Home / Articles / The Capture of Abdullah Ocalan and the Future of Counter-Terrorism
On February 16, in Nairobi, Kenya, Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and supremo of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), was captured and promptly sent to Turkey to face trial. As the main engineer of a Maoist guerrilla organization, he stands accused of crimes involving the death or wounding of some 30,000 people, and untold economic damage, mostly in Turkey, but also in Iraq and Germany. His arrest raises delicate questions: the political and legal aspects of international counterterrorism; the likely impact on Turkey’s internal counterinsurgency campaign; the most appropriate treatment of Ocalan; and the larger geopolitical implications.
The odyssey that culminated in Ocalan’s capture is still somewhat obscure but this much seems clear: after Turkey threatened to go to war with Syria last October, PKK bases in that country were finally closed and Ocalan expelled. With the public support of the Russian communists, he had reason to hope for refuge in Moscow. But that failed, and so Ocalan invoked his close ties with the ex-communists ruling Italy, and arrived there demanding political asylum. That request touched off an embarrassing imbroglio during which the new, Social Democratic government in Germany publicly admitted that it was too afraid of PKK terrorism to pursue its own arrest warrant against Ocalan, and the neo-communists in Rome vacillated between longstanding sympathy for the PKK and respect for international law. Ultimately, Italy rejected both Turkey’s extradition request and Ocalan’s asylum demand, and expelled him. Relentlessly pursued by a succession of Turkish governments from across the political spectrum, the Maoist leader unsuccessfully sought asylum in various European countries— all of which recognized that he was now a liability not worth the risk to their political and economic relations with Turkey or the United States. Finally, after apparently spending a few days at the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Ocalan was either forced out (the PKK version) or left the compound on his own accord (one of the Greek versions), whereupon he was seized and sent to Turkey.
Ocalan’s misadventures and the end of his career — and perhaps his life, given the possibility of his receiving the death penalty— are a significant victory for international efforts to control terrorism. Their occasional reticence and outright lies notwithstanding, Kenyan and European governments of all political colors— strongly prodded by Washington, one may add — ultimately concluded that harboring a major terrorist figure was not in their interest. The Turks made it impossible for Ocalan to find asylum in Europe. The Kenyans, already shocked by their victimization at the hands of international terrorism last year (against the U.S. embassy), were naturally ready to avoid a repeat. And the Greek government apparently found (or blundered into) a way of getting rid of a serious problem that could give Turkey a casus belli.
One of the mysteries of the entire episode is the unexpected Turkish knowledge of and preparation for a crisis in East Africa. While this involves a degree of speculation, Ankara probably received intelligence support from at least one of its two key allies — the United States and Israel. Washington has been consistently and publicly supportive of Turkey’s extradition demands against Ocalan — whom the State Department has consistently labeled a terrorist — and probably played a major role in convincing Russia, Italy and the Netherlands to deny him asylum. Furthermore, at least since last year’s terrorist bombing of the embassy in Nairobi, there is a strong U.S. intelligence presence in Kenya. As for Israel, a newly close ally of Turkey, it has had good relations with Kenya (including intelligence) for many years, as demonstrated more than two decades ago by the Entebbe incident. (As of this writing, both governments have denied any involvement in the Ocalan capture.)
The role of the Greek government, now attacked by PKK fanatics across Europe for being “responsible” for Ocalan’s extradition, is also remarkable. Greek public opinion, particularly on the Left, has for years been supportive of the PKK and Ocalan, for the simple reasons that they are effective at killing Turks and, as Maoists, they are ideologically kindred spirits. Greek public opinion — encouraged by both ruling and opposition parties— remains irresponsibly pro-PKK and hostile to Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who now stands accused of cooperating with Ankara. Whether Greeks in Kenya were misled, tricked, forced, or just wanted to relieve themselves of a major national problem, remains to be seen. What is clear is that Greek involvement remains, well, byzantine.
On the other hand, this victory for law and common sense is clouded by the fact that, the Kenyans aside, no government had the courage to extradite Ocalan to Turkey. Opposition to the death penalty— not applied in Turkey since 1982— was not only a cover for Italy to avoid dealing with Ocalan, it was arrogant and self-righteous. More to the point is the Europeans’ fear of PKK terrorism at home— a reasonable fear, as the events immediately following the capture demonstrated. In a clear display of the PKK’s extensive penetration of the Kurdish diaspora, militant Kurds engaged in well-coordinated attacks against Greek and Kenyan diplomatic missions throughout Europe — from London to Moscow and from the Netherlands to Switzerland.
