by Antonio Michele Storto
Tensions are once again high in Turkey, where a crackdown is underway following the suicide attack claimed by the PKK in Ankara: on 1st October, coinciding with the resumption of parliamentary work, a militant of the group blew up throwing himself against the gates of the Ministry of the Interior, slightly injuring two policemen. Another bomber was killed by security forces. This was the culmination of eight years of escalation between Turkey and the Kurds, following the breakdown of a ceasefire (2013-2015) that should have led to the gradual disarmament and transfer to Iraqi territory of all the guerrilla units still present in the Country.
An anti-terror operation in 64 of the Country’s 81 provinces has already led to the arrest of around a thousand people. According to Ankara, the detainees are part of the “military intelligence network” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an acronym for the guerrilla group that has been waging an asymmetric conflict against the Turkish State for more than 40 years to achieve greater rights and autonomy for the country’s Kurdish minority. The seizure coincided with a new series of air raids by the Turkish air force on a mountainous area in northern Iraq where the PKK has established logistical-military bases and training centres since the early 1990s: According to the armed forces, 20 targets were hit, “including caves, bunkers, shelters and warehouses”, while in the same hours Turkish intelligence (MIT) announced that it had killed Muzdelif Taskin, nom de guerre ‘Aslan Samura’, one of the group’s senior military leaders, in a raid in Qamishlo in northern Syria.
The conflict is thus experiencing a brutal resurgence, marked first by a year of fighting in the Kurdish-majority urban centres of the south-east (many of which have been reduced to rubble by heavy Turkish shelling) and later by a series of military incursions into Iraq and northern Syria, where Kurdish formations linked to the PKK – still engaged in a vast and protracted experiment in self-rule – have played a leading role in the defeat of Islamic State (ISIL). According to the claim spread by some websites and telematic channels close to the group, Sunday’s attack was a “warning” precisely against Turkish military operations against the Kurdish experience of self-government: “If Erdogan’s fascist regime continues to commit these crimes,” the text reads, “the legitimate actions of revolutionary justice will continue.
Although it is one of the most suppressed aspects of Western chronicles – which have taken on an almost hagiographic tone following the enormous bloodshed of the Kurdish guerrillas in the fight against ISIL – the use of suicide bombers is not unprecedented in the history of the PKK. The long list of kamikaze ‘martyrs’ within the organisation begins on 25 October 1992, when Gülnaz Karataş, a guerrilla who had adopted the battle name ‘Berivan’, found herself surrounded during an operation by Turkish-Iraqi forces in the mountains of northern Iraq and chose to blow herself up rather than be captured. The action resonated with Kurdish women fighters, many of whom began to adopt the same nom de guerre as Karatas. The habit of carrying a grenade to detonate in the event of capture was already well established among women, who – in a highly traditionalist and patriarchal society such as that of southern Turkey – feared being outraged and raped if captured. In 1992,” Salman Zeko, a Kurdish-Halevite leader of the HADEP party, later said: “My sister joined the PKK. The following year we were informed that she had been killed in a clash. Her body was unrecognisable. They had tortured her and mutilated her breasts”.
However, it was not until 1995 – after the PKK’s fifth congress – that the use of suicide bombers was officially adopted by the organisation, which was in a very difficult military situation at the time. The Turkish army had long pursued a scorched-earth strategy against the group, bombing, burning and forcibly evacuating hundreds of villages that – in the mountains surrounding the provinces of Diyarbakir, Van, Cizre and Sirnak – often provided the guerrillas with shelter and food, and in many cases their recruitment pool.
No longer able to continue his long series of successes with guerrilla tactics carried out by small units that could easily hide in this network of villages, Abdullah Ocalan – leader of an organisation that at the time had almost 15,000 guerrilla fighters in the mountains, in addition to 50,000 militiamen scattered in urban centres – had convinced himself that he could mobilise his forces like a real army and engage the Turkish military in open field battles. But this option proved unsuccessful, and the use of kamikaze attacks became part of Ocalan’s counter-offensive. Between 1996 and 1999, at least 14 guerrillas died in as many suicide bombings. The targets tended to be military personnel, but civilians – in some cases, children and teenagers – were not infrequently among the victims. This contributed to the general hostility towards the organisation and the international isolation of its leader, who was finally captured in Kenya in 1999 and has been serving a life sentence in solitary confinement in Turkey for almost 25 years, although he remains the ‘spiritual leader’ of the PKK.
Following Ocalan’s conversion to the more moderate principles of communalism and libertarian socialism theorised by the US sociologist Murray Bookchin – which subsequently inspired the Kurdish self-rule experiments in Iraq and Syria – suicide bombings by PKK militants became increasingly rare and targeted only military personnel. This change in strategy seems to have been at the origin of one of the many internal splits within the group, which eventually led to the birth of the most extremist acronym in the Kurdish independence movement, the Kurdistan Freedom Fighters (TAK), for whom kamikaze attacks – which have so far targeted civilians and military personnel almost indiscriminately – are the main tool of struggle.
As far as the PKK is concerned, it’s worth noting that this kind of action tends to coincide with the phasesin which the guerrillas find themselves most cornered: the last sequence took place in 2016, during the Turkish army’s bombing season on Kurdish-majority cities. Today, under pressure after years of bombing by the Turkish air force, the PKK is once again showing its most threatening face: ‘This self-sacrificial operation’, says the group’s communiqué, ‘was a warning to the Turkish MHP-AKP regime. Everyone should know that with a few small changes, the action could have had a very different outcome’.
To learn more, read our Kurdistan conflict factsheet
In the text: the logo of the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks
On the cover photo, PKK guerrillas on the border with Iraq © thomas koch/Shutterstock.com