Overview

Also Known As:

Executive Summary

Abdullah Öcalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey in 1978.Michiel Leezenberg, “The Ambiguities of Democratic Autonomy: The Kurdish Movement in Turkey and Rojava,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no. 4 (2016), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14683857.2016.1246529. While the PKK’s manifesto “…explicitly called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state,” the group embraced Marxism to justify its Kurdish-separatist war as part of a global class struggle and revolution.Michiel Leezenberg, “The Ambiguities of Democratic Autonomy: The Kurdish Movement in Turkey and Rojava,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no. 4 (2016), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14683857.2016.1246529. The PKK also utilizes violence to destroy or subsume any other Kurdish nationalist movement that opposes it or deviates from its specific goals.“Chronology for Kurds in Turkey,” Minorities at Risk Project, University of Maryland, July 16, 2010, http://www.mar.umd.edu/chronology.asp?groupId=64005. The PKK uses car bombs, suicide bombings, abductions, and assassinations against civilians, foreign tourists, and politicians alongside its small-arms attacks on Turkish security forces.“Chronology for Kurds in Turkey,” Minorities at Risk Project, University of Maryland, July 16, 2010, http://www.mar.umd.edu/chronology.asp?groupId=64005.

Öcalan, born a peasant in southeastern Turkey, propagated his ideology in the wake of the 1980 military coup in Turkey.Amberin Zaman, “Turkey Celebrates Capture of Öcalan,” Washington Post, February 18, 1999, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/feb99/Öcalanturkey18.htm. Only a year after officially founding his party, he fled to Syria in light of Turkey’s increasing military counterinsurgency activity.Amberin Zaman, “Turkey Celebrates Capture of Öcalan,” Washington Post, February 18, 1999, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/feb99/Öcalanturkey18.htm. Between 1979 and 1998, the Syrian government sheltered Öcalan in Damascus or in the Beka’a Valley of Lebanon.Anil Karaca, “Disrupting Terrorist Networks: An Analysis of the PKK Terrorist Organization,” MA thesis (Naval Postgraduate School, 2010), 47, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a536525.pdf.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK carried out an armed struggle against the Turkish state and carried out terrorist attacks on Turkish military targets and civilians domestically and abroad.Simon Hooper, “PKK’s Decades of Violent Struggle,” CNN, October 11 2007, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:reamGl7dG3cJ:www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/10/10/pkk.profile/index.html+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari. The PKK “is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 30,000 Turkish security force members and civilians,” according to the U.S. State Department.Simon Hooper, “PKK's Decades of Violent Struggle,” CNN, October 11 2007, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:reamGl7dG3cJ:www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/10/10/pkk.profile/index.html+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari.

Despite his capture and incarceration in February of 1999, Abdullah Öcalan continues to significantly influence Kurdish politics.“Turkey Profile – Timeline,” BBC News, June 24, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17994865; Tim Weiner, “U.S. Helped Turkey Find and Capture Kurd Rebel,” New York Times, February 20, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/20/world/us-helped-turkey-find-and-capture-kurd-rebel.html. He has since published 10 books, and in 2013, he signed a peace treaty with the Turkish government on behalf of the PKK from inside his jail cell.Jenna Krajeski, “Peace Comes to Turkey,” New Yorker, March 24, 2013, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/peace-comes-to-turkey. Öcalan’s ideology has evolved during his imprisonment. His trademark brands of feminism (“jineology”), Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and Kurdish revolutionary nationalism have remained the core functions of what his followers have often referenced as “Apoism” (“apo” meaning uncle in Kurdish). Since 2004, inspired by the writings of leftist political philosopher Murray Bookchin, Öcalan has shifted his ideology toward the promotion of democratic confederalism.Sirwan Kajjo, “Writings of Obscure American Leftist Drive Kurdish Forces in Syria,” Voice of America, January 16, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/writings-of-obscure-american-leftist-drive-kurdish-forces-to-syria/3678233.html.

The PKK has undergone numerous name changes and mergers in order to subsume all other Kurdish political and militant movements and distance itself from its violent actions. Prior to 2005, the PKK leadership consisted solely of a central committee overseen by Öcalan, with no regional chapters.“A Report on the PKK and Terrorism,” Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1998, https://fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/mfa-t-pkk.htm. In 2005, the PKK renamed itself the Kongra-Gel and compartmentalized violent activities under a newly formed military wing, People’s Defense Forces (HPG).Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf; Anil Karaca, “Disrupting Terrorist Networks: An Analysis of the PKK Terrorist Organization,” MA thesis (Naval Postgraduate School, 2010), https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a536525.pdf. In 2007, the PKK formed the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) as an umbrella organization including both the PKK and other Kurdish movements in Syria (PYD), Iraq (PÇDK), and Iran (PJAK).Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. The formation of the KCK was an attempt by the PKK to localize Kurdish struggles within each nation while providing a mechanism that unites each movement under the dominant political ideology of the PKK.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf; Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 8.

Doctrine

Despite the PKK’s consistent adherence to Abdullah Öcalan’s ideological leadership and prioritization of Kurdish identity and Marxism-Leninism, the PKK has proven itself to be ideologically flexible.Paul K. Davis, Eric V. Larson et al, "Public Support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey," Understanding and Influencing Public Support for Insurgency and Terrorism (Santa Monico: RAND Corporation, 2012), 99–118, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mg1122osd.12.

The 1978 PKK manifesto “…explicitly called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state…” yet the PKK has more recently come to be defined by its transnational and “democratic confederalist” agenda.Michiel Leezenberg, “The Ambiguities of Democratic Autonomy: the Kurdish Movement in Turkey and Rojava,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no. 4 (2016), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14683857.2016.1246529. The PKK, like many other Kurdish organizations, has carried out attacks against the Turkish military and security forces with the long-term objective of the creation of an autonomous region in Turkey similar to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The PKK has also asserted additional goals, including the preservation of Kurdish culture and political rights.Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 20, https://books.google.com/books?id=6rcUCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=Pınarcık+massacre+pkk+claims&source=bl&ots=JaZ9Kg160t&sig=ACfU3U1bsJVs8x7ufCH5zblsbQiVM4nolQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsh9yy1YPkAhWUup4KHeRFDZUQ6AEwBnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pınarcık%20massacre%20pkk%20claims&f=false. It pursues these goals in part by pressuring Turkey through violent attacks targeting tourists and by gaining the support of international actors.Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 20, https://books.google.com/books?id=6rcUCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=Pınarcık+massacre+pkk+claims&source=bl&ots=JaZ9Kg160t&sig=ACfU3U1bsJVs8x7ufCH5zblsbQiVM4nolQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsh9yy1YPkAhWUup4KHeRFDZUQ6AEwBnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pınarcık%20massacre%20pkk%20claims&f=false.

