The Big Question: Who is behind the bombings in Turkey, and what do they want?

By Justin Huggler
Thursday 22 September 2011 06:05

How serious is the latest outrage?

It appears Turkey is facing a new bombing campaign - and this time the targets are tourists. Coordinated blasts in Istanbul and two major tourist centres on Sunday and Monday have left at least three people dead and 47 injured, including 10 Britons.

Istanbul was the target of al-Qa'ida-style bombings in 2003, but this does not appear to be the work of Islamic militants. Instead, it seems an older enemy has come back to haunt Turkey: Kurdish separatists.

A group calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAF) has claimed responsibility and said on its website: "We had warned before, Turkey is not a safe country. Tourists should not come to Turkey."

The latest bombings seem to bear out earlier reports that Turkey has been trying to cover up a bombing campaign against tourist resorts for some time. There has been a series of blasts in Istanbul and popular resorts all year. When four people were killed in an explosion at Manavgat in June, the authorities said it was caused by a faulty gas cylinder - but the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons claimed responsibility, and Turkish newspapers claimed there was footage of a bomb being hidden.

Who are the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons?

It's not entirely clear. Some observers believe it's little more than a front for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), the Kurdish separatist group that fought a 15-year civil war with the Turkish authorities in the Eighties and Nineties. But others say there is strong evidence it is a splinter group led by commanders who have split from the PKK because of dissatisfaction with its tactics, along the lines of the Real IRA and the IRA.

The Falcons first appeared in 2004 - the same year the PKK renounced a unilateral ceasefire. The direct targeting of tourists would be a change in recent tactics for the PKK. Even in its heyday, much of the PKK's efforts were directed against the Turkish military - although there were attacks on civilians, including tourists.

At least 30,000 people are believed to have died in the war between the PKK and Turkey. But today the PKK is a shadow of its former self. The guerrilla army which fought for control of cities in south-eastern Turkey during the Nineties is largely gone, defeated by a combination of brutal tactics by the Turkish army, and a dramatic coup when Turkey captured its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999, and paraded him before television cameras in chains.

After Ocalan called for a peaceful solution from the dock, during his trial by Turkey, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire. But it ended the ceasefire in 2004. Since then, the PKK has resumed violence, mostly against the Turkish military. In the meantime, the Falcons have emerged with a series of attacks on civilians.

What is the status of the Kurds in Turkey today?

The Kurds remain one of the world's largest stateless peoples, and they make up somewhere between a quarter and a third of Turkey's population. At one point it was illegal to call yourself a Kurd or to speak a word of Kurdish in Turkey - which meant for thousands of rural Kurdish women, who only knew their own language, it was illegal to speak.

During its brutal suppression of the PKK insurgency, the Turkish military burned more than 3,000 Kurdish villages to the ground, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and penniless.

The worst excesses are now a thing of the past - largely thanks to Turkey's ambition to join the European Union. The EU has made it clear Turkey will have to give the Kurds minority rights as part of the price of joining.

But critics say the changes Turkey has made in its treatment of the Kurds to satisfy the EU have been little more than 'cosmetic'. And it is clear from the resurgence of violence that there is still resentment at their treatment among Turkey's Kurds.

What does this mean for Turkey's hopes of EU membership?

The opponents of Turkish membership inside the EU - and many still remain - may seize on the latest violence as evidence that Turkey has not resolved the Kurdish issue. The EU does not want to import a major ethnic insurgency inside its own borders.

But those behind the bombings, whoever they actually are, may find there is far less tolerance for such tactics in the post-9/11 world. Certainly Turkey can expect complete backing from the US against the militants - but then it always could. It was the EU that Turkey found harder to convince.

The EU's reaction will have major implications for how Turkey responds to a new wave of Kurdish violence. It succeeded in crushing the PKK in the Nineties with a campaign of extraordinary brutality in which, as well as burning thousands of Kurdish villages, it responded to the rebels with guerrilla tactics of its own, sending commandos into the mountain to hunt down the rebels -and snatching Ocalan from the streets of Nairobi in a Mossad-style operation.

It is open to question whether the EU will be able to stomach such extreme tactics in a candidate state. The Kurdish issue was cited when the EU rejected Turkish membership overtures again and again for many years.

Is the situation in Iraq to blame for the renewed violence?

Turkey certainly says so. The PKK used the Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq as a base for many years, when they were turned into "safe havens" where Saddam's army was not allowed to go after the 1991 Gulf War. They were supposed to be forced out after the fall of Saddam, but with Iraq mired in anarchy and violence, Turkey claims the PKK are back in their old mountain bases there.

In the old days before the US-led invasion, the Turkish army used to cross the border regularly to hunt down the PKK in northern Iraq. Turkey says the situation is worse than ever now.

The Iraqi government does not want the Turkish army flitting across its border whenever it suits it - not least because the Turks have always been suspected of territorial designs on northern Iraq.

But Iraq's security forces, unable to contain their own insurgency, are in little position to do much about the PKK.

On top of that, the sight of Iraq's Kurds enjoying considerable autonomy just across the border is sure to fuel the aspirations of Turkey's Kurds for the same.

Is Kurdish separatism back to haunt Turkey?


* Despite some concessions, the Turkish government has not ended Kurdish disaffecton

* Kurdish separatists have seen lengthy ceasefires achieve little to advance their cause

* The chaos across the border in Iraq provides a 'safe haven' from which separatists can operate


* The Turkish military achieved a crushing victory over the separatists in Nineties

* There is little sign that the separatists are at anything close to the strength they enjoyed in Nineties

* The internatioanal community is likely to back Turkey against 'terror' in post-9/11 world

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