The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the separatist group in Turkey that is a designated terrorist organisation across much of the West, has always used a vast array of front-groups in the West to raise funds and recruit. After 9/11, with the advent of the War on Terror, the PKK switched tactics in the region to try to conceal its operations and avoid the “terrorism” label. This involved rebranding its operations in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and setting up a special forces-style urban terrorism wing, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), to deniably carry out its most atrocious activities. The PKK’s rebranding has not been without success. In Australia, however, the government has refused to accept the PKK’s propaganda about TAK and lists it, quite correctly, as simply an alias for the PKK.
THE PKK “CONFEDERAL” MODEL
Having begun its terror-insurgency in 1984, the PKK was militarily beaten in 1999, declared a ceasefire, and withdrew into the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.
As part of its tactical recalculation in the 2002-04 period, the PKK extended its European front-groups mode of operation to the region, creating “branches”: the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK) in Iraq; the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria; the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) and the East Kurdistan Defense Units (YRK) in Iran.
The fact that the PYD/YPG is an integrated component of the PKK, formally of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), has become politically contentious since 2014 when the U.S.-led Coalition enlisted the YPG/PKK—rebranded again as the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF)—as its partner in the war against the Islamic State (IS). Despite vast amounts of propaganda intended to obscure the nature of the YPG, the truth remains—as attested by the membership, defectors, and more recently the British Parliament and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
TAK IS BORN
TAK first appeared in August 2004, two months after the PKK abrogated the ceasefire and resumed its assault on the Turkish state, with the bombing of two hotels in Istanbul: the Pars Hotel in the Laleli district and the Star Holiday Hotel in the Sultanahmet zone. At the time, al-Qaeda was suspected, since it had carried out a recent series of attacks against Turkey. But TAK soon claimed the atrocity, which killed two people at Pars and injured many more at both sites. The bombings took place near to the place where the U.S. Olympics basketball team was staying. TAK’s manifesto around this time said the PKK was “weak and produces no viable outcomes. It is because of this that we have separated from the organisation and formed TAK.”
There was an uptick in TAK’s bombing campaign in 2005. A bombing attack by TAK in April 2005 killed a policeman and wounded four others in Kusadasi. On 10 July 2005, TAK injured twenty people by bombing a bus in Cesme as it travelled through Kusadasi’s Ataturk Square carrying tourists and Turks between the town centre and the beach. And six days later, on 16 July, TAK struck in Kusadasi again, blowing up another minibus, murdering five people, one of them British and one Irish, and wounding thirteen more, five of them British.
In 2006, TAK’s terrorism seriously escalated, and particularly focused on bringing pressure on Turkey by trying to destroy her tourism industry. On 9 February 2006, TAK bombed an internet café in the Bayrampasa district of Istanbul that was frequented by policemen, killing one man and wounding sixteen. TAK killed a civilian in the Fatih neighbourhood of Istanbul on 31 March, detonating a bomb in a market. TAK claimed—possibly falsely—to be responsible for the fire in the cargo section of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on 25 May that injured three people.
In a twenty-four-hour period, 27-28 August 2006, there were five bombings against tourist zones in Turkey, likely all by TAK, though the group claimed only two. Marmaris, an area very popular with British tourists, and an area of Istanbul were hit on 27 August; ten Britons, including a seven-year-old boy and a 73-year-old lady, were among the twenty-seven people wounded. A 28 August bombing in Antalya murdered three people and injured twenty. “Turkey is not a safe country”, TAK threatened on its website. “Tourists should not come to Turkey.” This message has often been repeated.
THE NATURE OF TAK
TAK is an instrument the PKK uses to conduct massacres against civilians in the cities in western Turkey. The PKK uses the TAK cut-out so that it can create pressure on Turkey with these atrocious tactics, drawing state resources away from the main areas of insurgency in the east and demoralising the Turkish population, while simultaneously avoiding the political damage internationally of association with such behaviour.
The best examination of TAK is by Metin Gurcan, who explains:
TAK is best understood as a semi-autonomous proxy of the PKK that operates at arm’s length. … Turkish security officials assess the TAK as semi-autonomous in the sense that it has full authority to plan and carry out an attack without informing the PKK’s commanding echelons. Once the PKK has conveyed the need for attacks, the TAK can chose what, when, and how to attack without interference from PKK’s hierarchical structures. The PKK supports the TAK ideologically and provides it with personnel, logistics, financing, and overall strategic direction, but PKK leaders only learn about outcomes from TV reports. This freedom of action granted to a lower-level leadership makes its operations unpredictable and more difficult for security forces to track TAK members down and prevent attacks.
The exact leadership structure of TAK is distinctly murky (by design). Cemil Bayik (Cuma), the PKK/KCK leader, and Duran Kalkan (Selahattin Abbas), a KCK executive official who has also been involved in Syria overseeing the YPG, are believed to have been involved in creating TAK. The day-to-day director of TAK is said to be—or have been, in the years after its founding—Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal), another KCK executive currently involved in Syria.
TAK is not the only such appendage the PKK has, Gurcan points out: the Apoist Youngsters Revenge Brigade (AGIT) is another. TAK has become particularly useful to the PKK since the “improvements to the PKK’s international reputation” because of the “participation of the YPG (the Syrian branch of the PKK) in fighting the Islamic State in Sinjar, Kobani, and in areas north of Raqqa”, writes Gurcan. This is despite the fact, as Gurcan notes, that TAK has used the PKK-held “Rojava” area in Syria as a “growing military training and logistical support base” for its terrorist attacks inside Turkey.
By publicly presenting TAK as beyond PKK control, “PKK leaders have tried to have their cake and eat it, too”, says Gurcan: the PKK, sometimes even goes so far as to condemn TAK attacks, before asking in apparent wonder: What can possibly be done so long as Turkey continues to pursue policies that anger Kurdish youth so much? From this position, the PKK can—and does—drop broad hints that if Turkey makes concessions to it, now positioned as the “moderate” actor, then perhaps the flow of suicide bombers can be turned off.
That TAK is not independent of PKK can be demonstrated with even greater parsimony: it has continued to exist for fourteen years in core PKK areas. In Syria, the YPG/PKK has set up a ruthless autocracy that has crushed all opposition to the group; its treatment of opposition within the group is no more gentle. The PKK has killed hundreds of its own members for the slightest perceived ideological or political deviance, pursuing them across half of Europe if need be.
The situation is not unlike the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The IRA eliminated republican terrorists not under its control that were inimical to its interests, even if it meant hunting them into foreign countries like England or Spain. The Irish People’s Liberation Organisation is a famous case of a legitimate splinter the IRA liquidated. Groups like the “New IRA”, responsible for the rioting in July, which have operated unmolested for many years in Northern Ireland, can safely be assumed to operate at the pleasure of the IRA and its Sinn Fein front.
“It would be the first time in the history of the PKK that they allow the existence of any other group representing the Kurds than themselves”, said Aliza Marcus, whose book Blood and Belief is one of the most detailed histories of the PKK and its savage conduct. Whether or not the PKK issues orders a direct order for a terrorist attack like the one in Ankara in February 2016, “I do think [the PKK] have control over [TAK’s] actions”.
TAK was added to the British list of “proscribed organisations” in July 2006, listed separately to the PKK and described rather vaguely as “a Kurdish terrorist group currently operating in Turkey”.
The U.S. State Department designated TAK in January 2008, noting that it was “affiliated with” the PKK. Interestingly, the Country Reports on Terrorism 2006 document, released by the State Department in April 2007, listed TAK as an alias of the PKK, and TAK is not listed separately on State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs).
It would make factual and political sense for other Western governments follow Australia’s lead.