On February 6, Belgian police arrested Riza Altun, chief of European operations of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A day earlier, the French security forces carried out a major sweep against the PKK's financial network in Paris. Since 2004, the PKK has killed or injured over 1,500 people in Turkey. The PKK is able to conduct these attacks thanks to an extensive financial and propaganda network in Europe. At a time when Turkey's European Union (EU) accession faces serious challenges, the PKK presents a serious strategic problem for Europe: the sanctuary the PKK enjoys on the continent is leading to a massive nationalist backlash in Turkey against Europe.
Recent European action against the PKK is helpful since European inactivity on the PKK (and American unwillingness to root out the group's Qandil terror enclave in northern Iraq) has been pulling the Turks away from the West. A recent Pew Center poll shows that while around ninety percent of the Turks supported EU accession four years ago, today less than half do so. Even more alarming, only fifteen percent of the Turks have a favorable opinion of Christians and only twelve percent of the Turks like the United States.
Incidentally, while the PKK issue is poisoning Turkish-EU ties and Western orientation, it is bringing Turkey closer to the Muslim Middle East, including countries such as Iran and Syria. Despite the support Iran and Syria give to numerous terrorist organizations, Europe (and the U.S.) can learn something from both on the importance of effectively dealing with the PKK.
Iran and Syria understand that today they have much to gain by going after the group directly. Accordingly, both have abandoned their 1990s policy of 'war by proxy' against Turkey via support for the PKK, exemplified by Syria hosting PKK leader Ocalan and Iran providing the group with training camps. Instead, today Syria is arresting PKK members, and Iran is actually fighting the PKK in an increasingly successful bid to win Turkey's heart.
Weaker ties with Turkey would be a great shame for Europe at a time when Turkey's credentials as a Western-oriented country provide the continent with the hope of debunking the argument of a clash of civilizations. Moreover, given that terror is the biggest national security threat to Europe, it would be an even bigger tragedy if Europe lost Turkey because of the PKK-and, moreover, lost it to Tehran and Damascus.
If the PKK networks in Europe are not dealt with, Europe risks not only a deterioration of its relationship with Turkey, but also a law and order problem at home.
The PKK constitutes a grave security threat in Europe. The organization's network, built to smuggle its members from Turkey into Europe in the 1990s, has morphed into a criminal "PKK expressway," providing easy access from Northern Iraq, to Paris, Berlin, and London. The PKK uses this expressway not only to promote violence but also to raise funds through criminal activity, such as trafficking drugs. For example, British security officials estimate that the PKK smuggles forty percent of the heroin going from the east into the EU annually, calculated to be worth five billion dollars by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime.
European intelligence analysts add that the PKK's fund raising activities on its criminal expressway also include the trafficking of illegal immigrants, another major source of concern for Europe.
Growing fear about these threats prompted European states to move against the PKK. In April 2004, the EU designated as a terrorist group the Kurdistan Society Congress (Kongra-Gel), the new name the PKK had adopted in May 2003.
This designation is important first step, as it gives European governments more room to aggressively move against the PKK's European network. This includes its media channels Roj TV and Mezopotamya TV, two Danish-based television stations. These PKK networks broadcast pro-PKK news and propaganda, including interviews with PKK terrorist leaders and calls for violent action against Turkey.
Europe has already shown leadership in moving against terrorist-controlled media. In recent years, the EU determined that the Hezbollah-operated television station al-Manar violated its Television Without Frontiers directive, which prohibits broadcasts that contain any incitement to hatred on the grounds of race, sex, religion or nationality. At the direction of the French, Spanish and Dutch governments, four European satellite providers terminated their broadcasting of al-Manar.
Ironically, while Brussels has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization (in contrast to Hezbollah which is not on the EU list), the EU continues to permit the broadcasting of both PKK TV channels on the Hot Bird 3 satellite owned by the French company Eutelsat. This is the same satellite company which correctly terminated its broadcasting of Hezbollah TV. The same outrage which prompted European governments to take against Hezbollah TV should be directed against PKK TV, whose airwaves issue messages of incitement to violence against Turkish citizens.
At a time when more and more Turks doubt the EU, a feeling that Europe does not care about incitement to violence against Turks would be a blow to Europhilia in Turkey. The recent events in Paris and Brussels demonstrate that European governments are grasping the need to act against the PKK. Europe needs to tackle the PKK to fight crime, anchor Turkey in the continent and, beyond all, guard its interests.
Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an Ertegun Professor at Princeton University. Mark Dubowitz is the chief operating officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. and director of its Coalition Against Terrorist Media, a project of American and European organizations focused on ending the broadcasting of terrorist media.