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The BBC reported yesterday that on 7 December the Metropolitan Police Service arrested four people—two 17-year-old boys, a 38-year-old woman, and a 50-year-old woman—were arrested in the Haringey area of north London as part of a probe into terrorist fundraising, through money laundering and fraud. The terrorist group at issue is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and those arrested are believed to have contributed to the PKK’s finances through sale and distribution of one of the PKK’s most important propaganda instruments, the Yeni Ozgur Politika (New Free Politics) newspaper. Time will tell if this is a one-off or the beginning of a serious and long-overdue attempt to curtail the PKK’s propaganda-recruitment activity and fundraising in the West.
THE PKK’S EUROPEAN NETWORK
As described in great detail in a recent paper for The Henry Jackson Society, the PKK begins in Turkey in 1978 as a small organisation that mixes Marxism-Leninism, Kurdish separatism, and a cult around its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK spent most of its time in the late 1970s fighting other Left-wing and Kurdish groups to monopolise the political space, and was then driven from Turkey by the violent military coup of September 1980. The PKK took shelter in Syria, then-run by Hafiz al-Asad, the father of the current tyrant, Bashar al-Asad. With the assistance of the Asad regime and the Soviet Union—working through Palestinian militant groups like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP)—the PKK created an army that launched a war against NATO’s Turkey in August 1984, reaching its heights in the early-to-mid-1990s.
As part of its preparations, the PKK began constructing a network in Europe in 1981 that was to generate the resources—namely money and fighters—for the terrorist campaign against Turkey. This is hardly unique to the PKK. Many jihadist terrorist groups, such as Hizballah, the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), make an enormous amount of money by simple, criminal practices like credit card scams in Western states. And diaspora-funded, non-Islamist terror-insurgencies are likewise common, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka being a classic case.
The PKK’s revenue-generating schemes in Europe are based on organised criminal activity, and indeed the structure of the PKK has led to some academic debate about how to classify the organisation—is it a criminal syndicate that does terrorism, or a terrorist organisation that engages in organised crime? The revenue streams include narcotics, which has led to sanctions by the U.S. Treasury department against senior PKK officials; human trafficking, including the exploitation of refugees; money laundering and counterfeiting; and the smuggling of legal items like tea and tobacco.
The “revolutionary tax” on Kurdish diaspora population, in Germany in particular, is an important source of funds for the PKK. Whatever the level of popular support for the PKK, this “tax” is better understood as extortion since it was extracted—in common with similar cases like Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—under the threat of violence and murder. £2.5 million was extorted from Kurdish immigrants by the PKK in 1993, for example.
On top of this, the PKK operates a web of semi-legal front organisations that sell produce and take in donations, totaling perhaps a fifth of the estimated £40 million to £75 million per year, around half of which is generated in Germany. Alongside this is a vast propaganda-recruitment apparatus, consisting on one side of television stations, websites, newspapers, periodicals, and publishing houses, and on the other side of children’s summer camps and other social and cultural institutions in places as remote as the Swiss mountains that indoctrinate and militarily train cadres that can be moved to the PKK fronts in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
The PKK’s deeply authoritarian character can be discerned in these networks. The first leader of the European directorate of the PKK, Cetin Gungor (Semir), had to flee for his life in May 1983 after advocating democratic reforms within the organisation. In November 1985, after hunting him through three countries, the PKK assassinated Gungor in Sweden. Gungor is one of hundreds of PKK operatives who have fallen to internal purges—whether, like him, for ideological “defects” or out of sheer paranoia, with Ocalan detecting spies and rivals that might supplant him everywhere. After Gungor, the PKK’s European operations were brought firmly back under control.
In order to avoid some of the political and legal problems associated with its name, the PKK shifted to a “confederal model” shortly after the War on Terror began, rebranding its operations in Syria under the banner of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), and in Iran the PKK began to call itself the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). EUROPOL, the European Union’s answer to the FBI, confirms that funds illegally-acquired by the PKK in Europe continue to flow to all departments of the PKK, specifically the PYD/YPG in Syria.
