Kurdistan Workers' Party

Kurdistan Workers' Party
Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK)
Leader Abdullah Öcalan
(de jure)
Murat Karayılan
(de facto)
Founded 1978 (1978)
Headquarters Qandil Mountains
Paramilitary Wing People's Defence Forces (HPG)
Free Women's Units (YJA-STAR)
Ideology Kurdish nationalism
Libertarian socialism[1][2][3][4][5][6]
Libertarian municipalism[7][8]
Democratic Confederalism[8][9][10][11][12]
Political position Far-left
National affiliation Peoples' United Revolutionary Movement[16]
International affiliation Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK)
People's Defence Forces
Hêzên Parastina Gel (HPG)
Foundation 1984 (1984)[21]
Dates of operation 1984–present
Motives Cultural & political rights for the Kurdish population in Turkey.[22]
Active region(s) Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran
Ideology Socialism
Democratic confederalism
Notable attacks 1984 PKK attacks
May 24, 1993 PKK ambush
2011 Hakkâri attack
Status Fights against ISIL.[23][24]

Ongoing war with Turkey, after ceasefire ended.
Size Over 32,800 active fighters (2015 Turkish claim)[25]
Website www.hezenparastine.com/eng/
Free Women's Units
Yekîneyên Jinên Azad ên Star (YJA-STAR)
Dates of operation 1984–present
Active region(s) Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran
Ideology Democratic confederalism
Status Fights against ISIL.[23][24][26]

Ceasefire with Turkey since 21 March 2013, participating in ongoing peace process.
Website www.yja-star.com/ku/

The Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK (Kurdish: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) is a left-wing organization based in Turkey and Iraq. Since 1984 the PKK has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state for equal rights and self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey,[18] who comprise between 18% and 25% of the population and have been subjected to repression for decades.[27][28] The group was founded in 1978 in the village of Fis (near Lice) by a group of Kurdish students led by Abdullah Öcalan.[29] The PKK's ideology was originally a fusion of revolutionary socialism and Kurdish nationalism, seeking the foundation of an independent, Marxist–Leninist state in the region, which was to be known as Kurdistan.

However, since his capture and imprisonment in 1999, the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, has completely abandoned Marxism–Leninism,[30] leading the party to adopt his new political platform of "Democratic Confederalism" (influenced strongly by the libertarian socialist philosophy of communalism) while ceasing its official calls for the establishment of a fully independent country. In May 2007, former members of the PKK helped form the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organisation of Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On 20 March 2005,[31] Öcalan described the need for a democratic confederalism and went on to say:

The democratic confederalism of Kurdistan is not a State system, it is the democratic system of a people without a State... It takes its power from the people and adapts to reach self-sufficiency in every field including the economy.

In 2013, the PKK declared a ceasefire agreement and began slowly withdrawing its fighters to the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq as part of the "solution process" between the Turkish state and the long-disenfranchised Kurdish minority. In July 2015, the PKK announced that a ceasefire was over and said that Ankara had welched on its promises regarding the Kurdish issue.[32]

In August 2015, the PKK announced that they would accept a ceasefire with Turkey under US guarantees.[33]

The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by several states and organizations, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States,[34] the United Kingdom,[35][36] the European Union,[37] and Australia.[38] However, the United Nations and countries such as Switzerland, China, India, Russia and Egypt have not designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.[39][40][41][42]


PKK supporters at 2003 march, London

In the early 1970s, the organization's core group was made up largely of students led by Abdullah Öcalan ("Apo") in Ankara. The group focused to the large oppressed Kurdish population in south-east Turkey. A meeting on 25 November 1978, in a tea house near Diyarbakır is considered the founding meeting.[43] On 27 November 1978, the group adopted the name Kurdistan Workers' Party. Espousing a Marxist ideology, the group took part in violent conflicts with right-wing entities as a part of the political chaos in Turkey at the time. Some sources claimed that the group tried to assassinate the Kurdish tribal leader Mehmet Celal Bucak in 1979. They claimed that he exploited the peasants, and collaborated with Turkey in oppressing the Kurds. It is believed that this marked a period of intense urban warfare among other political elements.

Turkish sources claimed that the 1980 Turkish coup d'état pushed the organization to another stage, with members being executed, doing jail time, being subject to capital punishment, or fleeing to Syria. On 10 November 1980, it was claimed that the PKK bombed the Turkish Consulate in Strasbourg, France in a joint operation with the Armenian radical group ASALA, which they claimed as the beginning of a "fruitful collaboration."[44] The PKK didn't take responsibility despite a numerous of accusations.

