Europe's Restrained Push Against PKK: Complicity in Terrorism?

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
18 April 2012
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With the onset of spring and the passing of the Newroz holiday, terrorist organization PKK/KONGRA-GEL has ramped up attacks particularly in the southeastern regions of Turkey, killing more than 30 Turkish soldiers alone since October 2011. Despite being blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and its member states, and the United States, PKK attacks have continued to grow in range and diversity, and are projected to increase as the warmer fighting season progresses. However, while it has been well-documented that PKK received a majority of its funds from drug trafficking and coercive extortion throughout the region into Europe, a cohesive European effort against PKK struggles to rise to the forefront.

EU Common Law: CSDP Flaws against Terrorist Groups

Operational in 2001, the work of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) was enlarged to include the fight against terrorism in 2002, later changing into the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) by the enforcement of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. While the ESDP was designated to harmonize European member states’ actions by boosting Europe’s defense efforts, the policy is primarily non EU-centric, focusing on outside threats to the Union, pushing the organization of military and humanitarian missions domestically (as seen in the Balkans) and abroad (as seen in its Gulf of Aden naval missions). The Situation Centre (or SITCEN, the EU’s intelligence body) was created in December 2000, monitoring threats around the clock, seven days a week. Brussels-based SITCEN took a more domestic turn in 2004 under then-EU High Representative Javier Solana, and its newly designated unit called the Civilian Intelligence Cell, which focuses on more counter-terrorism aspects within the EU. Also based in Brussels is the 2004-created European Defense Agency (EDA). But the EDA does not include counter-terrorism efforts as part of its active duties, focusing instead on the development and innovation aspects of the European defense industry, including the promotion of R&D (research and development), and the assurance of a stable and competitive defense market of European defense equipment. Another concern of the EU’s counter-terrorism efforts with the EDA is not only the agency’s foci away from internal security issues, but in that membership to the EDA is also not required, but instead extended as an option for member states wishing to participate.

The CSDP is split into foreign and domestic policy, and within domestic policy, Article 87 of the TFEU particularly highlights the EU national state police cooperation. (2) But Article 67 states respect of individual member states’ legal systems. Therefore, when terrorist groups operate or have been supported by various entities across member states, prosecution of such groups (like the PKK) becomes difficult to differentiate as national and supra-national laws finds themselves in legal entanglements. In addition, without an overt threat to national or EU security, the political will of the member state’s efforts to rooting out domestic terrorism incidents often relies on the state’s internal security system and prosecution efforts. However, with varying (and lately, shrinking) state budgets and ranging counter-terrorism capabilities, a disjointed EU counter-terrorism front allows PKK supporting activity to move with facility throughout the member states. Article 43 of the Treaty on the European Union even highlights the CSDP’s commitment to helping third countries like Turkey to combating terrorism on their territory through various uses of combat. (3) Hence, lack of member state coordination and enthusiasm for pushing through with CSDP reforms compromises not only European security, but that of relevant third countries such as Turkey. This also, in turn, comprises the legitimacy and faith-building initiatives within EU membership talks with candidate country Turkey.

In terms of combating terrorism, the CSDP is laced with problems from within the Union, most often crippled by varying visions on how to execute effective European security. As a result, due to internal disagreements among member states, actions under the CSDP are frequently delayed, and often executed reactively when a crisis presents, or with a lead of particular EU member state. Basic issues within the CSDP, including critical items such as support for education, training, missions, and various military exercises are still being debated, essentially hindering action on various terrorist activities. The CSDP’s budget is voted in by the European Parliament, and made up of contributions from EU member states, with nearly half of the budget being shouldered by the United Kingdom and France. However, it is underfunded due to downsized national budgets due to the severe financial crisis across Europe, indicating that further cuts in security and military budgets will likely take place. It is exactly during the current economic crisis that priority be placed on domestic counter-terror efforts, as distracted EU governments and weakened EU defenses could allow groups like PKK and its members to enter and move throughout Europe, regrouping and changing strategies. However, the process of an evolving CSDP (as seen in recent push for security sector reforms) indicates that the political will to improve upon the policy exists, but has yet to be realized.

CSDP, NATO, or Both?