In the late 1970s, socialist movements were extremely popular in Turkey.Palash Ghosh, “Turkish Communists: Still Waging a Cold War That No Longer Exists,” International Business Times, February 3, 2013, https://www.ibtimes.com/turkish-communists-still-waging-cold-war-no-longer-exists-1057656. Öcalan saw an opportunity to align his movement with leftists, realizing that he had to disrupt social hierarchies within traditional Kurdish society in order to attract rural members to his new organization.Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 24–25, https://books.google.com/books?id=6rcUCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=Pınarcık+massacre+pkk+claims&source=bl&ots=JaZ9Kg160t&sig=ACfU3U1bsJVs8x7ufCH5zblsbQiVM4nolQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsh9yy1YPkAhWUup4KHeRFDZUQ6AEwBnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pınarcık%20massacre%20pkk%20claims&f=false. The PKK’s founders considered themselves Marxists, but at the fifth PKK congress, members emphasized their opposition to Soviet-era socialism and vowed to modernize their socialist practices.Debbie Bookchin, “How My Father’s Ideas Helped the Kurds Create a New Democracy,” New York Review of Books, June 15, 2018, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/06/15/how-my-fathers-ideas-helped-the-kurds-create-a-new-democracy/.

Öcalan remains a prominent influencer on Kurdish politics within the region even from jail. He has since published ten books, and in 2013, signed a peace treaty with the Turkish government on behalf of the PKK from inside his jail cell.Jenna Krajeski, “Peace Comes to Turkey,” New Yorker, March 24, 2013, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/peace-comes-to-turkey. Since his incarceration, his ideology has also evolved. His trademark brands of feminism (“jineology”), Marxist-Leninst philosophy, and Kurdish revolution have remained the core functions of Apoism. Since 2004, his more recent inspiration from Murray Bookchin pushed his ideology toward the promotion of democratic confederalism.Sirwan Kajjo, “Writings of Obscure American Leftist Drive Kurdish Forces in Syria,” Voice of America, January 17, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/writings-of-obscure-american-leftist-drive-kurdish-forces-to-syria/3678233.html.

Jineology is an ideology created by Öcalan that dictates that women’s revolution against the patriarchy is an essential component of creating a free society.Abdullah Öcalan, Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution (Cologne: International Initiative, 2013), 56, http://www.freeocalan.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/liberating-Lifefinal.pdf. (“Jin” means “woman” in Kurdish.) With both jineology and his communist dogma, Öcalan sought to disrupt tribal and traditional feudal practices by breaking down gendered boundaries.“PKK Recruitment of Female Operatives,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus 4, no. 28 (September 11, 2007), https://jamestown.org/program/pkk-recruitment-of-female-operatives/. The term was first referenced in his work “The Sociology of Freedom” in 2003.Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 10.

In 2003, Öcalan reformulated the ideological basis of the PKK. Inspired by eco-anarchists Murray Bookchin and Janet Beihl, he advocated for a new anti-nationalist approach he referred to as “democratic confederalism.”Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 38. While the PKK is often still described as a Marxist-Leninist organization, Öcalan’s new ideology diverges from traditional Leninist principles, seeking essentially decentralized communalism.Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 24. Öcalan’s new doctrine, democratic confederalism, has inspired the “Rojava Experiment” in Syria, created in the wake of the Syrian revolution.Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 16.

The PKK’s ideological reformation resulted in the foundation of new relationships with regional parties. The PYD, PJAK, and PÇDK share allegiance to Öcalan but vary in ideology.Thomas Schmidinger, Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria's Kurds, (Oakland: Pluto Press, 2018), 1-9. The Syrian Civil War provided an opportunity for Kurds in Syria to attempt to implement Öcalan’s “democratic confederalism” through the use of a decentralized canton system, whereas in the PKK, such a system of linked but semi-sovereign regions is infeasible as the organizational structure is still strictly hierarchical and built on the back of a cult of personality.Thomas Schmidinger, Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria's Kurds, (Oakland: Pluto Press, 2018), 1-9. Each regional branch of the KCK stresses different components of Öcalan’s doctrine.Thomas Schmidinger, Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria's Kurds, (Oakland: Pluto Press, 2018), 1-9.

Organizational Structure

The PKK has a rigid hierarchical structure, with Abdullah Öcalan at the top. In 2013, the PKK reconfigured its senior management. The KCK adopted a dual-gender leadership (known as Hevserok), replacing KCK head Murat Karayilan (a.k.a. Cemal) with co-chairs Cemil Bayik (a.k.a. Cuma) and Hülya Oran (a.k.a. Bese Hozat) as the head of the KCK and reassigning Karayilan to lead the Turkey-based HPG.Eyup Can, “PKK Changes Leadership,” Al-Monitor, July 14, 2013, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2013/07/structural-leadership-changes-pkk-turkey-kurds.html. Bayik allegedly has strong ties to Iran’s intelligence agency, VEVAK.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. Two Syrian Kurds, Fehman Hüseyin (a.k.a. Bahoz Erdal) and Nurettin Halef Al Muhammed (a.k.a. Nurettin Sofi), were also assigned leadership positions within the HPG.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. The PKK’s Executive Council is now run by Cemil Bayik, Hülya Oran, Murat Karayilan, Mustafa Karasu (a.k.a. Hüseyin Ali), Nuriye Kesbir, and Elif Pazarcik. Öcalan directed all of these leadership changes from prison.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf.