Starting in 1984, the PKK transformed into a paramilitary group, using training camps in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and France. It launched attacks and bombings against Turkish governmental installations, the military, and various institutions of the state that were seen as a part of Turkification. The PKK mainly focused on attacks against Turkish military targets in Turkey.[45][46]

From the mid-1990s, it was claimed that the organization began to lose the upper hand in its operations as a consequence of a change of tactics by Turkey and Syria's steady abandonment of support for the group. At the same time, the government started to use more violence methods to suppress Kurdish activists. From 1996 to 1999, the PKK conducted hundreds of bomb attacks against military and police bases.[47][48] In the late 1990s, Turkey increased the pressure and the undeclared war between Turkey and Syria ended open Syrian support.[49] The Kurdish-Turkish conflict (1978-present) was in its peak in the 90's. 1999, Öcalan was captured, prosecuted and sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment as part of the government's seeking European Union membership.[50]

As a result of Kurdish activism, the Turkish parliament began a controlled process of dismantling some anti-Kurdish legislation, using the term "normalization" or "rapprochement," depending on the sides of the issue. It partially relaxed the bans on broadcasting and publishing in the Kurdish language, although significant barriers remain.[51] At the same time, the PKK was blacklisted in many countries. On 2 April 2004, the Council of the European Union added the PKK to its list of terrorist organizations. Later that year, the US Treasury moved to freeze assets of branches of the organization. The PKK went through a series of changes, and in 2003 it ended the unilateral truce declared when Öcalan was captured.[52]

Despite a numerous of large offensives against the PKK bases, the government has failed in its war against the PKK. On 20 March 2016, the PKK announced that they will support the Peoples' United Revolutionary Movement which aim to attain "democracy and [a] free future" for "peoples against imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, fascism and racism", by working towards the overthrow of the ruling AKP, who they deem fascist. It is know that the PKK has given some kind of support to this alliance.[16]


The organization originated in the 1970s from the radical left and drew its membership from other existing leftist groups, mainly Dev-Genç.[53]:127 The organization initially presented itself as part of the worldwide communist revolution. Its aims and objectives have evolved over time towards the goal of national autonomy,[54] and Democratic Confederalism.[30]

During the 1980s, the movement included and cooperated with other ethnic groups, including ethnic Turks, who were following the radical left.[53]:127 The organization initially aimed to establish a fully independent Kurdistan, in Kurdish areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.[53]:129


The PKK has multiple heads in various countries, such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia and West European countries.[55] However, Abdullah Öcalan was the unchallenged leader of the organization. After the capture of Öcalan, authorities induced him to publicly plead for a ceasefire.[56] Though serving life imprisonment, Öcalan is still considered the honorary leader and figurehead of the organization.[57]

Murat Karayılan led the organization until 2015. Cemil Bayik was elected as a new leader in 2015.[58] Cemil Bayik beside Abdullah Öcalan, Kesire Yildirim Öcalan, and Hakki Karaer was one of the core leaders. Cemil Bayik's military skills and leadership were criticized by Abdullah Öcalan during his 1999 trial. The organization appointed "Doctor Bahoz," the nom de guerre of Fehman Huseyin, a Syrian Kurd, in charge of the movement's military operations signifying the long-standing solidarity among Kurds from all parts of Kurdistan.[59]

Training camps

The first training camps were established in 1982 in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and also in Bekaa Valley with the support of the Syrian government.[60][61] After the Iran-Iraq war and Kurdish civil war, the PKK moved all its camps to north Iraq in 1998. The PKK had also completely moved to Qandil mountains from Bekaa Valley, under intensive pressure, after Syria expelled Öcalan and shut down all camps established in the region.[61] At the time, North Iraq was experiencing vacuum of control after Operation Provide Comfort. Instead of a single training camp which could be easily destroyed, the organization created many small camps. During this period the organization set up a fully functioning enclave with training camps, storage facilities, and reconnaissance and communications centers.

In 2007, the organization was believed to have camps strung out through the mountains that straddle the border between Turkey and Iraq, including in Sinaht, Haftanin, Kanimasi and Zap.[62] The organization developed two types of camps. The mountain camps, located in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, are used as forward bases from which militants carry out attacks against Turkish military bases. The units deployed there are highly mobile and the camps have only minimal infrastructure.[62] The other permanent camps, in the Qandil Mountains, have more developed infrastructure—including a field hospital, electricity generators and a large proportion of the PKK's lethal and non-lethal supplies.[62] The organization is using Qandil mountain camps for its political activities.

It was claimed in 2004 that there was another political training camp in Belgium, evidence that the organization had used training camps in Europe for political and ideological training.[63]

Former flag of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (1978–1995)
Second flag of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (1995–2002)
Flag used by the KADEK (2002–2003)
Flag used by the Kongra-Gel (KGK) (2003–2005)
Flag used by the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) (2005–present)
The official flag of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (2005–present)[64]

Political representation

The organization had sympathizer parties in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey beginning in early 1990s. The establishment of direct links to the organization has been a question. In sequence HEP/DEP/HADEP/DEHAP/DTP and the latest Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which later changed its name to Democratic Regions Party (DBP) on 11 July 2014,[65] have been accused of sympathizing with the PKK, since they have refused to brand it as a terrorist group. Turkis newspaper the World Bulleting claimed on June 2007 that report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies had stated that "It is an obvious secret that DTP is connected to PKK in a way and PKK is a terrorist group."[66]

Political organizations established in Turkey are banned from propagating or supporting separatism. Several political parties supporting Kurdish rights have been allegedly banned on this pretext. The constitutional court claimed to find direct links between the HEP/DEP/HADEP and the PKK. In 2008 the DTP-party was prosecuted by the constitutional court. It is reported that Turkey has used the PKK as an excuse to close Kurdish political parties.