Due to the ineffectiveness of the CSDP, many have even advocated for scrapping the policy altogether, or uniting it with its NATO efforts. If Europe were to face an external terrorism crisis, its NATO allegiances (driven by a militarily strong United States) would likely lift the continent from crisis, not the CSDP.

Moreover, not all EU members are within NATO (ex. Malta, Cyprus, Austria, Ireland; Sweden and Finland are instead part of NATO’s related ‘PfP-Partnership for Peace’ program). In addition, not all NATO members are in the EU (ex. Iceland, Croatia, Canada, U.S.; Turkey, Albania, Norway all have marked incidents of PKK-linked activities). European countries like Switzerland or Moldova are in neither alliance, but are reported to have internal PKK support. NATO would also need to develop an internal counter-terrorism strategy, as it currently focuses on external threats to the alliance, essentially bypassing the internal PKK actions within Europe.

A united European effort, within both the CSDP and NATO alliance, will be necessary to make sure that PKK faces equal prosecution and treatment across Europe, EU member state or not. For example, the coordination of EU and non-EU/EEA states like Switzerland is essential, as Switzerland holds many assets of PKK and similar organizations. Only with the necessary European political will for greater internal securitization can the CSDP be strengthened, in addition to the backing of the NATO alliance and its resources.

Asylum and Refugee Loopholes: Legal Abuse of the EU System

A common European asylum policy is set to be decided upon this year, aiming to create a more uniform asylum and refugee system throughout Europe. Due to varying asylum laws and limitations among EU member states, many asylum applicants and attached family reunification procedures have created an uneven balance in immigration law throughout Europe. Unfortunately, abuse of Europe’s asylum system is rampant, with many applicants seeking residence in northern Europe, home to (economically supportive) social system-styled states like Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. While many applicants indeed come from conflict countries and are in need of refuge, others have taken advantage of asylum law loopholes due to lenient oversight of the system.

From Turkey, many Turkish citizens accepted invitations from EU countries like Germany in the 1960s, which offered guest worker programs for temporary development assistance. Many of the Turkish immigrants also happened to be of Kurdish origin. However, it wasn’t until PKK assembled in the 1980s and commenced terrorist attacks against the Turkish state in the 1990s that Europe began to see its first wave of asylum applicants from Turkey’s southeastern regions. Many Kurds, and even Turks in the region, were fleeing terror attacks due to the conflict, while others were being coerced and threatened by PKK to either give financial support, or sacrifice a son or equivalent family member to join terrorist camps in the mountains. In current terms, those with PKK-links, either ex-terrorists or financiers, have sought refuge in Europe as well, especially when faced with prosecution by Turkish authorities. Under the guise of civil society organizations, various PKK asylum seekers, upon eventually receiving EU citizenship, often operate openly and freely within the European political atmosphere, presenting the PKK to Kurdish diaspora and European authorities as a ‘freedom fighting’ entity looking for a free and united Kurdistan (which geographically stretches across four states: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran).

PKK’s Fascade: PKK-linked Organizations in Europe

Throughout Europe, front organizations with proven ties to PKK organization and its members is lead by KON-KURD (an umbrella confederational organization of Kurdish associations throughout Europe), based in Belgium. Its former chairman Nizamettin Toğuç was arrested in 2010 by the Italian secret service for PKK links. Toğuç also survived an assassination attempt in 1993 by a Turkish ultra-nationalist group T.I.T (Türk İntikam Tugayı, or the Turkish Revenge Brigade). Current KON-KURD president İsmet Kem called for organizations within KON-KURD to join its February rally march for the release of PKK’s symbolic leader Abdullah Öcalan, which KON-KURD questionably (if not falsely) labels as the leader of all Kurds. (4)

FEK-BEL, another Belgian-based Kurdish civil society organization, openly displays its support for PKK during its events and meetings. Its leader, Zübeyir Aydar, fled to Belgium as many of his colleagues began being rounded up by Turkish police. Aydar also plays a prominent role in the parliament of the KCK (the Kurdistan Communities Union or urban PKK network within Turkey). (5) As an executive member of the KCK, Aydar played a critical role in the founding of KONGRA-GEL, the PKK’s name change. Due to Turkish and U.S.-based charges stemming from narcotics trafficking, Aydar was charged in 2010 but released due to lack of evidence. YEK-KOM, another Kurdish civil society organization, is often regarded as the political arm of the PKK in Germany, serving as an umbrella organization for up to 150 groups.