EUROPE’S TROUBLE DEALING WITH THE PKK
For many years, Turkey has complained to European governments about the fact that the PKK has this European hinterland. The PKK’s European network has helped make Turkey’s most serious internal security problem insoluble by providing the PKK sustenance even when Turkey turns the military tide, and more immediately it means that European citizens and residents are underwriting the murder of Turkish citizens.
The PKK was blacklisted in Germany in 1993, but the PKK was largely able to evade the consequences. Firstly, the PKK staged riots that made the German government reluctant to antagonise the PKK further—the security impacts of an unconstrained PKK are largely not felt in Germany, after all. And second, “In democratic countries … [y]ou just change your name”, as one PKK activist explained. “The people’s rights club becomes the human rights club, the Ozgur Politika newspaper becomes the Yeni Ozgur Politika newspaper”.
The Yeni Ozgur Politika newspaper does indeed operate openly and is disseminated widely; on Twitter it has 126,000 followers. This is despite, among other things, threatening to murder schoolteachers for being “collaborators” with the Turkish state in July. This is no empty threat. In the 1990s, the PKK visited systematic atrocities, amounting to crimes against humanity, upon the Kurds in Turkey who resisted the imposition of its extremist rule as part of an effort to cripple and discredit the state, and schoolteachers—with doctors, nurses, civil servants, and day labourers—were a particular target. Indeed, the July article in Yeni Ozgur Politika was a statement of defiance and intent in response to the murder of Necmettin Yilmaz, a young music teacher who was abducted and slaughtered by the PKK on 22 June. Two months earlier, Senay Yalcin, a teacher in Batman, was killed when the PKK fired on her car in Batman.
The nature of the PKK’s influence at these media outlets should not be misunderstood: the PKK allows no more autonomy in its media operations than in anything else, and those tempted to dissent know that they are potentially placing themselves in mortal danger. From the get-go, as space began to open up for Kurdish media in Turkey in the mid-1990s—against a background of terrifying repression, with the extra-judicial killing of at least a dozen journalists—the PKK made it more difficult still, by vindicating the state’s claim of PKK links to these outlets, leading the judiciary to close them, and by directing matters in deleterious ways. In January 1993, the first newspaper, Ozgur Gundem, closed for three months. One reason, it is said, is that the paper’s staff hesitated to run a long, obsequious interview with Ocalan. When the paper re-opened, those of independent mind had been eliminated and the PKK operative at the office had control. “The PKK acted as if they didn’t send someone to the paper, it wouldn’t come out like they wanted”, Gundem editor, Zana Kaya, later lamented.
There have been some indications that Germany is getting serious about limiting the PKK’s ability to disseminate its propaganda, though problems evidently remain. Perhaps Britain will follow down this path of reiterating its opposition to public PKK agitprop and beginning to seriously put pressure on the PKK’s finance mechanisms. This would be progress. It would also, of course, continue to be undermined by the West’s Syria policy that is lending legitimacy to the PKK.
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UPDATE: The PKK activists and sympathisers presented this belated attempt by the British state to protect its citizens, by restricting terrorist finance and propaganda-recruitment, as an attack on free speech. This is a common tactic from extremist groups; they have made false claims about limits to free expression into a pillar of their argument against the PREVENT strategy that seeks to protect the vulnerable against extremists and terrorists.
It was claimed by one pro-PKK organization that Yeni Ozgur Politika is intended to be a “bridge between Turkey, Kurdistan, and the Kurds living across Europe”, while “help[ing] to keep Kurdish culture and identity alive”, and to do anything to curtail its activities is therefore a “shocking attack on freedom of expression of the Kurdish people.”
The PKK’s messaging rather cleverly uses “Kurds” as a synonym for the PKK when it is helpful to claiming a racial animus for moves against the organisation, and then turns this around—and again accuses critics of racial blindness—when the PKK’s many front organisations are pointed out. (For example, when a YPG/PKK fighter was arrested in Britain, the police were accused of being “so poorly informed and racist that they cannot tell the difference between Kurdish people from different countries.”)
The PKK also takes full advantage of the “reductio ad Erdoganum” in the West—the tendency to reduce all matters relating to Turkey to the machinations of its demagogic and authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So the U.K. government is accused of being a “direct partner of the Turkish state”—a treaty ally of the United Kingdom—and of abetting a “political genocide” that Erdogan is allegedly carrying out against Kurds.