Turkish-Kurdish politician and conspiracist Abdülmelik Fırat had claimed that Democratic Society Party (DTP) was founded by PKK, and that 80 percent of Kurds do not vote for this party.[67] Senior DTP leaders maintain that they support a unified Turkey within a democratic framework. Aysel Tuğluk published an article in Radikal in May 2007 as the co-president of DTP, to prove that claim.[68]

Several parliamentarians and other elected representatives have been jailed for speaking in Kurdish, carrying Kurdish colors or otherwise allegedly "promoting separatism", most famous among them being Leyla Zana.[69] The ECHR has condemned Turkey for arresting and executing Kurdish writers, journalists and politicians.

Alleged links with Turkish intelligence

During the controversial Ergenekon trials in Turkey, allegations have been made that the PKK is linked to elements of the Turkish intelligence community.

Şamil Tayyar, author and member of the ruling AK Party, claimed that Öcalan was released in 1972 after just three months' detention on the initiative of the National Intelligence Organization, and that his 1979 escape to Syria was aided by elements in MIT.[70] Öcalan has admitted making use of money given by the MIT to the PKK, which he says was provided as part of MIT efforts to control him.[71]

Former police special forces member Ayhan Çarkın alleged that the state, using the clandestine Ergenekon network, colluded with militant groups such as the PKK, Dev-Sol, and Hezbollah, with the goal of profiting from the war.[72]

A witness to the trials testified that General Levent Ersöz, former head of JITEM, had frequent contact with PKK commander Cemil Bayık.[73]

According to official figures, it was claimed that nearly 2000 PKK members became itirafçı ("confessors") after their arrest. Some were persuaded or coerced to play an active role in the conflict, particularly under the direction of the Turkish Gendarmerie's unofficial JİTEM unit.


During its establishment in the mid-1970s, amid violent clashes country-wide, the organization used classic violent methods, such as the alleged failed assassination of Mehmet Celal Bucak as a propaganda-of-the-deed.[53] After the 1980 military coup, the organization developed into a paramilitary organization using resources it acquired in Syria, Russia, Europe and Bekaa valley in part of ex-Syrian-controlled Lebanon. After 1984, PKK began also to use Maoist theory of people's war.[74][75] There are three phases in this theory. The militant base during the initial years was coming from different sources, so the first two phases were diffused to each other.

Political activity 1978–1984

In the first phase (1978–1984), the PKK tried to gain the support of the Kurdish population. It attacked the machinery of government and distributed propaganda in the region. PKK tactics were based on ambush, sabotage, riots, protests, and demonstrations against the Turkish government. During these years, the PKK also fought a turf war against other radical Islamist Kurdish and Turkish organisations in Turkey. Turkish newspapers claimed that the PKK effectively used the prison force to gain appeal among the population which PKK has denied.[76][77] In the whole Turkey, this period was characterized by violent clashes which culminated in the 1980 military coup.

During this time, the organization argued that its violent actions against the government forces were explained by the need to defend Kurds in the context of what it considered as the massive cultural suppression of Kurdish identity (including the 1983 Turkish Language Act Ban) and cultural rights carried out by other governments of the region.[78] Turkey also used violent and oppressive methods against its Kurdish citizens to stop them supporting the PKK.

Armed rebellion 1984–1999

In the second phase (1984–1999), which followed the return of civilian rule in 1983, escalating attacks were made on the government's military and vital institutions all over the country. The objective was to destabilise Turkish authority through a long, low-intensity confrontation. In addition to skirmishing with Turkish military and police forces and local village guards, the PKK has conducted bomb attacks on government and police installations.[79] Kidnapping and assassination against government and military officials and Kurdish tribal leaders who were named as puppets of the state were performed as well. Widespread sabotages were continued from the first stage. Turkish sources had also claimed that the PKK also carried out kidnappings of tourists, primarily in Istanbul but also at different resorts. However, the PKK had in its history arrested 4 tourists and released them all after warning them to not enter the war zone. The vast majority of PKK's actions have taken place mainly in Turkey against the Turkish military, although it has on occasions co-operated with other Kurdish nationalist paramilitary groups in neighboring states, such as Iraq and Iran.[80] The PKK has also attacked Turkish diplomatic and commercial facilities across Western Europe in the late 80's. In effect, the Turkish state has led a series of counter-insurgency operations against the PKK, accompanied by political measures, starting with an explicit denunciation of separatism in the 1982 Constitution, and including proclamation of the state of emergency in various PKK-controlled territories starting in 1983 (when the military relinquished political control to the civilians). This series of administrative reforms against terrorism included in 1985 the creation of village guard system by the then prime minister Turgut Özal. Turkey involved in serious human rights violations during the 90's. The ECHR has condemned Turkey for executions of Kurdish civilians, torturing, forced displacements and massive arrests.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in an effort to win increased support from the Kurdish peasantry, the PKK altered its leftist secular ideology to better accommodate and accept Islamic beliefs. The group also abandoned its previous strategy of attacking Kurdish and Turkish civilians who were against them, focusing instead on government and military targets.[81] In its campaign, the organization has been accused of carrying out atrocities against both Turkish and Kurdish civilians and its actions have been criticised by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Similar actions of the Turkish state in the past have also been criticized by these same groups.

