In his novel entitled By Royal Design, Norbert E. Reich writes the fictional story of an al-Qaeda plot to kill Peter Schneider, the European Council’s president-to-be.
He writes: “Al-Qaeda will mount an operation to kill Schneider. How would they do it? They would not pull the trigger, they will use someone else… They would use the unexpected; they would use the PKK.
“After all, the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, had a stronghold in Germany. This country has more than 500,000 immigrants of Kurdish origin. It is estimated that the PKK has a force of 10,000 in Germany and an additional 40,000 supporters. The RAF [Red Army Faction] helps to train them in the guerilla camps.”
Though this story itself is fictional, neither the numbers, which in fact correlate with those given by a German intelligence report in 1992 regarding the PKK’s depth inside Europe, nor the PKK’s willingness to target a high-level European official, as evidenced by the claims of PKK involvement in the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, are.
Notwithstanding its deep presence inside Europe and its transnational character, this entity, the PKK, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, is supported militarily, economically and diplomatically by the West in Syria today.
The Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) presence in Syria and its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have so far been described as the PKK’s ‘arm’, ‘affiliate’, ‘subsidiary’, and ‘sister party’.
It is, however, more correct to consider the PYD, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK), and the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) simply as PKK franchises in the region.
As we argued in a recent report , the past 17 years of the PKK, since [leader, Abdullah] Ocalan was captured, show that the PKK had adopted and followed a franchising strategy in order to survive the tumultuous years following Ocalan’s incarceration and then to spread.
The strategy of franchising is mostly associated with al-Qaeda’s organizational shift after 2003. In order to survive the heavy pressure on its structure and leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda chose to spread over a vast area from the Arabian Peninsula to South Asia, and from the Maghreb to Iraq.
As Barak Mendelsohn, assistant professor of political science at Haverford College, wrote in an article in 2011 : “In the aftermath of 9/11 and the Western response, al-Qaeda has tried to adapt and rejuvenate. It has inspired groups and individuals to act in accordance with its ideology, sometimes without any direct connection to the organization.”
A few years later, al-Qaeda no longer had a “pyramid-style organizational structure”, which, in the meantime, had allowed them to survive even after Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011.
Some of these franchises were established by al-Qaeda’s own men while others, even stronger than al-Qaeda at the time, such as Abu Musab al-Zarkawi’s al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and voluntarily became its franchise.
This did not, however, mean that al-Qaeda franchises were fully autonomous; “al-Qaeda Central” still retained some level of command and authority over the entire organization.
PKK re-invents itself
Likewise, as the PKK found itself in one of the most serious organizational crises in its history after Ocalan was captured in 1999 and called on the group to withdraw from Turkey, it left its tree network and gradually re-invented itself as an umbrella organization over franchises in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
The idea to have franchises in the region was not a novel one for the PKK. It had, for instance, the Kurdistan Liberation Party (PAK) in Iraq as a potential franchise in 1988. When asked about the PKK and PAK connection in an interview in 1991, Nizamettin Tas, a former PKK leader, admitted that they [the PAK] were very much under the influence of the PKK:
“On the issues of independence, global outlook, thought, analysis of people and their look at Kurdistan, they are totally united with the PKK but not exactly the PKK as such.
“The circumstances of the south are different and the style of struggle is also different. The stages of that struggle are also different. I can say that the PAK is a PKK [franchise] which has developed according to exclusive circumstances of the south. It is made up totally of Iraqi Kurds but we have an alliance with them and we support them. There’s a sympathy between us.”
The franchising strategy became a more pronounced, full-fledged strategy for the PKK after Ocalan’s capture.
New party line
In an extraordinary congress in January 2000, the “official acceptance of the new party line based on Ocalan’s project for a democratic republic” was expressed.
In the 8th Congress two years later, the PKK ceased its activities in all areas and a new organization, Kongreya Azadiya u Demokrasiya Kurdistan (KADEK; the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress) was founded. The change presumed that the transformation process which the party complex had been undergoing since the seventh congress had reached a new level.
'A pioneer party' -- that is, the PKK, which exercised control over all fields of activity -- was replaced by a congress organization that was to coordinate, not rule, the different parties and organizations in the 'party complex'. Within this framework, different parties for different parts of 'Kurdistan' were founded.
In sum, the organizational structure of the PKK shifted from being a classical organizational structure of communist parties, with a general secretary as the leading party official and an executive committee responsible for direct operations to a 'party complex'.
This was a conscious strategy by a transnational terrorist group to adapt its organization to a changing environment in order to survive and spread.
Political vacuum in northern Syria
The political vacuum that was intentionally left in northern Syria (by the Bashar al-Assad regime in collusion with Iran in 2011) only boosted this process. Decades of support by the House of Assad to PKK activities in northern Syria as well as the authoritarian practices of the PKK allowed its Syrian franchise, the PYD, to grow.
The PKK’s franchises in Turkey have not remained restricted to the TAK though. The PKK now has franchises among radical leftist terrorist groups as well, such as the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C) and the Marxist Leninist Communist Party (MLKP).
