Abstract: Since December 2015 an obscure group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) has launched a string of attacks against civilians in western Turkish cities. It is best understood as a terrorist proxy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has tasked it with launching attacks during periods of mounting Turkish military pressure on Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey over the last decade, all without tarnishing the brand of the PKK. The Kurdish majority “Rojava” cantons in Syria have recently emerged as a key launching pad of operations for the TAK and a center of hardline Kurdish militancy. 

Over the past year the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (Teyrebazen Azadiye Kurdistan, TAK) terrorist group[a] has carried out a terror campaign against civilians in Turkey’s western metropolitan cities. These include the killing of at least 65 people in two separate suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attacks in Ankara in February and March and a June 7 attack by a 24-year-old female suicide bomber that claimed the lives of 11 people, including six police officers, in the Vezneciler neighborhood of Istanbul.[1] This article outlines the TAK’s genesis, assesses the nature of its relationship with the PKK, examines how its operational base over the border in Syria is impacting its terror campaign, and assesses its likely future evolution in the wake of an attempted military coup in Turkey.

While its ties to the PKK remain opaque and subject to debate[2] among analysts, the TAK is best understood as a semi-autonomous proxy of the PKK that operates at arm’s length. It is seen as advancing the interests of the PKK without jeopardizing improvements to the PKK’s international reputation since the participation of the YPG (the Syrian branch of the PKK) in fighting the Islamic State in Sinjar, Kobani, and in areas north of Raqqa. Viewed this way, the TAK campaign in western Turkey is an attempt by the PKK to relieve pressure from a heavy-handed, counter-insurgent campaign by the Turkish military in southeastern Turkey[b] and undermine the Erdogan government while maintaining an element of plausible deniability.[c]

A Proxy for the PKK 
Although there is far from full clarity on its origins, the TAK appears to have emerged after the arrest of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. According to inside accounts,[d] senior figures in the PKK, despite declaring a unilateral ceasefire following their leader’s arrest, took advantage of a surge of urban recruits to create a semi-autonomous “special forces” unit[3] within the PKK dedicated to urban operations. Five years later the TAK publicly split from the PKK, accusing it in its 2004 manifesto of being pacifist.[4][e] On July 17, 2005, the TAK carried out its first attack, detonating a bomb on a minibus that was carrying tourists in Aydın’s Kusadası district. To date, the TAK has carried out more than a dozen attacks.

Almost the entire Turkish security establishment, however, has dismissed this split as a ruse by the PKK. The widespread perception is that the TAK and the PKK are essentially the same organization. Two of the most consequential leaders of the PKK, Duran Kalkan and Cemil Bayık,[f] are considered key figures in the founding of the TAK.[5] While there is little reliable and objective open-source information about the group, a more nuanced view is one of a distinct organization operating semi-autonomously under the patronage but not full control of the PKK. It should be pointed out the PKK has always had dovish and hawkish wings, with the TAK believed to get its strategic marching orders from the latter.[6]

There is strong circumstantial evidence for this. Over the last decade there has been a clear correlation between the timing of attacks by the TAK in the larger cities of western Turkey and Turkish military pressure against the PKK in southeast Turkey. This suggests the PKK has tasked the TAK with transferring the conflict to western Turkey to relieve pressure in its heartlands and deter the Turkish military from intensifying counter-insurgency operations. Both the 2005 and 2010 waves of attacks by the TAK followed a period of intensifying pressure on the PKK in southeast Turkey (see appendix). The July 17, 2005, bombing of a tourist minibus in Aydın was carried out at a time of growing clashes in southeast Turkey.[g] The June 22, 2010, military bus bombing[h] in Istanbul followed just two days after a promise by then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make the PKK “drown in their own blood” following PKK attacks that killed a dozen Turkish soldiers in the country’s southeast.[7]

After a four-year interval in which no attacks were claimed by the TAK, the most recent wave of TAK attacks followed the collapse of the peace process in July 2015 and the substantial escalation of conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK.[8] In claiming responsibility for the attack on Sabiha Gökcen airport on December 23, 2015,[i] the opening attack in the most recent wave, the TAK made clear it was retaliating for Turkish military operations in Kurdish populated cities in the southeast.[9] “We won’t be responsible for the safety of international airlines that fly to Turkey or for foreign tourists,” the group warned.[10] Tellingly, the biographies[11] of the TAK attackers indicate that all were ethnically and politically awakened by pro-PKK organizations; were indoctrinated, supported, and trained by the PKK; and served within the ranks of the group for some time.