Cease fire 1999–2004

The third phase (1999–2012), after the capture of Öcalan, according to Maoist theory of people's war claims that conventional fighting should be established to seize cities, overthrow the government and take control of the country. This stage has never been achieved. In effect, after the capture of Öcalan, activities of the organization never reached previous levels. At the same time, the PKK continued to heavily recruit new members and sustain its fighting force.

In April 2002 at its 8th Party Congress, the PKK changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) and proclaimed a commitment to nonviolent activities in support of Kurdish rights. A PKK/KADEK spokesman stated that its armed wing, The People's Defense Force, would not disband or surrender its weapons for reasons of self-defense, however. This statement by the PKK/KADEK avowing it would not lay down its arms underscores that the organization maintained its capability to carry out armed operations. PKK/KADEK established a new ruling council in April, its membership virtually identical to the PKK's Presidential Council. The PKK/KADEK did not conduct an armed attack in 2002; however, the group periodically issued veiled threats that it will resume violence if the conditions of its imprisoned leader are not improved, and it continued its military training and planning.

In November 2003, another congress was held which lead to renaming itself as the People's Congress of Kurdistan or Kongra-Gel (KGK). The stated purpose of the organizational change was to leave behind nationalistic and state-building goals, in favor of creating a political structure to work within the existing nation-states.[82] Through further internal conflict during this period, it is claimed that 1500 militants left the organization,[82] along with many of the leading reformists, including Nizamettin Tas and Abdullah Öcalan's younger brother Osman Öcalan[83]

Second insurgency 2004–2012

Kongra-Gel called off the cease-fire at the start of June 2004, saying Turkish security forces had refused to respect the truce. Turkish security forces were increasingly involved in clashes with Kurdish separatist fighters. Ankara claimed that about 2,000 Kurdish fighters had crossed into Turkey from hideouts in mountainous northern Iraq in early June 2004.

While the fight against the Turkish security forces between 2004 and 2010 continued, the PKK and its ancillary organizations continued to enjoy substantial support among the Kurds of Turkey. In 2005, the original name of the organization PKK was restored. Turkey's struggle against the Kongra-Gel/PKK was marked by increased clashes across Turkey in 2005. In the Southeast, Turkish security forces were active in the struggle against the Kongra-Gel/PKK. There were bombings and attempted bombings in resort areas in western Turkey and Istanbul, some of which resulted in civilian casualties. A radical Kurdish separatist group calling itself the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for many of these attacks. The TAK is a rival to PKK that since 2006 repeatedly damaged the PKK's efforts to negotiate cease-fires and unlike the PKK, it's seeking to establish independent Kurdistan.[84] In 2006 alone, the PKK claimed over 500 victims. In October 2006, the PKK allegedly declared a unilateral cease-fire that slowed the intensity and pace of its attacks, but attacks continued in response to Turkish security forces significant counterinsurgency operations, especially in the southeast. On 21 October 2011 Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi announced Iran would co-operate with Turkey in some military operations against the PKK.[85]

2012 was the most violent year in the armed conflict between the Turkish State and PKK since 1999. At least 541 individuals lost their lives as a result of the clashes including 316 militants and 282 soldiers. In contrast, 152 individuals lost their lives in 2009 until the Turkish government initiated negotiations with the PKK leadership.[86] The failure of this negotiations contributed to violence that were particularly intensified in 2012. The PKK encouraged by the rising power of the Syrian Kurds increased its attacks in the same year.