The Paris-based FEY-KA Kurdish umbrella organization plays a similar civil society role, serving as an outlet for France’s nearly 250,000-strong Kurdish population. However, a June 2011 raid by French authorities put FEY-KA-linked member Nedim Seven into prison, given his active alleged links to PKK and his role as PKK’s ringleader of money-laundering efforts in Europe. Although France officially banned PKK since 1993, it has refused to extradite Seven and his colleagues for prosecution in Turkey. As of November 2011, French prosecutors have sought a 7 year sentence for Seven, and have tried his formerly France-based affiliate, top PKK-Europe financier Ali Rıza Altun, in absentia with the request of a five-year sentence. Altun evaded international travel bans and European authorities by managing to take a flight from Vienna (Austria) to northern Iraq on false documents in 2007. Despite the recent capture reward placed on Altun by the Turkish government, his whereabouts are still unknown.

FED-BIR, another Kurdish association operating under the umbrella of KON-KURD, is based in London, Britain and requires the collection of membership fees from participants, fees that are determined by both the organization and KON-KURD. Given KON-KURD’s background, and the controversy surrounding ‘revolutionary taxes,’ the finances of such organizations must be further investigated to protect Kurdish members within the organization and other such diaspora groups who may not be aware of (or approve of) funding terror-affiliated groups like PKK. Switzerland’s FEKAR, which serves as an umbrella organization for 13 Kurdish organizations throughout the country, is also affiliated with KON-KURD, despite its’ more domestic cultural focus on the plight of Kurdish people.

Austria’s FEY-KOM (Federal Association of Kurdish Associations in Austria) takes a familiar platform of Kurdish victimization, advocating for a democratic solution to the problems of Kurds. However, FEY-KOM’s website includes a statement from Öcalan himself, citing various concerns he wishes addressed. In today’s Turkey however, many of the concerns Öcalan presents (related with Kurdish language programs, for example) have been addressed, with the exception of mother-tongue education. But a 2011 survey showed that more than half of Turks (~53%) are in favor of mother-tongue education provided that Turkish language is still taught as part of the curriculum. (6)

UNG-KURD, a youth organization based in Sweden, is known for its’ PKK support, and perhaps more disturbing, is the targeting and mobilization of 1st and 2nd generation Kurdish youth for support. Some Kurdish youth, particularly those whose parents who either suffered under Turkish authorities’ crackdown on the relevant regions or were fighters within the PKK, can and have been mobilized enough to even join the battlegrounds in the Hakkari mountainous region. (7) Similar organizations also exist in France, the U.K., Switzerland, Italy, and Romania.

Careful to avoid terrorist-related attacks on European-owned franchises, many of these now-legal PKK sympathizing organizations and their supporters have (indirectly and directly) committed attacks on Turkish businesses and affiliated groups in Europe. The diaspora groups created by Kurdish asylum seekers and refugees is politically complicated, as the European Kurdish diasporas is politically (and even religiously) diverse, and spread across various EU member states. While a majority doesn’t support PKK terror attacks, the political dialogue created and perpetuated by various PKK-affiliated asylees and their respective front organizations within some of the diaspora communities is particularly troubling. Asylum seekers affiliated with terror groups are legally bound to being prosecuted to the full extent of an EU member state’s law, but immigration law often prevents them from being extradited to their nation of origin for fear of ill-treatment or extreme prosecution (such as the death penalty, although there has been a ban on capital punishment in Turkey since 2002). However, if assurances are made that the suspects will not receive cruel and unusual punishment upon deportation, PKK-linked suspects under asylum law could effectively be extradited for prosecution in Turkey. If suspects are pursued at all, and they entered on asylum grounds, life in prison is the maximum punishment by both EU and Turkish law. However, many suspects who enter through asylum loopholes are not actively pursued, openly supporting PKK (and its jailed symbolic leader Abdullah Öcalan) through rallies and other activities.

