It was July 6, 2005. The location was Kusadasi, Turkey, a prominent tourism center on the Aegean coast full of locals and foreigners. A loud explosion wrecked the serenity of the summer holiday, leaving five dead, 14 wounded and the unanswered question of who did it.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was suspected, but it denounced the attack. A short time later the bombing was claimed by an organization few had heard of before: the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, or Teyrenbazen Azadiya Kurdistan (TAK).
Eleven years later, on Feb. 17, Ankara was shaken by a massive blast. A suicide bomber had set off an explosives-laden vehicle near military shuttle buses in a sensitive area, killing 29 people and wounding many others. The question was the same. Who did it?
This time there were several suspects. Although the style of the bombing pointed to the Islamic State (IS), Turkish officials accused the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a PKK affiliate. But three days later, the TAK surprised everyone by claiming responsibility, posting on its website a photo of Abdulbaki Somer, one of its militants who had carried out the bombing. Although the statement did not convince Turkish officials, DNA tests confirmed the TAK’s claim.
Some believe the TAK is a wing of the PKK; to others, it is a separate organization.
The public by and large believes the TAK equals the PKK. But the TAK defines itself differently. On its website, which can’t be accessed in Turkey, the TAK says, “For a period, we were inside the PKK and fought the enemy together. We then decided the methods of struggle of Kongra-Gel [the Kurdistan People’s Congress] and the HPG [the PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Forces], which pay attention to political considerations, were too feeble. That is why we left the organization … and set up the TAK.”
The TAK’s first public operation was in 2005. Then in April 2006, it attacked the police headquarters in Malatya. In June 2010, the TAK killed four military personnel and a civilian in an Istanbul suburb using a roadside bomb. Other notable operations included a mortar attack the TAK launched Dec. 23, 2015, that killed one worker at Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport, and of course the Ankara attack Feb. 17.
As the TAK is an extremely secretive organization, it is hard to know even the number of its members. To find out more about it, Al-Monitor asked people close to the PKK.
Zanyar, an alias for a man who served a long time in the PKK’s armed wing, narrated the TAK’s background to Al-Monitor. After the arrest of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the group saw an influx of recruits from urban areas. When the PKK realized in the early 2000s that its struggle in rural areas was not yielding results, it shifted its operations to cities. Many of the new recruits were schooled in military ideology and received technical training.
“The military council sent these city-born and grown-up youngsters back to their hometowns with orders to sever all contacts with the organization and its legal and illegal wings,” Zanyar said. “They were to have no contact whatsoever with the organization. They were instructed to follow Ocalan and the organization from the news media and act accordingly. They were given unlimited freedom in taking the initiative.”
Initially, about 150 new militants were given explosives training and sent back to Turkey and 150 were kept at the PKK camps. Although some of those who had gone back to their hometowns were caught, most of them succeeded in infiltrating. They began recruiting people in the places they were posted. According to Zanyar, the TAK inside Turkey is organized in cells of two to three people who have no contact with other cells. They are not subordinate to anyone in the organization. They were told to not attract attention, and to become normal citizens, even get married, settle down and manage their own financing.
Zanyar doesn’t believe the TAK takes orders from HPG leader Murat Karayilan. To Zanyar, the TAK exists on its own.
According to Huseyin Turhalli, who worked with the PKK for many years and served in the group’s administration, when the PKK was listed as a terror organization, its leaders began searching for alternatives. Turhalli told Al-Monitor, “After 1994, they started debating whether to set up separate front organizations or tolerate efforts by others to do it. I am aware of opinions that were being widely discussed. For example, they advocated disproportional responses to the state’s cruelty and violence, but without implicating the PKK — hence the need for separate structures. Many of the teams sent to cities for actions were apprehended before reaching their destinations, hence the need for autonomous bodies. Such an organization had to be ideologically attached to the organization, but independent politically and militarily.”
Turhalli believes the TAK is the outcome of all these stipulations. “To me, the TAK is not a PKK wing or independent. It is a structure that has adopted the PKK’s ideology and philosophy, but diverges from it in actions. In other words, if the PKK agrees to cease hostilities, the TAK will follow that line. I don’t think the TAK is an organization that is commanded by the PKK. I think of it as a structure that is guided by the PKK’s general course of action.”
In a nutshell, the TAK may be different things to different people, but to Turkey, it is the PKK.