According to the Turkish foreign ministry, the PKK largely went through two phases of organizational structure before the formation of the Kongra-Gel in 2005. The first structure was headed by the Central Executive Committee, which oversaw the Central Committee led by the Secretary General (Öcalan). Below the Central Committee, decisions were made by subcommittees and the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (ERNK) and Kurdistan People’s Liberation Army (ARGK). The ERNK was primarily responsible for PKK operations in Europe, while the ARGK organized domestic militant activities.“A Report on the PKK and Terrorism,” Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, https://fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/mfa-t-pkk.htm.

In 2005, the PKK implemented its second phase of organizational structure, forming the Kongra-Gel.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf; Anil Karaca, “Disrupting Terrorist Networks: An Analysis of the PKK Terrorist Organization,” MA thesis (Naval Postgraduate School, 2010), https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a536525.pdf. In this structure, the PKK was headed by Öcalan as the honorary president, the Kongra-Gel acted as the legislative body, and the KKK (Kurdish Democratic Foundation) acted as the executive branch.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf; Anil Karaca, “Disrupting Terrorist Networks: An Analysis of the PKK Terrorist Organization,” MA thesis (Naval Postgraduate School, 2010), https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a536525.pdf.

The People’s Defense Forces (HPG) became the military wing of the movement, with at least 2,000 fighters as of 2013.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. Each HPG regional command is divided into units of eight to 20 militants.Anil Karaca, “Disrupting Terrorist Networks: An Analysis of the PKK Terrorist Organization,” MA thesis (Naval Postgraduate School, 2010), https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a536525.pdf. In 2013, two Syrian Kurds were assigned as HPG commander positions, representing the possible high-level ties between the YPG and the PKK.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. Like the YPG, the HPG also has an all-female unit called the Free Women’s Units (YJA STAR). Younger women primarily serve as militants, while older women serve in various front organizations.

In the fifth congress of the Kongra-Gel in 2007, the PKK moved to adopt a new organizational structure, with the KCK as the transnational head and the PKK as Turkey’s regional branch.Cengiz Gunes and Welat Zeydanlioglu, The Kurdish Question in Turkey: New Perspectives on Violence, Representation and Reconciliatio, (London: Routledge, 2013), 200, https://books.google.com/books?id=UVn7AAAAQBAJ&pg=PA200&lpg=PA200&dq=KJB-Koma+Jinen+Bilind+(Union+for+Women)&source=bl&ots=GA_KOCKi_z&sig=ACfU3U00bMBwVJO6sKhMiUZHzG4JsGTv3g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjF17u0p7rkAhXLu54KHbyZBmQQ6AEwAXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=KJB-Koma%20Jinen%20Bilind%20(Union%20for%20Women)&f=false. The KCK serves as an umbrella organization including the PKK and other Kurdish movements in Syria (PYD), Iraq (PÇDK), and Iran (PJAK).Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. The KCK has judicial, legislative, and executive bodies, as well as the following societal committees: Social Committee, Public Health Committee, Language and Education Committee, Laborer Committee, Committee for Solidarity with the Relatives of Martyrs and with War Veterans, Youth Committee, Yekiniya Jinen Azad (YJA or Union for Free Women) Committee, and Free Citizenship Coordination Committee.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf; Atilla Sandikli, “The Structure and Activities of the KCK Terrorist Organization,” Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BILGESAM), October 14, 2011, http://www.bilgesam.org/en/incele/1415/-the-structure-and-activities-of-the-kck-terrorist-organization/#.XXIW9ihKg2x. The legislative body, the Kongra-Gel, has 300 representatives elected every two years.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal,  “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. However, the KCK’s activities are dictated by the PKK’s legislative council in Iraq.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal,  “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. The U.S. designation of the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization treats the group as synonymous with the Kongra-Gel.“Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” U.S. Department of State, accessed September 24, 2019, https://www.state.gov/foreign-terrorist-organizations/.

The Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) is the urban-based youth unit of the PKK.John Beck, “Turkey’s Most Wanted: VICE News Meets PKK Leader Cemil Bayik,” Vice News, January 22, 2016, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d39xnj/turkeys-most-wanted-vice-news-meets-pkk-leader-cemil-bayik. In 2015, the YDG-H was allegedly incorporated into the PKK as part of the Civilian Protection Units (YBS).Managing Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Case of Nusaybin, International Crisis Group (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2017), https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/243-managing-turkeys-pkk-conflict-case-nusaybin. That same year, the YDG-H attacked Turkish local security forces and effectively initiated an insurgency in Kurdish city centers across the southeast such as Diyarbakir, Nusaybin, and Cizre. The YDG-H has described itself as “semi-independent” and PKK leadership has sometimes denied its direct connection to that unit.

The YBS is a militia group affiliated with the PKK formed in 2015 and active throughout 2016 in the insurgency in the southeast. Members include both rural militants and the more urban YDG-H “youth division.”Managing Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Case of Nusaybin, International Crisis Group (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2017), https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/243-managing-turkeys-pkk-conflict-case-nusaybin.

Financing

In 2015, Osman Öcalan, brother to Abdullah Öcalan, claimed the PKK earns $50 million in annual income from taxing smugglers—including drug smugglers—and merchants.Osman Öcalan, “Exclusive: Former Top PKK Commander Osman Öcalan Speaks to Rudaw,” Rudaw, August 10, 2015, https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/10082015. In its early years, Osman Öcalan stated, the PKK received support from the Syrian regime, Syrian groups in Lebanon, the Lebanon Communist Party, various Palestinian organizations, and the Kurdish diaspora community in Germany.Osman Öcalan, “Exclusive: Former Top PKK Commander Osman Öcalan Speaks to Rudaw,” Rudaw, August 10, 2015, https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/10082015. In the 1980s the PKK was able to raise significant funds in Europe.Osman Öcalan, “Exclusive: Former Top PKK Commander Osman Öcalan Speaks to Rudaw,” Rudaw, August 10, 2015, https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/10082015. After 1995, the PKK set up several customs border checkpoints between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey that raised $3 million, according to Osman Öcalan.Osman Öcalan, “Exclusive: Former Top PKK Commander Osman Öcalan Speaks to Rudaw,” Rudaw, August 10, 2015, https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/10082015. According to Turkish government-run think tanks and newspapers, the PKK has also been supported by Greece, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.“Syria and Iran Backing Kurdish Terrorist Group,’ Says Turkey,” Telegraph (London), September 3, 2012, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/9518194/Syria-and-Iran-backing-Kurdish-terrorist-group-says-Turkey.html; “Öcalan Tells Turks of Greek Arms and Training for PKK, Say Reports,” Irish Times, February 23, 1999, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/Öcalan-tells-turks-of-greek-arms-and-training-for-pkk-say-reports-1.155819; Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay, “Turkey’s Erdogan Accuses Russia of Arming PKK Militants,” Reuters, May 30, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-turkey-russia/turkeys-erdogan-accuses-russia-of-arming-pkk-militants-idUSKCN0YL1NF.

