15 January 2013

Who Killed the Three PKK Activists in Paris?

When I was a kid I used to read Ellery Queen novels about locked door murder mysteries. You know, the body is in a room with the door locked and no other obvious exit for the murderer to escape.

The assassination of three Kurdish women activists in Paris reminded me of those novels. They were killed execution style with a single bullet to the back of the head (actually two were killed like that and the third victim had stomach and chest wounds).

There was speculation that since there was a digital keylock on the outside door and the door to the apartment had no sign of forced entry, the victims might have known their killer and opened the door for him. (Actually, this detail was leaked by the Turkish ambassador to France, possibly to support the thesis that the killing was an inside job.)

Most pundits seem to agree that the main target was Sakine Cansiz (whose last name, in a sad irony, means "inanimate" in Turkish). She was one of the founders of Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK and was known as a close ally of the PKK's incarcerated leader Abdullah Ocalan. Apparently, the other two women were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are two scenarios being discussed in the Turkish media. One is the Kurdish point of view, which holds that the assassination was the work of the so called "deep state" this clandestine organization that operates within the state to further some dark nationalistic goals.

The other hypothesis was advanced by the Turkish government and it maintains that this was an internal affair where a faction unhappy with the recent peace process was trying to undermine the process.

The question is, whose argument makes more sense. And if neither is tenable, then who might be behind these murders.

Was it "Deep State"?

First things first, when people whisper the words "deep state" what they are actually referring to is an intelligence and military apparatus created by NATO during the Cold War. You might have heard of the Gladio operation, and the Turkish version was known as "Counter-guerrilla." The Turkish branch was quite active and it is widely believed to have played a significant role in the 1971 and 1980 coup d'etats.

That's "deep state."

Lately, every foreign reporter in Turkey seems to be told that there is a shadowy, ultra-nationalistic "state within state" kind of structure. This fits well with the government narrative as used in the Ergenekon trials. And since no one remembers history or the Gladio operation, it is beginning to sound like a real and independent entity. When overhearing the term everyone knowingly nods and acquiesces but it actually means something quite concrete.

It is true that this "deep state" or more accurately these Gladio interfacing intelligence and military structures were not fully controlled by the civilian governments. It is also true that their units did not always operate within the legal system, as they undertook (among other things) assassination operations in Europe and Lebanon against ASALA. The same units were also active during the 1980 and 90s in the southeast in violent operations against Kurds. (Their presence and the collusion between state structures, contract killers, drug smugglers, elements within PKK dramatically came to the fore during the Susurluk incident).

But there are several reasons that make me doubt that this was a "Deep State" operation.

1) Following a major recent restructuring the Erdogan administration became the first civilian government in control of the state intelligence organizations (the two main ones are MIT and JITEM but there are a number of smaller organizations within the armed forces. JITEM is usually presumed to be the most visible part of the "deep state" apparatus.) In fact, Erdogan trusts the new MIT so much that, on several occasions, he asked the Agency's leadership to undertake secret talks with the PKK.

In this newly restricted intelligence space, I seriously doubt that these units can maintain their power and organizational capabilities. And more importantly, even if they continue to exist, I doubt that they can undertake such a momentous operation without stepping on some tripwires. Within intelligence organizations, because of the built-in secrecy and need-to-know-basis information flow, we have the impression that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. But we forget that there are layers of budgetary and administrative tripwires in these organizations and it is extremely difficult to undertake complicated operations if the senior management is not in on it.

2) Let's assume for a moment that my restructuring and control of the intelligence community premise is incorrect. And let's stipulate that there are indeed powerful "deep state" units acting independently. Even if all of this were true one should remember that their actions still take place within the Gladio framework. While Gladio was a NATO operation, it has always been understood that it was run by the US. In this specific instance, a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem is not something the US would want to disrupt. This entire blog is based on the opposite hypothesis.

Therefore, unless you pretend that the deep state is an autonomous organization with its own nationalistic agenda and with unknown shadowy leaders (and I realize that many people believe that) it makes very little sense to assume that a Gladio unit would act against the interests of the United States.

3) As a BBC reporter remarked recently, there has always been an understanding between the PKK and the Turkish intelligence agencies about operations in Western Europe:
It is the first time that such a senior member of the PKK has been killed in Europe. There has been a tacit agreement between the PKK and the Turkish government that no such high-profile attacks would be carried out against either senior PKK members or senior members of the government.

During the 1980s, there were some attacks believed to be from within the Turkish state against members of the militant Armenian group Asala, but there have been no political assassinations targeting the PKK
In fact, I know that a similar agreement exists between the PKK and Turkish government regarding Canada. It is considered an R&R space that can be used only for fund raising. I believe similar deals are in place in many other countries as well. To annul such agreements would mean opening the door for political assassinations of senior Turkish diplomats. PKK is well organized in Europe and certainly capable of hunting Turkish dignitaries and bureaucrats with relative impunity. I cannot see how the environment of FUD created by these murders would justify such a huge risk.

4) Even if there is a Gladio unit acting independently, killing Cansiz is hardly the best way to disrupt the peace process. Why not place a bomb in a shopping center in a Turkish city and claim it for a murky Kurdish group. Overnight the entire public opinion would turn against the peace process. I am not sure how the murder of a female activist serves the hypothetical purposes of a Gladio unit.

