For the past year, the Turkish security landscape has been dominated by terrorists who oppose the country’s treatment of the Kurds. While clashes between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have frequently occurred in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern region, a different group has brought the fight to Ankara’s doorstep, launching terrorist attacks in Istanbul and the capital that have killed tens and wounded hundreds. By threatening to upend domestic life in Turkey, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) have moved to the forefront of Turkey’s security threats.
Formed in 2004, the TAK has had a presence in Turkey for nearly 13 years. Notoriously secretive, little is known about the group relative to other Kurdish groups such as the PKK. Most notably, however, it emerged as a Kurdish militant group that did not shy away from harming civilians. Its first terrorist operation, in 2005, targeted foreign tourists in Turkey, injuring 20 people in the first attack and five in the second. Only a year later, the TAK launched a string of attacks at beaches along the Mediterranean coast and in Istanbul. While it occasionally targeted state institutions in the years following its inception, members built a reputation for attacking tourist destinations in an effort to hurt Turkey’s economy.
With both the PKK and the TAK fighting against the Turkish state, there would inevitably be questions about their relationship. The exact nature of this relationship, however, is controversial and hotly debated. There is some evidence that these are two distinct organizations, operating independently from one another. The TAK has publicly stated it does not receive orders from the PKK and that it was founded because adherents were dissatisfied with the PKK’s “passive struggle methods.” Further, TAK cells have violated PKK-negotiated ceasefires between Kurdish militants and the Turkish military.
“Formed in 2004, the TAK has had a presence in Turkey for nearly 13 years. Notoriously secretive, little is known about the group relative to other Kurdish groups such as the PKK. Most notably, however, it emerged as a Kurdish militant group that did not shy away from harming civilians.”
There are, however, compelling links between the two organizations that go back to the TAK’s founding. In his article for West Point’s CTC Sentinel, security analyst Metin Gurcan argues PKK leaders played a significant role in the founding of the TAK. Gurcan also notes that the PKK continues to “[support] the TAK ideologically and provides it with personnel, logistics, financing, and overall strategic direction, but PKK leaders only learn about outcomes [of operations] from TV reports.” While assertions that the TAK and the PKK are the same organization are likely untrue, the PKK and the TAK are probably not far enough apart to absolve the PKK of the TAK’s violence.
This latest round of violence by TAK operatives and cells comes on the heels of the collapse of the 2015 peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK, but recent attacks are quite different from earlier periods of fighting. Most notably, the frequency of attacks has increased dramatically. Nearly half of all of the TAK attacks have occurred in the past 14 months, despite the fact that the group has been in existence for 13 years. The accelerated pace of attacks has pushed counterterrorism issues to the forefront of Turkey’s security landscape, prompting the United States to issue a travel advisory, not only for the southeastern regions and the area along the Syrian border, but also for major tourist destinations such as Istanbul and Ankara.
As noted above, the TAK has long had the goal of hurting the Turkish government by going after the tourism industry. Indeed, the most recent wave of terrorist attacks began when the TAK launched mortars at a Turkish airport and issued a statement claiming the group would not “be responsible for the safety of international airlines that fly to Turkey, or for foreign tourists.” While that attack failed to do significant damage, the deadly nature and frequency of subsequent attacks have played a role in damaging Turkey’s tourism industry, the effects of which are felt throughout the economy.
TAK cells and operatives have also shifted to primarily targeting state institutions and personnel. As noted above, the majority of the TAK attacks prior to 2015 were directed at civilians and tourists. Beginning with the February 2016 attack, however, eight of the last 11 attacks targeted either government buildings or police and military personnel.
There are a couple possible explanations for the shift in attacks. It is possible that it is the result of increased PKK control over the TAK’s operations. The PKK traditionally targets Turkish military and state institutions as part of its war against the Turkish government and has consistently condemned civilian targeting and casualties. If the PKK sought to align the TAK’s tactics with its own, it might pressure TAK operatives and cells to use similar targets.
“By targeting police and state institutions in very public and destructive attacks, the organization may be attempting to use the large number of casualties to instill a sense of insecurity in Turkish society while simultaneously blunting criticism that it is directly targeting civilians.”
Another possible explanation is that the TAK is trying to walk a thin line between sowing chaos and drawing international condemnation. By targeting police and state institutions in very public and destructive attacks, the organization may be attempting to use the large number of casualties to instill a sense of insecurity in Turkish society while simultaneously blunting criticism that it is directly targeting civilians. The change in behavior may have been brought about by the uptick in Islamic State attacks on civilian centers worldwide, and TAK operatives may be wary of their organization getting lumped into the same category. Indeed, some recent TAK statements have expressed regret at civilian deaths.
This is not to say that the TAK has suddenly eschewed civilian casualties. Nearly every one of these attacks on state and military institutions also killed or wounded civilians, and some of the attacks, such as the March Ankara bombing and the April attack in Bursa, explicitly targeted civilians. It is important to remember that the TAK is more of a decentralized network than a hierarchical organization. The autonomous nature of cells means that it is likely there will never be a singular method of operation consistent throughout the organizations. Individuals in one cell may feel significantly more comfortable attacking Turkish civilians while individuals in a different cell may see police officers and soldiers as better targets for achieving their political goals.
Finally, these attacks could spell trouble for Kurdish ambitions in northern Syria and U.S. efforts to combat the Islamic State. A number of TAK operatives involved in these attacks are also closely tied to armed Kurdish groups in Syria. Three of the attacks were conducted by Kurdish militants who fought with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the northeastern Kurdish regions. While the YPG denied being behind the Ankara attack, Turkey has held it responsible for the conduct of its former fighters by attacking YPG positions in Syria. It is unlikely the YPG ordered these attacks, but they reveal that Kurdish militants are using the Syrian battlefield to gain experience and training before bringing the fight back to Turkey.
Consequently, it is no surprise Turkey has been overtly hostile to U.S. efforts to arm Kurdish groups in Syria despite their effectiveness against the Islamic State. While assistance is often routed through umbrella organizations, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States has provided the YPG with significant amounts of military support in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey, however, has lobbied hard to reduce the size of the YPG’s role in anti-ISIS operations in no small part due to the security concerns about Kurdish-controlled territories providing a safe haven to TAK operatives. It is difficult to say if the new administration will be amenable to Turkey’s concerns, but as the attacks in 2016 and 2017 demonstrate, Turkey’s fear may have already come to pass.
Image: Turkish KFOR soldiers demonstrate quick reaction skills. (Wikimedia Commons, US Army)
Jacob Uzman is a Middle East analyst and peacebuilding practitioner with a focus on the Levant. He spent the past four years working on conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives related to the conflict in Syria, where he heard perspectives and stories from Syrians on virtually all sides of the conflict. His research interests also include WMD proliferation and environmental security. Jacob holds a B.A. in philosophy and political science from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.