During the Syrian civil war, the Kurds in Syria have established control over their own region with the help of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party as well as with support from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil, under President Massoud Barzani.[87]

2013–15 Peace process

Main article: Solution process
Demonstration in Paris for slain PKK workers

In late 2012, the Turkish government began secret talks with Öcalan for a ceasefire.[88] To facilitate talks, government officials transmitted letters between Öcalan in jail to PKK leaders in northern Iraq.[89] On 21 March 2013, a ceasefire was announced.[90] On 25 April, it was announced that the PKK would leave Turkey. Commander Murat Karayilan remarked "As part of ongoing preparations, the withdrawal will begin on May 8, 2013. Our forces will use their right to retaliate in the event of an attack, operation or bombing against our withdrawing guerrilla forces and the withdrawal will immediately stop."[91] The semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq welcomed the idea of refugees from its northern neighbor.[92] The BDP held meetings across the region to explain the pending withdrawal to concerned citizens. "The 8th of May is a day we both anticipate and fear," explained party leader Pinar Yilmaz. "We don't trust the government at all. Many people here are afraid that once the guerrillas are gone, the Turkish military will crack down on us again."[90]

The withdrawal began as planned with groups of fighters crossing the border from southeastern Turkey to northern Iraq.[88] Iraqi leadership in Baghdad, however, declared that it would not accept armed groups into its territory. "The Iraqi government welcomes any political and peaceful settlement", read an official statement. "[But] it does not accept the entry of armed groups to its territories that can be used to harm Iraq's security and stability."[92] The prospect of armed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq threatens to increase tensions between the region and Baghdad who are already at odds over certain oil producing territory. PKK spokesman Ahmet Deniz sought to ease concerns stating the plan would boost democracy. "The [peace] process is not aimed against anyone," he said "and there is no need for concerns that the struggle will take on another format and pose a threat to others."[92]

It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 PKK fighters resided in Turkey at the time. The withdrawal process was expected to take several months even if Iraq does not intervene to try to stop it.[92] On 14 May 2013, the first groups of 13 male and female fighters entered Iraq's Heror area near the Metina mountain after leaving Turkey. They carried with them Kalashnikov assault rifles, light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers before a welcoming ceremony.[93]

Kurdish PKK guerilla, 23 March 2014

On 29 July 2013, the PKK issued an ultimatum in saying that the peace deal would fail if reforms were not begun to be implemented within a month.[94] In October, Cemil Bayik warned that unless Turkey resumed the peace process, the PKK would resume operations to defend itself against it. He also accused Turkey of waging a proxy war against Kurds during the Syrian civil war by supporting other extremist rebels who were fighting them.[95]

Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani backed the initiative saying, alongside Erdogan: "This is a historic visit for me ... We all know it would have been impossible to speak here 15 or 20 years ago. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has taken a very brave step towards peace. I want my Kurdish and Turkish brothers to support the peace process."[96]

2014 action against Islamic State and renewed tensions in Turkey

The PKK engaged the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces in Syria in mid-July 2014[97] as part of the Syrian Civil War. In August the PKK engaged IS in Northern Iraq and pressured the Government of Turkey to take a stand against IS.[98][99] PKK forces helped tens of thousands of Yazidis escape an encircled Mount Sinjar.[100] In September 2014, during the Siege of Kobane, the PKK engaged with Islamic State forces in Syria who were attacking Kurdish city Kobane, which resulted in conflicts with Turks on the border and an end to a cease-fire that had been in place over a year.[101] The PKK accused Turkey of supporting ISIS. The PKK participated in many offensives against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.[102]

A number of Turkish Kurds rallied in large-scale street protests, demanding that the government in Ankara take more forceful action to combat IS and to enable Kurdish militants already engaged against IS to more freely move and resupply. These protests included a PKK call for its supporters to turn out.[103] Clashes between police and protesters killed at least 31 people. The Turkish government continued to restrict PKK-associated fighters' movement across its borders, arresting 260 People's Protection Units fighters who were moving back into Turkey. On 14 October, Turkish Air Force fighter-bombers attacked PKK positions in the vicinity of Daglica, Hakkari Province.[104]

Turkish military statements claimed that the bombings were in response to PKK attacks on a Turkish military outpost in the area. The Firat news agency, which Al Jazeera describes as "close to the PKK", claimed that Turkish forces had been shelling the PKK positions for days beforehand and that the PKK action had itself been retaliation for those artillery strikes.[105] The PKK had already reported several Turkish attacks against their troops months before Turkish bombing started.

July 2015–present: Renewed rebellion

Main article: 2015 PKK rebellion
PKK and Peshmerga fighters, 11 August 2015

In the months before the parliamentary election of 2015, as the "Kurdish-focused" HDP's likelihood of crossing the 10% threshold for entry into the government seemed more likely, Erdogan gave speeches and made comments that repudiated the settlement process and the existence of a Kurdish problem and refusing to recognize the HDP as having any role to play despite their long participation as intermediaries.[106] These announcements increased distrust of the government's good faith among Kurdish leaders. In July 2015, Turkey finally became involved in the war against ISIL. While they were doing so, they decided to bomb PKK targets in Iraq.[107] The bombings came a few days after PKK was suspected to have assassinated two Turkish police officers in Ceylanpınar, Şanlıurfa, accused by the PKK of having links with ISIS after the 2015 Suruç bombing.[108][109] The PKK has blamed Turkey for breaking the truce by bombing the PKK in 2014 and 2015 continuously. PKK announced a one-sided ceasefire in October 2015 near election time, but the government refused. The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan has condemned the Turkish air strikes in its autonomous region in the north of Iraq.[110]