The high burden of proof in most European legal systems requires prosecutors to show that a suspect has effectively “provided material support for terrorism.” While this is done to protect the suspect’s civil liberties, the high evidence bar set helps explain the low seizures and forfeitures rates in Germany, for example. Although sympathizing with a terrorist organization is not grounds enough for prosecution, the activities of the aforementioned groups beg for further investigation on their funding resources, expenditures, and future plans. Reports of extortion and societal pressure from these suspect organizations (and many others) on ordinary Kurdish citizens throughout Europe not only highlights the diversity in political opinion regarding PKK within the Kurdish European diaspora (most of whom are comprised of Turkish-origin Kurds), but the falsities within the oft-perpetuated dialogue that PKK represents all Kurdish interests both in the region and abroad. One of these myths concerns the dialogue that all those speaking Kurdish want an independent Kurdistan (only 9.9% of Kurds in Turkey expressed such intentions in a recent survey, with only 5% of both Turkish Kurds and Zazas advocating for a federal setup within Turkey). (8) In addition to the perpetuation of myths, these intentions are best seen in the way that PKK finances its organization and attacks: human and drug trafficking, smuggling goods, money laundering, and extortion.

PKK Financing Sources: Tracking the ‘Fuel that Feeds the Fire’

PKK was banned as early as 1993 by Germany, but it was only in 2002 and 2004 that PKK was blacklisted by the EU, effectively having much of its assets were frozen as a result. Interestingly enough, the EU ban was almost overturned in 2008 by a Luxembourg Court of First Instance, which stated that the EU’s actions on PKK were illegal. The gap of almost a decade between Germany’s ban and the EU’s blacklist draws attention to the need for a more transparent process of the otherwise opaque ‘blacklisting’ process within the EU. Although raids on PKK-linked organizations in Italy were exacted in March 2012, the last big push against PKK-linked organizations in Europe was 2010, when raids in multiple EU countries like Belgium and Italy put several of the organization’s people in jail. (9) However, PKK’s growing attacks on Turkey alludes to the fact that PKK is still being funded and supported in its actions, despite being placed on blacklists and having its assets frozen.

Turkey is part of the Balkan route for drug trafficking, dominated by the heroin trade coming from Afghanistan to end up in its most profitable market, Europe. With nearly $20 billion in profit from Europe alone, the drug trade has became a lucrative source of funding for various terrorist-affiliated groups in the region. (10) Nearly 70% of drug seizures in Turkey are heroin, and with nearly 15,400 heroin seizures (compared to distant-second U.K. with 1,680 seizures in 2008), Turkey seizes the most heroin in the European region. Therefore, the commitment of EU member states and their drug forces must attempt to match or bypass Turkey to show a considerable counter-terrorism effort, as most of these drugs fund terrorism and other organized crime in the region.

PKK transits drugs through several European countries, including: Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Romania, Switzerland, Belgium, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands. While the vast majority of funding for PKK activities comes from Europe, the profits stemming from illegal sources greatly outweigh those from legitimate donations (although both sources are forbidden given PKK’s blacklisted status). Organized crime and drug smuggling profits wield between $50-150 million a year for PKK, while other fronts offer up to $15 million towards PKK efforts. (11) From these funds, a great deal is used efforts to keep PKK’s agenda within the forefront of European policy. PR efforts have effectively described PKK’s illegal activities and terrorist actions in Turkey into a benevolent ‘freedom fighting’ campaign within the European sphere. Although European legal efforts can be seen with various raids on linked organizations that have been conducted, stifling mis-information to both the Kurdish diaspora and European populations is critical in stopping PKK mobilization and movement across the continent. After consistent pursuits across EU member states (including Denmark, Germany, and France), efforts to shut down channels like (now defunct) Medya TV and its successor Denmark’s ROJ-TV have been rather successful, with ROJ-TV’s assets frozen earlier this year for links to the PKK and money laundering activities. However, inconsistency within EU legal matters is once again highlighted, with a new European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling which states that although a channel may be legally blocked from transmitting in its home EU member state, it does not prevent the channel from being received in a neighboring member state through personal satellites. (12) A new Kurdish satellite channel is set to launch from Europe within coming months, called “Stêrk TV, broadcasting in two Kurdish dialects (Kurmanci and Sorani) and Turkish. With plans to cover regional current affairs and politics, and provided that it does not have links to PKK by serving as an independent outlet of reliable information, Stêrk TV has set hopes high for the Kurdish diaspora and Turkish observers.