Despite the checkered history between the PKK and other revolutionary leftist organizations in Turkey, most have been natural bedfellows when it comes to “revolutionary violence”. The ISIL onslaught on Ayn al-Arab [Kobani] in 2014 and the ensuing discourse of the ‘Rojava revolution’ acted as a crowd-puller for these radical leftist terrorist groups and allowed them to receive training and arms and share comradeship with the PKK.
As had happened in the past with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and al-Qaeda as international-level terrorist hubs, being seen with the PKK now bestowed prestige and conferred a cachet on smaller terrorist groups. Some of these new terror franchises of the PKK from the marginal left gained visibility under the name of ‘International Freedom Battalion’.
PKK as a transnational crime-terror network
The transnational side of the PKK became more distinct in this process. While the PKK saw itself as the vanguard of global socialism in the past and stressed its role in the progress of global socialism, it now sees itself as the vanguard of another type of “revolution”. And that relates to the image of ideological evolution the PKK seeks to portray through the ‘Rojava revolution’ and its ‘democratic autonomy’ discourse.
The anarcho-socialist political project of the PKK, which has been put into practice in Syria, is considered by the PKK as the “starting point which will be extended to the Middle East first and then to the whole world” against prevailing power structures and state forms”, according to UTGAM research.
“In Syria the U.S. has backed an actor that -- for all its claims of Democratic Confederalism, a utopian vision devoid of separatism or a state at all -- is in practice not only separatist within Syria but harbors transnational designs.”
This new discourse also attracted several marginal anarchists, anarcho-socialists and other revolutionaries of different stripes and from around the world to Syria to fight alongside the YPG against ISIL. For instance, Spanish radicals in the YPG belong to a group called Reconstruccion Comunista (Communist Reconstruction).
While some foreign fighters are reported to be repulsed by the Marxism of the group, most are happy with the high dose of Marxism and anarchism.
These Western foreign fighters have become so emboldened that they have recently established what is called ‘International Revolutionary People’s Guerilla Forces’.
Same old PKK
Yet, as several and even otherwise sympathetic observers agree, the PKK’s transnational design is not pro-democracy. “The Rojava experiment, for all its proclaimed anarchism and grass-roots mobilization, reproduces both the PKK’s Leninist party vanguardism and its Stalinist personality cult,” an analyst quoted in the UTGAM report says.
Today’s PKK is the same old PKK, which has always been an authoritarian terrorist organization, intolerant of dissent and plurality. It is no wonder that Bashar al-Assad’s picture was removed only to be replaced by Ocalan’s portrait in areas of northern Syria.
As Michiel Leezenberg, a Dutch expert on Islam and Kurds, puts it: “[The] Rojava laboratory has resulted in something very much resembling a Leninist one-party statelet.”
It is, therefore, no surprise at all that a high-level official in the former Barack Obama administration acknowledged the territory under YPG rule for what it really is -- “a mini-totalitarian state”.
Though the PKK has become an umbrella organization with a more complex organizational structure, its core features as a terrorist organization and Stalinist leadership have remained intact.
PKK essentially “a crime syndicate”
Worse, developments in Syria and Western support will only fuel the PKK’s transnational criminal-terror network. The fact that it is basically a crime syndicate is all too easily forgotten.
Since the 1980s, as Mitchel P. Roth and Murat Sever note in a case study of the PKK, it has “resorted to a cornucopia of organized criminal activities, including drug trafficking and arms smuggling, robbery and extortion, smuggling of illegal workers, smuggling of other goods and money laundering”.
Therefore, while supporting the PKK’s franchising system, the West, first and foremost European countries, risk allowing a terrorist organization to stretch its network as wide as possible.
Western support has also continued despite the fact that the extreme-leftist terrain in Europe has long been very familiar to the PKK and its ‘enablers’ in Europe.
According to Marlies Casier, a political science professor at Ghent University, starting with the mid-1980s, in Europe “solidarity networks were built up with small, extreme leftist organizations that were ideologically close to the PKK”.
The late Romanian-American political scientist and journalist Michael Radu said in 2001 that Ocalan enjoyed the support of leftist parties in Italy, France and Greece:
“The most insidious, if not necessarily surprising, support came from Germany's and Italy's Marxist terrorists, who supported and even occasionally participated in the PKK’s combat operations.”
Support for PKK franchises means more crises
Support for the PKK’s franchises in the region means more crises and risks on several fronts. As success fuels more ambitions, the PKK will bring more destabilization to the region with its ‘projects’.
Besides, with transnational networks, connections, sophisticated arms and winning terrorist tactics learned in Syria fighting alongside the PKK, what will happen when these anarchists and other revolutionaries return to Belgium, the U.S., France and other countries of origin?
We must keep in mind that the PKK has a proven history of allying with European and non-European terrorist groups inside Europe, such as Action Directe, the Shining Path, the Tamil Tigers and the Red Brigades, among others.
When we have the likes of the PFLP and al-Qaeda as deadly examples of international terror hubs, who wants northern Syria to produce the next one?
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