The number of casualties since 23 July was claimed by Turkish government to be 150 Turkish officers and over 2,000 Kurdish rebels killed (by September).[111]

In March 2016, the PKK helped to launch the Peoples' United Revolutionary Movement with nine other Kurdish and Turkish revolutionary leftist, socialist and communist groups (including the TKP/ML, THKP-C, MKP, TKEP/Leninist, TİKB, DKP, Devrimci Karargâh and MLKP) with the aim of overthrowing the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.[16]


The areas in which the group operates are generally mountainous rural areas and dense urban areas. The mountainous terrain offers an advantage to members of the PKK by allowing them to hide in a network of caves and making military air operations, especially helicopter use, hazardous for the Turkish Armed Forces.


The PKK's ideology supports equality of gender. At its establishment, it included a small number of female fighters. Over time, however, this number has increased significantly and by the early 1990s, 30 percent of its 17,000 armed fighting forces were women.[112] In much of rural Turkey, male-dominated tribal structures, and conservative Muslim norms are commonplace. The organization increased its number of members through the recruitment of women from different social structures and environments, such as women from families that migrated to several European countries after 1960 as guest workers.[112] It was reported by a Turkish university that 88% of the subjects claimed that equality was a key objective.[113] In 2007, approximately 1,100 of 4,500–5,000 total members were women.[112]


In July 2007, the weapons captured between 1984 and 2007 from the PKK operatives and their origins published by the Turkish General Staff indicates that the operatives erased some of the serial numbers from their weapons. The total number of weapons and the origins for traceable ones were:[114]

The choice and origin of the traceable weapons (July 2007)[114]
Type Quantity Sources
AK-47 Kalashnikovs 4,500 71.6% from the USSR, 14.7% from China, 3.6% from Hungary, 3.6% from Bulgaria
Rifles[nb 1] 5,713 of (959 traceable) 45.2% from Russia, 13.2% from United Kingdom, and 9.4% from United States.
Rocket launchers 1,610 (313 traceable) 85% from Russia, 5.4% from Iraq, and 2.5% from China in origin.
Pistols 2,885 (2,208 traceable) 21.9% from Czechoslovakia, 20.2% from Spain, 19.8% from Italy
Grenades 3,490 (136 traceable) 72% from Russia, 19.8% from United States, 8% from Germany,
Land mines 11,568 (8,015 traceable) 60.8% from Italy, 28.3% from Russia, 6.2% from Germany

Turkish authorities claimed that four members of the organization, who handed themselves over to authorities after escaping from camps in northern Iraq, claimed they had seen two U.S. armored vehicles deliver weapons, which was widely reported and further stoked suspicions about U.S. policy in Iraq.[115] US envoy denied these claims.[116] The arms were claimed to be part of Blackwater Worldwide arms smuggling allegations. The probe of organization's weapons and the investigation of Blackwater employees were connected.[117] The PKK also denied claims.



Parties and concerts are organized by branch groups.[118] Additionally, it is believed that the PKK earns money through the sale of various publications, as well as receiving revenues from legitimate businesses owned by the organization, and from Kurdish-owned businesses in Turkey, Russia, Iraq, Iran and Western Europe.[119][120] Besides affiliate organizations, it is claimed that there are sympathizer organizations such as the Confederation of Kurdish Associations in Europe and the International Kurdish Businessmen Union which constantly exchanges information and perform legitimate or semi-legitimate commercial activities and donations.

Percentage of the popular vote won by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in the 2015 Turkish general election. "The HDP's elections results, which are a proxy indicator of popular support for the PKK, show that the group has followers throughout the country."[121]

Alleged drug trafficking

The alleged involvement of PKK in drug trafficking goes back to the 1990s.[122] A report by Interpol published in 1992 states that the PKK, along with nearly 178 Kurdish organizations were suspected of illegal drug trade involvement. According to FAS, Interpol's chief narcotics officer Iqbal Hussain Rizvi had stated in 1992 that the PKK was heavily involved in drug trafficking, but didn't show any evidences.[123] Members of the PKK have been designated narcotics traffickers by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.[124] However, The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic security agency, echoed this finding in its 2011 Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution, stating that despite the U.S Department of Treasury designation, there was "no evidence that the organisational structures of the PKK are directly involved in drug trafficking".[125]

On 14 October 2009, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) targeted the senior leadership of the PKK, designating Murat Karayılan, the head of the PKK, and high-ranking members Ali Riza Altun and Zübeyir Aydar as significant foreign narcotics traffickers.[124] On 20 April 2011, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced the designation of PKK founders Cemil Bayik and Duran Kalkan and other high-ranking members as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers (SDNT) pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act). Pursuant to the Kingpin Act, the designation freezes any assets the designees may have under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. persons from conducting financial or commercial transactions with these individuals.[126]

However, according to Kurdish activists all these are allegations used by the US administration in order to de-legitimate PKK assisting Turkey as a major ally. On the contrary, many activists claim that the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) has been involved in drug trafficking in the border with Iran similarly to the Iranian intelligence. The Susurluk scandal is one of the cases of drug trafficking by high Turkish officials that the Turkish MIT has hidden its details.