How Europe Can Step to the Plate: Fulfilling Promises with Proactive and Consistent Efforts

EU member states have legitimately been walking a fine line of trying to deter terror targets while simultaneously respecting human rights and civil liberties like freedom of expression, for fear of being accused of attacking one particular ethnic community (in this case, Kurds) in its efforts to root out terrorism. The Kurdish diaspora remains diverse in opinion, highly politically active, and spread out over several member states. The pursuit of PKK-linked entities within the diaspora becomes particularly tricky when a fluid group like PKK has not outright attacked key European institutions. Blacklisting the PKK is also not meant as a means of stigmatizing the Kurdish diaspora, but as a means of rooting out illegal activities that have also affected those respective communities as well. However, the drug trade route that fuels PKK ends in Europe, the aspect of Europe (quite literally) being ‘the bank’ to PKK operations in the region, and particularly EU candidate country Turkey, does not bode well for EU-Turkish relations, in addition to respective crime rates in member state countries. By not taking a proactive approach to PKK activities in Europe, the EU’s efforts in the fight against PKK ultimately reflect the importance that is placed on Turkey as a political and economic partner, whether or not it’s in the EU. In Germany, for example, not only is there no central agency that handles anti-terror efforts, but an investigation in related claims can only start if a crime has been committed. In order to be proactive in their approach, there are numerous steps that EU member states must take to show its commitment level to Turkey, and determination to fight terrorism on the world stage.

Harmonization of the EU’s terrorism and asylum laws are critical, and through accurately defining and ratifying what qualifies as ‘terrorism’ in statutes, EU member states must follow up by consistent prosecution of related-terrorism cases. Germany’s 2002 ‘Anti-Terrorism’ law stated that asylum seekers can be denied if they resort to violence in order to further political goals or have participated in a group supporting terrorism, provided that the claim is supported by facts. While the language is the law is vague as to what may constitute as ‘terrorism,’ the law attempts to narrow the asylum loophole for which the (vast minority of applicants) terrorists may use. In extreme cases, by taking a passive role to terrorism occurring in EU-candidate Turkey, and illegal terror-supporting actions within the EU, some have gone so far as to label the Union as an accessory to terror. The EU blacklist is essentially a constant target list for 27 EU member statecannot be taken lightly, and while PKK and related organizations like TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) and Kurdish Hizbollah (Hizbullahî Kurdî) may not pose a greater threat than Al-Qaeda affiliate cells in Europe, PKK support and attacks continue to stall EU-Turkey member talks. While Turkey’s efforts to democratize have been noted in greater rights granted and attempts to reform the countries’ constitution are noted, Turkey has also been trying to focus more improving its securitization, which could possibly delay the EU-backed democratic processes as a result. Turkey’s EU prospects will be greater with further European unity and support of democratization efforts and securitization efforts both within Turkey and Europe.

Greater efforts towards integration not only Kurdish populations but other diaspora groups within the European fabric are also necessary to creating a united front against internal threats in the Union. As integration decreases, ties to the motherland (of which negative memories are often tied), thus likely increasing isolation and alienation that can lead to pools of frustrated youth. Coupled with economic and discrimination stresses, the 1st and 2nd generation of Kurdish youth in Europe are often target pools from which PKK and similar organizations can strengthen their ranks. Attempts to directly reach out to leaders within Kurdish communities, such as heads of youth centers or religious figures, could be a start to helping with the integration process. Monitoring leaders and messages to youth populations in particular is important to prevent youth from being improperly mobilized to radical causes. Helping to differentiate between ethnic national pride and support for a terrorist group has become clouded in various diaspora communities, where PKK’s message of victimization has often been transmitted as a unifier between populations. Finding alternatives to promoting and resolving peace in the region, aside from support for PKK’s message, should be the dominant dialogue within various community centers. Extortion of Kurdish citizens in Europe for PKK’s ‘revolutionary tax’ (often equivalent to a month of yearly wages) has been well-documented, and European government must offer discreet reporting mechanisms to ensure that its Kurdish citizens can report such illegal activities to their respective governments (i.e. untraceable telephone hotlines, etc). Oversight of target organizations with terrorism links and related civil society groups is of utmost importance, while regulating the activities of religious groups and those Kurdish Associations with proven links to the PKK will also be necessary (thus requiring a closer look at their internal leadership and funding sources for the institutions). The burden of integration lies more on the host country rather than the immigrants, but genuine internal drives and efforts of integration from diaspora communities will bode well for both countries in question.