The PKK also reportedly ran its own drug-trafficking operations and extorted money from illicit drug operations in the area. Before the 1990s the PKK extorted money from heroin traffickers and cannabis cultivators in Turkey and in northern Iran and Iraq.Ahmet Pek and Behsat Ekici, “Abstract: Narcoterrorism in Turkey: The Financing of PKK-KONGRA GEL from Illicit Drug Business,” National Criminal Justice Reference Sheet, 2007, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=247109; “Financing of Its Activities,” Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs,https://web.archive.org/web/20090806011417/http://www.mfa.gov.tr/financing-of-its-activities.en.mfa. From the 1990s onward, the PKK became more directly involved in illicit drug activity and ingrained itself into the global drug network. The PKK began producing and delivering drugs, conducting money laundering activities, and assassinating rivals.Ahmet Pek and Behsat Ekici, “Abstract: Narcoterrorism in Turkey: The Financing of PKK-KONGRA GEL from Illicit Drug Business,” National Criminal Justice Reference Sheet, 2007, https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=247109. This led to semi-regular clashes in 1992 and 1993 with Hezbollah in southeastern Turkey, where the latter was also involved in the drug market.“Chronology for Kurds in Turkey,” Minorities at Risk Project, University of Maryland, July 16, 2010, http://www.mar.umd.edu/chronology.asp?groupId=64005. The PKK has also been known to use illegal taxation and extortion to collect money, under the guise of “donations,” from its members and those living under the indirect control of the group.“TE-SAT 2011: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report,” Europol, 2011, 24, https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/te-sat-2011-eu-terrorism-situation-and-trend-report.

Recruitment

Members began recruiting aggressively for the “Kurdistan Revolutionaries,” as they called themselves, in 1975.Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 35, https://books.google.com/books?id=6rcUCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=Pınarcık+massacre+pkk+claims&source=bl&ots=JaZ9Kg160t&sig=ACfU3U1bsJVs8x7ufCH5zblsbQiVM4nolQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsh9yy1YPkAhWUup4KHeRFDZUQ6AEwBnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pınarcık%20massacre%20pkk%20claims&f=false. The Turkish government’s heavy-handed repression of Kurdish culture, arbitrary detention, torture, etc., and extrajudicial killings of Kurds in the southeast, were powerful motivators for PKK recruitment.Paul K. Davis, Eric V. Larson et al, Understanding and Influencing Public Support for Insurgency and Terrorism (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2012), 99–118, https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1122.html. Prestige, financial compensation, and kinship appear to be less important elements of recruitment. Local Kurds are faced with the option of joining the Turkish government-supported village-guard system or the PKK.“Turkey Gives Firearms Licenses to Village Guards,” Ahval, October 12, 2018, https://ahvalnews.com/village-guards/turkey-gives-firearms-licenses-village-guards. Village guards enjoy a steady paycheck, access to weapons, and potentially a share of proceeds from illicit activities, but risk death at the PKK’s hands.“Turkey Gives Firearms Licenses to Village Guards,” Ahval, October 12, 2018, https://ahvalnews.com/village-guards/turkey-gives-firearms-licenses-village-guards.

Transnational Movement:

During the PKK insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s, according to analyst Aliza Marcus, the Syrian government “...did not block the flow of illegal refugees from Turkey, did not make trouble for Kurdish militants setting up house in Syria, and did not impede traffic back and forth to Lebanon.”Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 59. Abdullah Öcalan spent most of the period between 1984 and 1999 in Damascus, and at least 130 Syrian Kurds had joined the PKK at the Helwe camp in Lebanon as early as 1987.Tim Weiner, “U.S. Helped Turkey Find and Capture Kurd Rebel,” New York Times, February 20, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/20/world/us-helped-turkey-find-and-capture-kurd-rebel.html; Magdalena Kirchner, Why States Rebel: Understanding State Sponsorship of Terrorism, (Opladen: Verlag Barbara Budrich, 2016), 179, https://books.google.com/books?id=3YC_CwAAQBAJ&pg=PA179&lpg=PA179&dq=%22130%22+Syrian+Kurds+Helwe+Camp+1987.&source=bl&ots=-OpOyEiUXe&sig=ACfU3U3kKMbwQfH8hhLqfM5OCq9_iqBnYA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjljNya-IrlAhVELX0KHc6BAi0Q6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22130%22%20Syrian%20Kurds%20Helwe%20Camp%201987.&f=false. Syrian Kurds were often supportive of the PKK.Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 101, https://books.google.com/books?id=6rcUCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=Pınarcık+massacre+pkk+claims&source=bl&ots=JaZ9Kg160t&sig=ACfU3U1bsJVs8x7ufCH5zblsbQiVM4nolQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsh9yy1YPkAhWUup4KHeRFDZUQ6AEwBnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pınarcık%20massacre%20pkk%20claims&f=false. Furthermore, in late 1991 an Iraqi Kurdish leader claimed Saddam Hussein was arming the PKK in a deal to prevent Turkish food and supplies from reaching the Kurdish region of northern Iraq through Turkey.“Chronology for Kurds in Turkey,” Minorities at Risk Project, University of Maryland, July 16, 2010, http://www.mar.umd.edu/chronology.asp?groupId=64005. The PKK has long maintained headquarters in northern Iraq, particularly the Qandil mountains, from which it trains recruits and conducts military operations against both the Turkish government and the regional Kurdish government led by the KDP.“Chronology for Kurds in Turkey,” Minorities at Risk Project, University of Maryland, July 16, 2010, http://www.mar.umd.edu/chronology.asp?groupId=64005.