According to research conducted by journalist Aliza Marcus, the PKK accepted the support of Kurdish smugglers in the region. Aliza Marcus claimed that some of those Kurdish smuggler who involved in the drugs trade, either because they truly believed in the PKK—or because they thought it a good business practice—frequently donated money to the PKK rebels. She also claimed that there were reports of PKK supporters in Europe who used their positions and contacts to trade in drugs—and then handed some of the profits to the PKK. And when PKK activists needed more money, they had no qualms about approaching Kurds who trafficked in narcotics. However, according to Aliza Marcus, it does not seem that the PKK, as an organization, directly produced or traded in narcotics.[127]

Also, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic security agency, echoed this finding in its 2011 Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution, stating that despite the US designation, there was "no evidence that the organisational structures of the PKK are directly involved in drug trafficking".[125]

Human resources

In 2008, according to information provided by the Intelligence Resource Program of the Federation of American Scientists the strength of the organization in terms of human resources consists of approximately 4,000 to 5,000 militants of whom 3,000 to 3,500 are located in northern Iraq.[128] With the new wave of fighting from 2015 onwards, observers noted that active support for the PKK had become a "mass phenomenon" in majority ethnic Kurdish cities in the Southeast of the Republic of Turkey, with large numbers of local youth joining PKK-affiliated local militant groups.[129]

International support

At the height of its campaign, the organization received support from many countries. According to Turkey, countries the PKK has previously/currently received support from include: Greece,[130][131] Iran,[132] Iraq,[133] Russia[134] and Syria.[132] The level of support given has changed throughout this period. Official Turkish sources also allege cooperation between the PKK and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA).[135]

According to Ali Külebi, president of an Ankara-based nationalist think tank TUSAM, "It is obvious that the PKK is supported by Greece, considering the PKK's historical development with major support from Greece." Külebi alleged in 2007 that PKK militants received training at a base in Lavrion, near Athens.[136] Retired Greek L.T. General Dimitris Matafias and retired Greek Navy Admiral Antonis Naxakis had visited the organization's Mahsun Korkmaz base camp in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley in October 1988 along with parliamentarians from the center-left PASOK.[137] At the time it was reported that the general had assumed responsibility for training. Greeks also dispatched arms through the Republic of Cyprus.[137] In December 1993, Greek foreign affairs minister Theodoros Pangalos was quoted as saying "we must be supportive of the Kurdish people to be free".[138] Greece declined to join Germany and France and the eleven other members at the EU to ban the organization.[138] During his trial, Öcalan admitted, as quoted in Hürriyet, that "Greece has for years supported the PKK movement. They even gave us arms and rockets. Greek officers gave guerrilla training and explosives training to our militants" at a camp in Lavrion, Greece.[139]
From early 1979 to 1999 Syria had provided valuable safe havens to PKK in the region of Beqaa Valley. However, after the undeclared war between Turkey and Syria, Syria placed restrictions on PKK activity on its soil such as not allowing the PKK to establish camps and other facilities for training and shelter or to have commercial activities on its territory. Syria recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1998.[140] Turkey was expecting positive developments in its cooperation with Syria in the long term, but even during the course of 2005, there were PKK operatives of Syrian nationality operating in Turkey.[118][141]
Iran provided PKK with supplies in the form of weapons and funds. However, Iran later listed PKK as a terrorist organization after Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan used Iran's supply of resources to the PKK on its own soil.
Turkish and Azeri sources have alleged in 2007 that PKK maintains camps in the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.[142] Armenia's Deputy Foreign Minister Arman Kirakosyan called these allegations "sheer nonsense" in 2008.[143] In May 2008 a commentary in the right-wing newspaper Yeni Şafak claimed that the PKK's leadership, "perhaps feeling insecure in northern Iraq, was mulling a move to Nagorno-Karabakh." In response, Armenia's Foreign Ministry press spokesman Vladimir Karapetian stated, "The unsubstantiated rumors about the intentions on the side of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to move to Nagorno-Karabakh and controlled territories cannot be called anything less than another provocation."[144]
Republic of Cyprus
Support of the Republic of Cyprus was alleged when Abdullah Öcalan was caught with a Cypriot passport under the name of Mavros Lazaros, a nationalist reporter.
Soviet Union and Russia
Former KGB-FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko alleges that PKK's leader Abdullah Öcalan was trained by KGB-FSB.[145] As of 2008, Russia is still not among the states that list PKK as a terrorist group despite intense Turkish pressure.
United Kingdom
MED TV broadcast for five years in the UK, until its license was revoked by the regulators the Independent Television Commission (ITC) in 1999. The PKK has been listed as a terrorist organization since 2001. In 2008, the United Kingdom detained members of the PKK and seized the assets of the PKK's representative in Britain, Selman Bozkur, alias "Dr. Hüseyin". His assets remain frozen.[146]
Support of various European states
The Dutch police had allegedly raided the 'PKK paramilitary camp' in the Dutch village of Liempde and arrested 29 people in November 2004, but all were soon released.[147] Denmark allows Kurdish satellite television stations (such as ROJ-TV), which Turkey claims has links with the PKK, to operate in Denmark and broadcast into Turkey.[148]
Various PKK leaders, including Hidir Yalcin, Riza Altun, Zubeyir Aydar, and Ali Haydar Kaytan all lived in Europe and moved freely. The free movement was achieved by strong ties with influential persons. Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of the former President of France, had active connections during the 90s with elements of the organization's leadership that forced a downgrade in relationships between the two states.[149] After harboring him for some time, Austria arranged a flight to Iraq for Ali Rıza Altun, a suspected key figure with an Interpol arrest warrant on his name.. Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gül summoned the Austrian ambassador and condemned Austria's action.[150] On 30 September 1995, while Öcalan was in Syria, Damascus initiated contact with high-ranking German CDU MP Heinrich Lummer and German intelligence officials.
The Chief of the Turkish General Staff during 2007, General Yaşar Büyükanıt, stated that even though the international struggle had been discussed on every platform and even though organizations such as the UN, NATO, and EU made statements of serious commitment, to this day the necessary measures had not been taken.[151] According to Büyükanıt; "this conduct on one side has encouraged the terrorists, on the other side it assisted in widening their activities.[151] "
Sedat Laçiner, of the Turkish think tank ISRO, says that US support of the PKK undermines the US War on Terrorism.[152] Seymour Hersh claimed that the U.S. supported PEJAK, the Iranian branch of the PKK.[153] The head of the PKK's militant arm, Murat Karayılan, claimed that Iran attempted to recruit the PKK to attack coalition forces, adding that Kurdish guerrillas had launched a clandestine war in north-western Iran, ambushing Iranian troops.[154]