It should also be pointed out that the TAK is not the only proxy the PKK has used. Another is the Apoist Youngsters Revenge Brigade (AGIT), which since June 2015 has taken responsibility for carrying out street protests and setting vehicles on fire in some districts of Istanbul.[12]

Turkish security officials assess the TAK as semi-autonomous in the sense that it has full authority to plan and carry out an attack without informing the PKK’s commanding echelons.[13] Once the PKK has conveyed the need for attacks, the TAK can chose what, when, and how to attack without interference from PKK’s hierarchical structures. The PKK supports the TAK ideologically and provides it with personnel, logistics, financing, and overall strategic direction, but PKK leaders only learn about outcomes from TV reports. This freedom of action granted to a lower-level leadership makes its operations unpredictable and more difficult for security forces to track TAK members down and prevent attacks.[14]

By creating the TAK, PKK leaders have tried to have their cake and eat it, too, sometimes condemning the TAK as outside the realm of the Kurdish armed political movement[15] and sometimes speaking sympathetically about the group.[j] The PKK response to TAK attacks can be summarized thus: “We disapprove of these attacks, but there’s nothing we can do to stop the TAK run by those angry Kurdish youngsters.”[k]

But the PKK is fully aware the Turkish intelligence establishment sees them as having significant influence over the TAK. In a strategic sense, the TAK strengthens the PKK’s position vis-à-vis Ankara by allowing it to assert that if it does not come to terms with the PKK, the PKK will not restrain rogue organizations like the TAK.

The TAK’s attacks over the last decade shed light on its membership and targeting priorities. It is clear the group is an urban organization made up mostly of young recruits. The oldest age of the suicide bombers in the attacks above is under 30, with the average age around 24 or 25. The young age of the attackers is consistent with the PKK’s growing recruitment of youth.[16] When the types of attacks and their victims are analyzed (see appendix), it suggests that the TAK does not differentiate between military and civilian targets with its terror campaign and that it prefers to carry out suicide bombings.

Growing Links to the Rojava
The third wave of attacks by the TAK has seen a growing operational connection to the Kurdish Rojava, with the attacks being planned and prepared in the Kurdish majority cantons in northern Syria. The perpetrators involved in the February 17[17]  and March 13[18]Ankara attacks as well as the April 27 Bursa[l] attacks received military training in camps in northern Syria for lengths of time spanning eight months to two years and participated in clashes in that area. For instance, Abdulbaki Somer, the perpetrator of the February 17 Ankara attack, spent 10 years in northern Iraq and Turkey before joining the TAK in 2014. Later that year he moved to northern Syria and joined the YPG for a year and a half. He then assumed the identity of Syrian refugee Salih Neccar and “legally” entered Turkey in July 2015, thus erasing his incriminating record in Turkey and arming himself with a new identity. After returning to Turkey he kept a low profile and did not even contact members of his own family. Cagla Demir, the female suicide bomber who carried out the March 13 Ankara attack, and Eser Cali, the female suicide bomber who carried out the April 27 Bursa attack, each spent more than six months in Syria.[19]

Injuries And Deaths Reported After Bomb Blast In Turkish Capital
Aftermath of TAK bombing of military shuttle bus service in Ankara, Turkey, in February (Getty)

The emergence of the Rojava as a growing military training and logistical support base for the TAK has coincided with the Kurdish majority cantons of northern Syria becoming a new center of Kurdish national liberation efforts. For years the PKK’s military command in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains has dominated the PKK, but that is now changing. The YPG’s (i.e. PKK’s) defense of Kobani and its success in pushing the Islamic State back toward Raqqa have strengthened the capabilities and confidence of Kurdish fighters in Syria and have allowed the region to develop into a safe haven for the PKK. The resulting Turkish military operations against the YPG in the Rojava has only intensified the TAK’s determination to use the Rojava as a springboard for attacks inside Turkey and increased support for such attacks among the local population.[m]

The future evolution of the TAK will depend on two factors. The first is whether Ankara will sustain its will and material capacity to continue large-scale counterterror operations in Turkey’s southeast. The second is the increasingly visible power shift within the Kurdish struggle from Qandil to Rojava[n] and whether Ankara will maintain its stern attitude toward Kurdish fighters in the Rojava.

The growing relevance of the Rojava to the Kurdish resistance movement also raises the prospect of further cracks emerging within the PKK. As outlined above, there are fundamental differences between the two schools of strategic vision between the ‘integrationist doves’ seeking reconciliation on the one hand and the ‘revolutionary hawks’ seeking continued armed struggle on the other. In principle, the doves are ready to restart the stalled peace process with Ankara and are open to begin a conversation that has Rojava as an item on the agenda. On the other hand, the hawks feel negotiations with Ankara would slow the Rojava revolution. By the same token, they interpret the ‘Rojava experience’ as its current state to be far beyond a matter of bargaining between Ankara and Qandil, and as such meeting with Ankara is tantamount to treason.[o] The fact the TAK use northern Syria as a base of operations suggests the more hawkish view, and favoring confrontation with Turkey tends to dominate in the Rojava. This raises a question—if another peace process is initiated between Ankara and Qandil, will the TAK operatives based in northern Syria surrender to the authority of PKK leaders in Qandil?