Child Soldiers:

Human Rights Watch claims the PKK has forcibly recruited children in Iraq for the HPG (People’s Defense Forces) and the PKK-affiliated Yezidi Resistance Units (YBS).“Iraq: Armed Groups Using Child Soldiers,” Human Rights Watch, December 22, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/22/iraq-armed-groups-using-child-soldiers-0. In 2010, UNICEF also condemned the PKK’s use of child soldiers.“UNICEF Condemns the Recruitment of Child Soldiers,” UNICEF, June 1, 2010, http://www.unicef.org.tr/basinmerkezidetay.aspx?id=2125&dil=en&d=1. In 1995, 17-year-old PKK recruit Leyla Kaplan carried out a suicide attack against Turkish police in Adana, prior to which another PKK female fighter, Turkan Adiyaman, was shot in front of Kaplan for refusing to “volunteer” for a suicide bombing.Christoph Reuter, My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) 165, https://books.google.com/books?id=xuk9DwAAQBAJ&pg=PA165&lpg=PA165&dq=leyla+kaplan+pkk&source=bl&ots=CzYPon0KJn&sig=ACfU3U3pGU6G9N4dFpSEQ8hDYn10B8ogmg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi358mazI_kAhUYIzQIHcy3DjUQ6AEwDHoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=leyla%20kaplan%20pkk&f=false; Elizabeth Nolen, “Female Suicide Bombers: Coerced or Committed?,” Global Security Studies 7, no. 2, (spring 2016), https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/56e6/f7e39b788374fe3da57d726e3467fce642d9.pdf. Rather than promising a rewarding afterlife, the mostly secular PKK cultivated a cult of personality around Abdullah Öcalan, as well as a refuge from poverty and some restrictive gender norms.Christoph Reuter, My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) 165, https://books.google.com/books?id=xuk9DwAAQBAJ&pg=PA165&lpg=PA165&dq=leyla+kaplan+pkk&source=bl&ots=CzYPon0KJn&sig=ACfU3U3pGU6G9N4dFpSEQ8hDYn10B8ogmg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi358mazI_kAhUYIzQIHcy3DjUQ6AEwDHoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=leyla%20kaplan%20pkk&f=false.

A 2001 Amnesty International report claimed the PKK had “systematically recruited children,” including in Swedish schools, and formed regiments entirely composed of children.“Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers,” Amnesty International, January 3, 2001, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/128000/mde010032001en.pdf. In 2013, a PKK commander signed a commitment to take measures to “limit” the use of children in insurgent activities.“Iraq: Armed Groups Using Child Soldiers,” Human Rights Watch, December 22, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/22/iraq-armed-groups-using-child-soldiers-0. However, the PKK continues to recruit child soldiers. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report describes PKK recruitment and training in Iraq and notes that even if children aren’t actively engaged in combat, they are endangered by being trained in areas targeted by Turkish airstrikes.“Iraq: Armed Groups Using Child Soldiers,” Human Rights Watch, December 22, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/22/iraq-armed-groups-using-child-soldiers-0.

The PKK-affiliated YPG has similarly been accused of using child soldiers in Syria. Human Rights Watch first condemned the YPG’s use of child soldiers in 2014 and later documented the spike of child-soldier recruitment in 2017 and continued use in 2018.Lars Hauch, “Child Soldiers and the YPG,” Middle East Institute, February 4, 2019, https://www.mei.edu/publications/child-soldiers-and-ypg. In 2018, following the culmination of most of their anti-ISIS campaigns, the YPG released a press statement that declared that the SDF would remove all minors from military positions.Tom O’Conner, “U.S. Ally in Syria Declares End to Using Child Soldiers,” Newsweek, September 7, 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/us-ally-syria-declares-end-using-child-soldiers-1112289.

Women:

The PKK has incorporated women into the organization since its founding, with their influence and numbers growing over time. According to Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, in the early 1990s, 30 percent of PKK militants were women.“PKK Recruitment of Female Operatives,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus 4, no. 28 (September 11, 2007), https://jamestown.org/program/pkk-recruitment-of-female-operatives/. The PKK recruited women living in western Turkish cities and in tribal areas where gender roles restricted their opportunities and freedoms,  as well as migrants to European countries after 1960.“PKK Recruitment of Female Operatives,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus 4, no. 28 (September 11, 2007), https://jamestown.org/program/pkk-recruitment-of-female-operatives/. Initially, many women were forcibly recruited, but in other cases women were convinced by promises of freedom. Some women were indoctrinated at a young age and sent to avenge killed relatives, while others fled unwanted marriages.“PKK Recruitment of Female Operatives,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus 4, no. 28 (September 11, 2007), https://jamestown.org/program/pkk-recruitment-of-female-operatives/. In 2013, the PKK instituted a system of male and female co-chairs of the KCK and appointed three women to the KCK’s six-person General Council.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Janes, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf.

Training

The PKK trains militants in both small- and large-scale camps located primarily in the mountains in Iraq and Turkey. The PKK allegedly trains PKK affiliates from across the region who often go on to carry out attacks or other PKK activities in their home countries.James Brandon, “The PKK and Syria's Kurds,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 5, no. 3 (February 15, 2007), https://web.archive.org/web/20071107082810/http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2370250. The PKK emphasizes ideological training, indoctrinating recruits with Abdullah Öcalan’s ideology and the PKK’s interpretation of Kurdish history and culture.James Brandon, “Mount Qandil: A Safe Haven for Kurdish Militants—Part 1,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 4, no. 17 (September 21, 2006), https://jamestown.org/program/mount-qandil-a-safe-haven-for-kurdish-militants-part-1/. Women comprise their own regiments and are separated from men.Graeme Wood, “Among the Kurds,” Atlantic, October 2007, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/10/among-the-kurds/306448/.

