YPS has moved some 7 kilometers west, to Bağlar, where they are now digging trenches and preparing to continue the fight. Bağlar has since been placed under a limited curfew.
Turkey now faces the risks associated with a full-blown insurgency. In urban centers, a young cadre of insurgents are fighting the Turkish army, using guerilla tactics to slow down the clearing of territory. The PKK is embedded with these elements, but they may also choose to begin attacks in the mountains in the near future. And finally, embedded within these two groups, atomized cells appear to still be operational, and committed to carrying out suicide attacks in Turkish cities. Absent a call from PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the current situation may continue to get worse, and the high levels of violence in the southeast and central Anatolia may continue at current levels. The longer-term implications of this latest round of fighting are yet to be determined, but the current dynamics point to a continued insurgency in Turkey’s southeast.
Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Photo credit: Rebecca Harms