The recent failed coup in Turkey has thrown up more uncertainty about the future course of confrontation between the PKK and the Turkish state. It raises the possibility that armed with emergency powers, Ankara will take an even harder line toward the Kurds, leading to the TAK launching another wave of attacks in western Turkey. So far, however, there has been no evidence of the Turkish military and security services, preoccupied as they are with the fall-out from the failed coup, intensifying operations against the PKK in the southeast of Turkey.

Metin Gurcan is an independent, Istanbul-based security analyst and a columnist for the Al-Monitor news outlet. He previously served in Turkey’s Special Forces as a liaison officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the Turkish General Staff. His book What Went Wrong in Afghanistan? Understanding Counter-insurgency in Tribalized Rural Muslim Environments was published in June. Follow @Metin4020

Appendix: Timeline of TAK Terror[20]

First Wave 
July 17, 2005: An explosion on a minibus that was carrying tourists in Aydın’s Kusadası district and a bomb left in a trash can in Izmir’s Çesme district a week later injures 34, while killing five tourists and a police officer.
May 23, 2007: An explosion in the Ulus Anafartalar Bazaar in Ankara kills 7 and injures 102.
June 10, 2007: An explosion injures 31 in Istanbul’s Bakırköy district.
October 31, 2007: A suicide attack on a police station in Taksim in Istanbul injures 32.

Second Wave 
June 22, 2010: A military bus bombing in Halkali district of Istanbul kills 3.
October 31, 2010: A suicide bombing at Taksim Square in Istanbul injures 32 people.
August 28, 2011: Six tourists are injured in explosions on public beaches in Kemer and at Konyaaltı in Antalya.
September 20, 2011: Three people are killed and 34 injured when a bomb explodes in Ankara’s Kızılay.

Third Wave 
December 23, 2015: A member of the cleaning staff at Sabiha Gökcen airport in Istanbul is killed as the result of a long-distance mortar attack.
February 17, 2016: 29 people are killed after a suicide bombing with VBIED that is directed at a military shuttle service on Ankara’s Merasim Street.
March 13, 2016: 37 are killed and 125 injured as the result of a suicide bombing with VBIED in Ankara’s Güvenpark.
April 27, 2016: A female suicide bomber kills herself and 13 are injured in a suicide attack at Bursa’s historical Grand Mosque.
June 7, 2016: A female suicide bomber kills 11 including 6 police officers in Vezneciler neighborhood of Istanbul.

Substantive Notes
[a] The TAK was designated as a terrorist group by the United States in 2008. “US labels Kurdish group as terrorist, CNN, January 11, 2008.

[b] In interviews with pro-PKK elites both in Diyarbakir and Istanbul, the author was told that at the beginning of the clashes, the top brass of the PKK did not expect the Turkish security forces would respond so heavy-handedly. “Divisions intensify among senior PKK figures, reports say,” Daily Sabah, May 21, 2016.

[c] The PKK has notably not claimed a single attack on civilians in western Turkey. For more on the PKK-TAK relationship, see Metin Gurcan, “Was the last week’s Ankara attack just the beginning?” Al-Monitor, February 19, 2016.

[d] A member of the PKK’s armed wing told Diyarbkakir-based, Kurdish journalist Mahmut Bozarslan that after the arrest of its 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, according to this account. 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,” the PKK commander 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, according to this account. As noted by Bozarslan, in the PKK’s process of urbanization, there was a need for a proxy that could inspire both enthusiasm and fear and earn new recruits by creating legends particularly among urbanized Kurdish youth. Furthermore, there was a need for a proxy that the PKK could easily deny having organic connections with. See Mahmut Bozarslan, “Who is TAK and why did it attack Ankara?” Al-Monitor, February 29, 2016.

[e] On its website, the TAK, which has been banned in Turkey, explains: “We fought against the enemy from inside the PKK for a period of time. We found that the political struggle methods of the Kongra-Gel (Kurdistan People’s Congress, KGK) and the PKK’s armed wing HPG (People’s Defense Force) are weak and produce no viable outcomes. It is because of this that we have separated from the organization and formed TAK.” Bozarslan.