The latest Turkish operation in Iraq (Operation Claw) has targeted PKK camps and high-ranking commanders, as many PKK militants had previously moved their operations abroad during the previous ceasefire.Eralp Yarar, “Operation Claw Aims to Eradicate PKK Dominance in Northern Iraq,” Daily Sabah (Istanbul), June 13, 2019, https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2019/06/13/operation-claw-aims-to-eradicate-pkk-dominance-in-northern-iraq. The PKK has also been accused of having training camps in Turkey, Europe, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories.“PKK Suspects Apprehended in Raids across 5 European States,” Rudaw, June 19, 2019, https://www.rudaw.net/english/world/190620191; Michael P. Hankard and Saruhan S. Hatipoglu, “The Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK): III. International Sources of Support,” Federation of American Scientists, 1996,https://fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/studies3.htm. As early as 1979, Öcalan sent recruits to camps in Lebanon for joint training with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya, “The ‘Palestinian Dream’ in the Kurdish Context,” Kurdish Studies 3, no. 1 (May 2015), 53, https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/5948651/file/5948668.pdf. From 1980 to 1982, PKK militants trained 300 fighters in Lebanon who were then mobilized in Turkey.Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya, “The ‘Palestinian Dream’ in the Kurdish Context,” Kurdish Studies 3, no. 1 (May 2015), 54, https://biblio.ugent.be/publication/5948651/file/5948668.pdf.

Many PKK bases and training camps operate out of the Qandil Mountains on the borders with Iran and Iraq.ames Brandon, “Mount Qandil: A Safe Haven for Kurdish Militants—Part 1,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 4, no. 17 (September 21, 2006), https://jamestown.org/program/mount-qandil-a-safe-haven-for-kurdish-militants-part-1/. The mountains offer a safe haven for PKK activities, with difficult terrain and relative autonomy from the Iraqi government. As of 2006 these camps were described by a Jamestown Foundation report as low-tech and modest in size, weaponry, and funding.James Brandon, “Mount Qandil: A Safe Haven for Kurdish Militants—Part 1,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 4, no. 17 (September 21, 2006), https://jamestown.org/program/mount-qandil-a-safe-haven-for-kurdish-militants-part-1/. The PKK has often taken direct control over smaller villages in the region and recruits frequently flow to and from Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.James Brandon, “Mount Qandil: A Safe Haven for Kurdish Militants—Part 1,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 4, no. 17 (September 21, 2006), https://jamestown.org/program/mount-qandil-a-safe-haven-for-kurdish-militants-part-1/. Murat Karayilan is the primary commander of this region.Michael M. Gunter, “Historical Dictionary of the Kurds” (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 154; Kadr Gursel, “PKK Peace Process on Track,” al-Monitor, April 26, 2013, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/fr/originals/2013/04/selahattin-demirtas-peace-process-erdogan.html.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Abdullah Öcalan set up PKK training camps in Syria with the support and funding of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.Simon Hooper, “PKK’s Decades of Violent Struggle,” CNN, October 11, 2007, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:reamGl7dG3cJ:www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/10/10/pkk.profile/index.html+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari. The most prominent PKK training camp at that time was located in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, where militants were trained for about three months, living alongside other recruits in groups of 15 in tents or small buildings.Nikos Economopoulos, “Bekaa Valley,” Magnum Photos, 1991, https://pro.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR162773.html; Nikos Economopoulos, “Lebanon: Kurds Training Camp,” Magnum Photos, 1991, https://pro.magnumphotos.com/Catalogue/Nikos-Economopoulos/1991/LEBANON--Kurds-Training-Camp-1991-NN145279.html. In 1991, Öcalan was pictured visiting the Beka’a camps.Nikos Economopoulos, “LEBANON. Bekaa Valley, 1991, Abdullah Öcalan, Leader of PKK,” Magnum Photos, 1991, https://pro.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR162979.html.

YPG martyrdom reports also acknowledge the deaths of large numbers of Kurdish militants from Turkey, indicating that there is still a considerable flow population flow across the Syria-Turkey border.Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley, “The YPG-PKK Connection,” Atlantic Council, January 26, 2016, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-ypg-pkk-connection.

Key Leaders

  • Abdullah Öcalan

    Founder and symbolic leader
  • Osman Öcalan

    Brother of Abdullah Öcalan
  • Murat Karayilan

    Leader of the HPG (People’s Defense Forces), member of Executive Council, and co-founder of PKK
  • Hulya Oran

    Co-chair of the KCK, formerly a battalion commander and deputy chief of Qandil training
  • Cemil Bayik (Cuma)

    Co-chair of the KCK
  • Mustafa Karasu (a.k.a. Hüseyin Ali)

    Member of the Executive Council
  • Nuriye Kesbir

    Member of the Executive Council
  • Elif Pazarcik

    Member of the Executive Council
  • Zübeyir Aydar

    Europe Chief
  • Duran Kalkan

    Senior leader and co-founder
  • Fehman Hüseyin (a.k.a. Bahoz Erdal)

    Deputy commander of the HPG
  • Nurettin Halef Al-Muhammed (a.k.a. Nurettin Sofi)

    Commander of the HPG’s Amed and Botan Turkish regional commands
  • Deyari Qamishlo

    PKK liaison to PYD, former media supervisor, and head of the Syrian Relations Committee
  • Ahmet Deniz

    PKK liaison to PYD, former head of the External Relations Committee
  • Ali Haydar Kaytan (a.k.a. Fuat)

    Senior leader and co-founder

History

 

Violent Activities

The International Crisis Group has reported that from 2011 to 2012, more than 1,000 people died as a result of the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government.Berkay Mandıracı, “Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills Almost 3,000 in Two Years,” International Crisis Group, July 20, 2017, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/turkeys-pkk-conflict-kills-almost-3000-two-years. Since the reemergence of the conflict in July 2015, 4,551 people have died in the conflict. That toll includes 1,194 state security force members, 478 civilians, 2,656 PKK members, and the remaining ones of unknown affiliation.“Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Visual Explainer,” International Crisis Group, August 2, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/turkeys-pkk-conflict-visual-explainer.