5) The reaction from the PKK was unusually muted. As the current leadership is in Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, most media outlets reported that Qandil was going to wait the completion of the official French investigation before commenting on the incident. This is an extremely soft reaction. If the "deep state" was involved we would have heard serious accusations from the PKK leadership.

Was it an Inner Fight?

The AKP government was very quick to declare this an inner factional fight within the PKK, between those who opposed the peace talks and those who favor them. 
Huseyin Celik, the deputy chairman of Turkey's ruling party, said the attack appeared to be the result of "an internal feud" within the PKK, but did not provide any evidence to back that up. Celik also suggested the slayings were an attempt to derail the peace talks.
Also, as I mentioned at the outset, the Turkish ambassador leaked some details to suggest that the victims knew their killer and let him in.

Turkish media outlets started mentioning that Sakine Cansiz had an ongoing feud with important figures within the PKK:
Known for her opposition to the alleged head of the PKK's armed-wing, Syrian citizen Ferman  [sic] Hussein, Cansız was also known to be in disagreement with the PKK's alleged financial head, Zübeyir Yılmaz. According to claims that have been reported in the Turkish media, Yılmaz had committed sexual harrasment against Sakine Cansız.
Fehman Hussein (or Huseyin) is also known under his code name Bahoz Erdal and he is the controversial head of PKK's armed wing. Most notably, he is a Syrian Kurd. Other media sources did not mention sexual harassment but suggested that that Zubeyir Yilmaz threatened Cansiz after she reportedly criticized Bahoz Erdal. She mentioned the threat incident to another senior leader (Sabri Ok) and he removed Yilmaz from his post as head of German operations. (But Yilmaz refused to move back to Qandil and he is supposedly still in Germany.)

There are also allegations that Bahoz Erdal was adamantly opposed to the peace process.

The overall insinuation in that media narrative is that (a) there was bad blood between Cansiz and at least two senior PKK members, and (b) if that was not enough, one of those members was desperate to stop the peace talks.

It is all a bit too convenient. In cases like these, disinformation is the norm. So I try to assess the reasoning behind these suggested explanations.

What I don't understand is why killing Cansiz should disrupt the peace initiative. Admittedly, she was an important person for the PKK. But she was quite marginal in the peace process.

Now, if her killer could implicate Turkey, then I can see how it would create Fear, Doubt and Uncertainty. (And some people suggested that the killer left bullet cartridges behind for that purpose: if the gun was used in another murder, it would link that one to the current assassination).

But that is a tough thing to pull off for several reasons. First, two of the women were under DGSE surveillance. So, unless they lost him before he entered the building, he is now known to French intelligence services. Moreover, while CCTV cameras are not ubiquitous in Paris (unlike, say, London), there are quite a few in the Gare du Nord area (it is a major international train hub, including the Eurostar). Avoiding both the DGSE agents and CCTV cameras and killing three women would have been a very tricky business.

I also know that Ocalan is very much in favor of these talks, as they are his only ticket to freedom. PKK is organized around a serious personality cult and he controls everything even from his isolated prison cell. While there may be many factions opposed to the peace process inside the PKK, as long as Dear Leader is in favor, I don't think any of them will act against his wishes.

Who is the Culprit, then?

In a situation like this I follow the logic of crime novels. Find the actor with the most to gain and chances are you found your killer.

My money is on Syria.

If you have been reading this humble blog, you know that I firmly believe that the Syrian problem cannot be solved without the participation of Kurds. And that is why I have maintained for over a year that Turkey will be under a lot of pressure to initiate a peace process with the PKK.

As you may know, in Syria, the PYD, under orders from the PKK, is stopping the Kurdish National Council from joining the fight against Assad. Thanks to PYD's tacit support of the regime, Assad's troops were able to leave the Syrian Kurdistan to go fight elsewhere. PYD also stopped the peshmerge-trained Kurdish fighters to fight against Assad.

If through peace talks, the PKK and by extension the PYD are neutralized, the current Syrian stalemate will be shattered. For one thing, the US will be more willing to give heavy weapons to Kurdish forces as they would be less likely to end up in Jihadist hands.

Also, the US will be deploying Patriot missiles (manned by US soldiers) on Syrian border starting from the beginning of February. The Patriot missiles constitute a serious deterrent for the Syrian army to conduct operations near the Turkish border. At the slightest incident, they could see their entire air force destroyed. And since this is done under NATO auspices, to retaliate massively would require no Security Council resolution.

Assad sees the endgame. His only play right now is to keep the Kurds off the conflict theater. So far he managed that. But the peace talks represent a problem. Disrupting them would enable Assad to prevent the Kurds from joining the insurgency. The only way he can do that is by creating a situation where the bargaining sides suspect the other party to be the one who is not negotiating in good faith. Since both Kurds and Turks have good reasons not to trust each other killing an important but inconsequential member of the PKK could yield the desired result.

Assad knows that either side will accuse the other and he is right. Right now, facts are not on anyone's mind.  Turks believe that the PKK is trying to implicate them to get the upper hand in negotiations. And Kurds believe that the "deep state" is methodically assassinating the PKK's senior leadership.

If my crime novel speculation is reasonable, then her alleged feud with Bahoz Erdal (Fehman Huseyin) the Syrian leader of an armed PKK faction becomes more relevant. With his presumed involvement, an actual Syrian murder plot could become an inside job. Or at least one that could be presented as such.

Which might explain the PKK's meek reaction to the murder of these three activists.

We'll see.

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