[f] With regard to the roles of Cemil Bayik and Duran Kalkan, the two heavyweights within the PKK, in the foundation of the TAK, it is evident that these two and some other high-profile individuals within the PKK encouraged and actively supported the TAK’s birth. It is incorrect, however, to suggest that these two could have deterministically influenced the evolution of the TAK or fully control the TAK at the moment. Suat Oren, “Nedir bu TAK?” GUSAM Report, March 16, 2016.

[g] In 2005, the author served as the Turkish Special Forces team commander in the southeast and took part in many operations. In the period of May to June 2005 Turkish security forces conducted large-scale rural operations.

[h] Between April and June 2010, there were a number of operations by Turkish forces in the rural areas around Semdinli. The intensity of these operations cut the connection of PKK units with the ones in northern Iraq and may have contributed to the decision by the TAK to carry out the June 2010 Istanbul bombing.

[i] December 2015 marked the expansion of the Turkish security forces’ urban operations from Silopi to Cizre, Lice and Sur province of Diyarbakir in the southeast.

[j] In an interview with the BBC in northern Iraq in April senior PKK leader Cemil Bayik stated that while the PKK “had nothing to do” with the TAK bombings in western cities and was against the killing of civilians. But given the pain being inflicted on Kurds in southeast Turkey, he added, “If TAK takes action under these conditions people will be sympathetic.” Ian Pannell, “Kurdish PKK warns Turkey of long fight for freedom,” BBC, April 25, 2016.

[k] See, for example, the remarks of high-profile PKK figures such as Murat Karayilan, Cm’l Bayik, and Duran Kalkan. “TAK’ın eylemlerini onaylamıyoruz, sakıncalı görüyoruz,” T24 News Agency, September 24, 2011.

[l] The father of Eser Cali, the female suicide bomber of the Bursa attack, stated his daughter has been missing for almost four years. “Bursadaki canli bombanin babasi konustu,” Yeni Safak, May 2, 2016. Security sources emphasized to the author that she spent at least six months in an YPG camp in northern Syria for bomb training. Author interview, Turkish security source, 2016.

[m] For example, Turkey shelled YPG positions in northern Syria and launched airstrikes against the PKK in Iraq after the TAK’s February 17, 2016, bombing in Ankara. See “Turkey hits Kurdish targets after Ankara bombing,” Al-Jazeera, February 19, 2016. For more on these dynamics, see “Bombaciyi YPG egitmis,” Gazetevatan, March 16, 2016.

[n] The new Kurdish power center in the Rojava is somewhat influenced by Shiites and Alawites, friendly to Russia, warm with Iran, and fervently anti-Islamic State.

[o] An unnamed, high-profile PYD official told the author on June 9 in Gaziantep that the hawk faction predominantly holds the view that any type of integrationist negotiations is ground for treason against the cause.

[1] “Vezneciler saldirisini TAK ustlendi,” BBC Turkce, June 10, 2016.

[2] Frederike Geerdink, “After Ankara bombing, questions over PKK-TAK ties resurface,” Middle East Eye, March 4, 2016.

[3] Suat Ören, “Nedir bu TAK neden Kuruldu?” GUSAM Report, March 16, 2016.

[4] Oktay Yildiz, “Iste TAK gercegi,” Nerinaazad News Agency, March 19, 2016; Metin Gurcan, “TAK nedir, ne değildir?” Yeni Birlik Gazetesi, May 6, 2016; “TAK: PKK’nin hayaleti,” Nokta, March 28, 2016.

[5] “What is TAK,” Karar, June 10, 2016.

[6] Author interview, senior Turkish military intelligence official, Ankara, May 17, 2016.

[7] “Turkish PM Erdogan says PKK will ‘drown in blood’ after attacks,” Bloomberg, June 20, 2010.

[8] Metin Gurcan, “Ankara vs. the PKK: Old War New Strategies,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, March 2016.

[9] Metin Gurcan, “TAK nedir, ne degildir?” Yeni Birlik Gazetesi, May 6, 2016.

[10] Metin Gurcan, “Are clashes spreading to western Turkey,” Al-Monitor, December 30, 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Author interviews, Turkish security officials, May-June 2016.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Cemil Bayik’tan onemli aciklamalar,” Firat News Agency, October 5, 2015.

[16] Author interviews, Turkish security officials, May-June 2016.

[17] Metin Gurcan, “Was the last week’s Ankara attack just the beginning?” Al-Monitor, February 19, 2016.

[18] “Guvenpark’ta patlayan bombanin menseii belirsiz,” Bianet, June 8, 2016.

[19] “Bombaciyi YPG egitmis,” Gazetevatan, March 16, 2016.

[20] Turkish and international news reports.

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