According to German intelligence sources, 10,000 of the half million Kurds in Germany are PKK cadres and perhaps another 40,000 can be mobilized. Among the somewhat more than half million Kurds in Europe as a whole, PKK militants are in reality a small minority, albeit a well-organized and violent one. They are also wealthy— which should come as no surprise, given the PKK domination of heroin (and illegal alien) traffic throughout Western Europe. Those lucrative activities have allowed the PKK to fund their London-based television station (MED-TV), an extensive Internet presence, funding of “Kurdish” organizations in Europe and North America, and backing for the now-sputtering PKK military operations in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Thus the PKK is a continental threat, but one that should be treated as a criminal enterprise as much as a political and terrorist organization — very much like Colombia’s Marxist insurgents or Peru’s murderous Shining Path, the latter an old ally of the PKK.
The PKK’s fortunes may now be changing, because the loss of Ocalan, whether through a long prison term or execution, is a terminal defeat— at least within Turkey. Even before his arrest the PKK had been losing its war against Turkey since the end of Syrian support last October. Ocalan’s second in command was recently captured; Turkish tactical intelligence has improved dramatically, suggesting popular dissatisfaction with the insurgent movement; Iraqi Kurds have eliminated the PKK’s local presence in that country; and without a Syrian base, income from heroin trafficking may have been limited.
Whatever its military and strategic losses, the PKK’s public relations campaign has still registered political success in Europe, where Ocalan’s lifelong commitment to Maoism has been obscured by a mushy wave of revisionism. PKK terrorists are now hailed as “nationalists,” and self-immolating fanatics are treated as “patriots” rather than as a terrible sign of the true potential of a PKK-run state. PKK militants in Western Europe (Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries, France) are still accepted as representatives of “the Kurds,” and the existence of a “Kurdish issue” is generally considered a relevant topic for political debate, at least among elites. PKK attempts to internationalize their “cause” enjoy dangerously high levels of support, certainly much greater than any attempt to make the Corsican, Basque, or Irish “issues” a matter for European consideration.
The reasons for such support are many, but the usual extremism of emigres, when compared to those back home, is among the most obvious. Just as Cubans in Miami are more vocally anti-Castro than those on the island, relatively well off Kurds in Berlin find it more attractive to “fight” Ankara than do their compatriots left in eastern Turkey’s poor rural areas, particularly when the latter are the ones dying as a result.
Another reason for the organization’s success is the tendency among some in the media and in public office to take at face value the PKK’s false claims to be nationalist and to represent the Kurds in Turkey. CNN relentlessly and unwittingly repeats the propagandistic portrayal of the PKK as a “Kurdish rebel/guerrilla” organization and Ocalan as a “separatist leader,” when all widely available evidence suggests otherwise. In truth, from the beginning of his career in 1978 until the recent crushing military defeats and the loss of his Syrian bases, Ocalan was an avowed Maoist like Pol Pot, and his goal was the creation of a Maoist state throughout the Middle East — not a Kurdish national polity. The overwhelming majority of the PKK’s victims in Turkey, including over 5,000 women and children, village leaders, peasant militiamen, and teachers, were in fact Kurds who disagreed with his goals. And among his targets were the authentically nationalist Kurdish organizations in northern Iraq completely lacking in Maoist fanaticism and goals. So much for the romantic — if not intentionally false — notion that Ocalan and the PKK somehow represent the Kurds in Turkey or elsewhere.
European governments— particularly Italy— should clearly take another look at their irrational acceptance of the PKK stance and its place in their countries. Many Kurdish immigrants treated as bona fide “refugees” are hard-headed potential terrorists. PKK activists should not be tolerated, but rather recognized as security threats, and their leaders sent back to Turkey to stand trial.
In terms of the resolution of the “Kurdish issue” in Turkey itself, Ocalan’s capture may well be an opportunity not to be missed. With its founder, strategist, and ideologue gone, the PKK could follow the pattern of its ideological kin, the Shining Path. In Peru, the capture of Abimael Guzman in 1992 led to the organization’s fragmentation, loss of ideological and political purpose, and ultimate strategic defeat. While chaotic PKK violence in Turkey may continue— and in fact may briefly increase as local leaders try to establish a loyal following through accelerated terror— the PKK’s back is probably broken for good. If the Turkish government adopts an intelligent combination of measures such as a generous amnesty for middle-level cadres and rank- and-file PKK members, increases military pressure on the remaining units, and avoids premature triumphalism, the insurgent threat could be eliminated. Current economic development programs in the southeast should be accelerated, and cooperation with anti-PKK Kurdish elements in northern Iraq continued.
On the other hand, Turkey should resist the predictable “human rights” onslaught from the European Left against the proceedings during the forthcoming trial of Ocalan — whatever those proceedings may look like. He should be tried for common crimes, and under no circumstances given the opportunity to transform the proceedings into a political circus. If terrorism is morally and legally wrong — and Ocalan is clearly a terrorist, no matter what his goals may have been — he should be tried as a criminal and not as some kind of “misguided” political activist. The trial of Abdullah Ocalan presents an ideal opportunity for a nation built on democracy (even as imperfect as Turkey’s may be) to draw the line, once and for all, between legitimate political activism and murder.
And, in the face of a “victory” it has neither achieved nor planned for, NATO has its hands full of impossibilities.