The PKK has implemented suicide attacks, bombings, shootings, targeted assassinations, carbombs, and even drone attacks.“YPG/PKK Makes 12 Attempts to Target Turkey with Drones,” Anadolu Agency, March 10, 2019, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkey/ypg-pkk-makes-12-attempts-to-target-turkey-with-drones/1414054. The PKK frequently conducts VBIED (vehicle-born improvised explosive devices) to carry out attacks in urban settings.Necdet Özçelik, The PKK and Car Bomb Attacks (Ankara: SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, 2016), 22, https://setav.org/en/assets/uploads/2016/12/PKK-Car-Bomb-Attacks.pdf. The PKK used VBIEDs for the first time in the 1990s, while the first VBIED took place in 2011.“YPG/PKK Makes 12 Attempts to Target Turkey with Drones,” Anadolu Agency, March 10, 2019, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkey/ypg-pkk-makes-12-attempts-to-target-turkey-with-drones/1414054.

PKK attacks in the 1980s and 1990s were primarily small-scale and rural. Militants targeted village guards, policemen, gendarmerie, and soldiers. The PKK has generally carried out attacks in the southeast while many speculate that the Kurdish Freedom Hawks (TAK) are the PKK’s special forces urban organization. TAK attacks have sought to dissuade tourists from city centers in Istanbul and grab headlines with more central settings. In 2015, the initial year of the breakdown of the 2013 ceasefire, the conflict was mainly confined to rural villages but in 2016 PKK attacks shifted to urban centers in the southeast. A series of airstrikes pushed the conflict back into rural spaces at the end of 2016.“Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Visual Explainer,” International Crisis Group, August 2, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/turkeys-pkk-conflict-visual-explainer.

Designations

Designations by U.S. Government:

October 8,1997: The State Department designates the “Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, a.k.a. Kongra-Gel)” as a foreign terrorist organization.“Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” U.S. Department of State, April 15, 2019, https://www.state.gov/foreign-terrorist-organizations/. On March 1, 2019 the U.S. reviewed and maintained their designation.“State Department Maintains Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) Designation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),” U.S. Department of State, March 1, 2019, https://www.state.gov/state-department-maintains-foreign-terrorist-organization-fto-designation-of-the-kurdistan-workers-party-pkk/.

Designations by Foreign Governments:

Australia—Designated as a terrorist organization on December 17, 2005, and renewed on August 4, 2018.“Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),” Australian National Security, August 4, 2018, https://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Listedterroristorganisations/Pages/KurdistanWorkersPartyPKK.aspx. Canada—Designated the PKK as a foreign terrorist group on December 10, 2002 and renewed on November 21, 2018.“Currently Listed Entities,” Canadian Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, June 21, 2019, https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-en.aspx#43.
European Union—Designated the PKK as a terrorist group in 2014 and reaffirmed in 2018.“EU Verdict Keeps PKK on Terror List Despite Procedural Mistakes,” Ahval, November 15, 2018, https://ahvalnews.com/european-union/eu-verdict-keeps-pkk-terror-list-despite-procedural-mistakes; “Council Decision 2011/70/CFSP of 31 January 2011 Updating the List of Persons, Groups and Entities Subject to Articles 2, 3 and 4 of Common Position 2001/931/CFSP on the Application of Specific Measures to Combat Terrorism,” European Union, February 2, 2002, https://archive.fo/20120722224908/http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:028:0057:01:EN:HTML#selection-45.0-45.223. Japan—Designated the PKK as a terrorist group on July 5, 2002.“Implementation of the Measures Including the Freezing of Assets against Terrorists and the Like,” Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 5, 2002, https://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/announce/2002/7/0705.html.
Kyrgyzstan—Designated the PKK as a terrorist group on June 12, 2008.“Le Kirghizistan a connu PKK comme une organisation terroriste,” Azeri-Press Agency, June 12, 2008, https://archive.fo/20120710175128/http://fr.apa.az/news.php?id=1873. New Zealand—Designated the PKK as a terrorist group on February 10, 2010 and renewed on January 30, 2019.“Lists Associated with Resolution 1373,” New Zealand Police, February 1, 2019, https://www.police.govt.nz/advice/personal-community/counterterrorism/designated-entities/lists-associated-with-resolution-1373.
Turkey—Designated the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1984.“PKK,” Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 20, 2011, http://www.mfa.gov.tr/pkk.en.mfa.

Associations

Ties to Extremist Entities:

TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Hawks)

A Kurdish nationalist group that has claimed several terrorist attacks within Turkey. The group formed after the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan as a breakaway group specializing in urban operations.Frederike Geerdink, “Ankara Bombing: PKK, TAK Ties Come under Scrutiny Again,” Middle East Eye, March 4, 2016, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/ankara-bombing-pkk-tak-ties-come-under-scrutiny-again. Many suspect that TAK is actually a front for or directly connected to the PKK. A 2014 report by IHS Jane’s claims that HPG deputy commander Mustafa Karasu also commands TAK.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Janes, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf. Some experts like Aliza Marcus has expressed doubt that the PKK would allow TAK to work independently given the PKK’s history of suppressing competing insurgent groups in Turkey.Frederike Geerdink, “Ankara Bombing: PKK, TAK Ties Come under Scrutiny Again,” Middle East Eye, March 4, 2016, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/ankara-bombing-pkk-tak-ties-come-under-scrutiny-again.

Wrath of Olive Operations Room (Ghadab al-Zaytoun (GaZ))

Wrath of Olives (GaZ) is an insurgent group allegedly made up of YPG members operating in Afrin, Syria, since the region was captured by the Turkish military and its Syrian allies in early 2018.Alexander Mckeever, “Wrath of the Olives: Tracking the Afrin Insurgency through Social Media,” Bellingcat, March 1, 2018, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/03/01/wrath-of-the-olives-tracking-the-afrin-insurgency-through-social-media/. GaZ carries out assassinations and car bombings against Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed Syrian militants as well as civilians and local political leaders it accuses of being “occupiers” and “collaborators.”Alexander Mckeever “Wrath of the Olives: Tracking the Afrin Insurgency through Social Media,” Bellingcat, March 1, 2018, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/03/01/wrath-of-the-olives-tracking-the-afrin-insurgency-through-social-media/.

Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA)

ASALA is an Armenian insurgent group that cooperated with the PKK during the 1980s as they plotted attacks against the Turkish state. ASALA used targeted assassinations of Turkish officials in Turkey to demand recognition by the Turkish state of the Armenian Genocide.Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self Determination and Ethnic Cleasing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019), 39.

Ties to Other Regional Entities:

KCK (Kongra-Gel, Union of Communities in Kurdistan)

The KCK is the umbrella organization of the PKK and acts as a Kurdish congress. The KCK elects some 300 representatives from across the region.Soner CCagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf.

PJAK (The Free Life Party of Kurdistan)

The less prevalent Iranian Kurdish political party.Soner CCagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf.

PCDK (Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party)

Iraqi Kurdish branch of the PKK. The party is banned from formal political activity in Iraqi Kurdistan.Soner Cagaptay and Coskun Unal, “Leadership Reshuffle—PKK Makes Changes in Its Ranks,” IHS Jane’s, February 26, 2014, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/opeds/Cagaptay20140226-Janes.pdf.

PYD (Democratic Union Party)

The PYD is the political party of the Syrian Kurdish branch of the KCK. The PYD (Hezb al-Ittihad al-Dimocrati or Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat or Democratic Union Party) was founded in 2003 as the Syrian branch of the Kurdish political movement headed by the KCK (Koma Civakên Kurdistan or Kurdistan Communities Union). The PYD was one of four parties operating in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Abdullah Öcalan founded the KCK from prison with the hope of someday establishing democratic confederacies in each region. Since the Adana Agreement, the Syrian government had become increasingly oppressive of Kurdish resistance groups in order to appease its Turkish neighbors.Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria, Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2009), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria1109webwcover_0.pdf. Human Rights Watch notes “since 2004 the Syrian government has quashed public gatherings to express solidarity with fellow Kurds across international borders with harsh measures, including firing live ammunition at demonstrators, arrests, detention, and prison terms.” The PYD, amongst other Kurdish movements, continued its political activism despite the repression of the Syrian regime up until the Syrian civil war.em>Group Denial Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria, Human Rights Watch, (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2009), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria1109webwcover_0.pdf.

At the brink of the Syrian Civil War the PYD faced new ideological dilemmas and opportunities for their movement. Despite the fact that PYD party leadership “…such as party chairman Salih Muslim, Hadiya Yusuf, and Anwar Muslim have all spent time in prison…” the YPG has both clashed and cooperated with the Assad regime during the Syrian Civil War. The PYD has since developed a unique ideology and distanced itself from its origins as a political party and a PKK affiliate. Their charter no longer declares Öcalan as the leader of the PYD movement.Barak Barfi, “Ascent of the PYD and the SDF,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Research Notes, no. 32 (April 2016), 8, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/ResearchNote32-Barfi.pdf. PYD leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed further distances himself from the origins on the party with claims that “the decision making [in the self-ruling areas] is no longer the PYD’s—now the people rule themselves. The councils have been established, and the people decide.”Aron Lund, “The People's Rule: An Interview With Saleh Muslim, Part I,” Carnegie Middle East Center, February 27, 2014, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/54675.

The PYD has evolved significantly since its inception. Its hazy and flexible status as a political party and then political establishment has rendered it capable of practical ideological mobility. As a result, what began as a weak political party transformed into an armed struggle and arguably the only Kurdish enclave to successful attempt Öcalan’s democratic confederacy experiment. However, the reality of the PYD’s distance from the PKK is still unknown. In August 2019, the Iraqi Kurdistan-based new outlet “Kurdistan 24” was banned from reporting in northeast Syria by the PYD.“Statement from Kurdistan 24 Company for Media and Research Ltd.,” Kurdistan 24, September 2, 2019, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/e9639851-d3aa-42c4-962b-7a04e733e3bf. This decision was made after Kurdistan 24 aired an interview with Öcalan’s brother, Osman Öcalan, in which he criticized a senior PKK leader’s recent comments about whether or not Sinjar, Iraq belonged to Iraq or to a greater “Kurdistan.”Baxtiyar Goran, Twitter post, August 27, 2019, 5:29 a.m., https://twitter.com/BaxtiyarGoran/status/1166281515472445440.

YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units)

The YPG is the military arm of the PYD.Alev Erhan And Aaron Stein, “Mapping ‘The Kurds’: An Interactive Chart,” Atlantic Council, March 15, 2016, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/mapping-the-kurds-an-interactive-chart.

YPJ (Women’s Protection Units)

Women’s branch of the YPG.Karzan Sulaivany, “New Training Academies Will Include Arab Women: YPJ,” Kurdistan 24, January 4, 2017, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/deb089d9-81cf-4f28-8466-9d9a872434eb/New-training-academies-will-include-Arab-women--YPJ.

YBS

The Yezidi Protection Units were created with the help of the PKK after the ISIS massacres of Kurdish-speaking Yezidis on Mt. Sinjar.Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Why Did the PKK Withdraw from Sinjar?,” Ahval, March 28, 2018, https://ahvalnews.com/sinjar/why-did-pkk-withdraw-sinjar.

Rhetoric

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Kurdish fighter Zind Ruken, 2016

“Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK [the PKK-allied affiliate, active in Iran], sometimes I’m a YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.”Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley, “The YPG-PKK Connection,” Atlantic Council, January 26, 2016, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-ypg-pkk-connection.

Abdullah Öcalan, 1977

“If a people embraces its own tradition, uses its own religion, makes its culture come alive, this too is a rebellion.”Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 39, https://books.google.com/books?id=6rcUCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=Pınarcık+massacre+pkk+claims&source=bl&ots=JaZ9Kg160t&sig=ACfU3U1bsJVs8x7ufCH5zblsbQiVM4nolQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsh9yy1YPkAhWUup4KHeRFDZUQ6AEwBnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pınarcık%20massacre%20pkk%20claims&f=false.