Designation as a terrorist group

The PKK has been placed on the terrorism blacklists of Turkey and a number of allied governments and organizations.[155]

The military alliance NATO has declared the PKK to be a terrorist group;[156] Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and fields the group's second-largest armed contingent. Closely tied to NATO,[157] the European Union—which Turkey aspires to join—officially lists the PKK as having "been involved in terrorist acts" and proscribes it as part of its Common Foreign and Security Policy.[158] First designated in 2002, the PKK was ordered to be removed from the EU terror list on 3 April 2008 by the European Court of First Instance on the grounds that the EU failed to give a proper justification for listing it in the first place.[159] However, EU officials dismissed the ruling, stating that the PKK would remain on the list regardless of the legal decision.[160] Most European Union member states have not individually listed the PKK as a terrorist group.

The PKK has never been designated as a terrorist organization by the UN, though two out of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council treat it as such on an individual basis. The PKK is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department[161] and as a Proscribed Group by the UK Home Office.[162] Additionally, France prosecutes Kurdish-French activists and bans organizations connected to the PKK on terrorism-related charges,[163] having listed the group as a terrorist organization since 1993.[164] However, French courts often refuse to extradite captured individuals accused of PKK connections to Turkey due to technicalities in French law, frustrating Turkish authorities.[165] On the other hand, Russia has long ignored Turkish pressure to ban the PKK,[166] and the group is also not included in the official terror blacklist of China (PRC), Brazil, Switzerland, India and Egypt.[167][168]

The following other individual countries have listed or otherwise labelled the PKK in an official capacity as a terrorist organization:

Australia,[169][170] Austria,[171] Azerbaijan,[172] Canada,[173] Czech Republic,[174] Germany,[175] Iran,[176] Japan,[177] Kazakhstan,[178] Kyrgyzstan,[179] the Netherlands,[180] New Zealand,[181] Spain,[182] Syria.[140]

Notably, the government of Switzerland has explicitly rejected Turkish demands to blacklist the PKK,[183] though it has taken its own measures to monitor and restrict the group's activities on Swiss soil, including banning the collection of funds for the group in November 2008.[184] Switzerland consider only those organizations as a terrorist organizations which are in the terrorist list of the United Nations.[185][186]


The name PKK usually also includes its armed wing: the Kurdish People's Defence Force (Hêzên Parastina Gel, HPG), formerly called the Kurdistan National Liberty Army (ARGK).[187]

See also

Related and associated organizations



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