How the Americans Can Play a Role

The U.S. may have to serve as an impetus in joint-action on the PKK and the EU’s efforts on acting on its blacklist. At the helm of NATO, and with thorough resources to actively pursue terror targets, the U.S. can use the alliance to provide the EU with a multi-prong strategy towards tracking PKK’s funding and support across Europe while reaching out to various Kurdish communities to find an alternative peace strategy to Turkey’s southeastern region. As of March 2012, the U.S. has signed a memorandum declaring its commitment to fighting PKK through the use of financial sanctions aimed at weakening the organizations. The U.S. has also put the Kurdish-branch of Al Qaida on its own blacklist. The U.S. hopes that EU member states can to do the same, while some states have already that route (including the UK, Finland, and Sweden). With American support, the Turkish diplomatic concerns about the European sources of PKK-fueled terrorism can reach European agendas. Having the European public fully understand the scope of Turkish-Kurdish relations, the true intentions and makeup of PKK, and how European law and political will must be more proactive on not only the PKK issue but other terrorist related concerns is critical to stemming terrorist attacks in Europe.

 While Turkey has decided that it won’t negotiate with PKK’s terrorist wing, it could continue discussions with its PKK’s political wing (KCK), and including the voice of the European Kurdish diaspora within any future talks with PKK entities will be critical in stemming not only the financial flow between the two communities, but hasten the fragile democratic opening process started by the AKP government. The EU-U.S.-Turkey alliance is critical in understanding that as part of Europe’s neighborhood, Turkey’s problems become Europe’s problems.


1. Kurdistan Worker’s Party/Kurdistan People’s Congress.

2. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

3. Official Journal of the European Union; consolidated version on the Treaty of the European Union. Section 2, Provision on the Common Security and Defense Policy. C 115/38. May 9, 2008.

4.’s Official Blog. February 12th and 17th  2012 posts. Accessed March 2012. <>

5. Sandıklı, Atilla. “The Structure and Activities of the Terrorist Organization Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK).” October 14, 2011, accessed March 2012. < <
.> The outline of KCK is explained here.

6. Akyürek, Dr. Salih and Prof. Dr. Aziz Kutlar. “Expectations of the Turkish Society From the New Constitution.” BILGESAM Publications, Report No. 36. October 2011.

7. Baser, Bahar. “Kurdish Diaspora Political Acitivism in Europe with a Particular Focus on Great Britain.” Diaspora Dialogues for Development and Peace Project, Berlin: Berghof Peace Support/Lucern: Center for Just Peace and Democracy. Page 19.

8. Akyürek, Dr. Salih. “Democratic Opening and Social Perceptions.” BILGESAM Publications, March 2011. Page 11.

9. Five suspects were arrested in 6 cities throughout Italy (Venice, Padova, Modena, Udine, and Pesaro) over charges stemming from extorting ‘revolutionary taxes’ from Kurdish immigrants in the country. Italian news agency ANSA also reported incidents of attempted ‘brainwashing’ future PKK recruits in PKK’s makeshift camps within the country. “Italian Police Target Alleged PKK Members.” United Press International, March 27, 2012. Accessed March 29, 2012. <>

10. Ministry of the Interior, Turkish National Police: Department of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime. “Turkish Drug Report 2010.” Page 138.

11. Ozeren, Suleyman and Murat Sever. “Economy of Terrorism: Recruitment Process and Financing of the PKK.” Page 7.

12. Clover, Julian. “Germany Unable to Veto Kurdish TV.” Broadband TV News. September 26, 2011. Accessed March 2012. <>

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