Abdallah Ocalan; Origin, Exile and Consequences of His Arrest

Thesis: Abdallah Ocalan is one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, the leader of the bloodiest military organization, and at the same time, the symbol of liberty and martyrdom for the Kurds.

Ocalan as the leader of the PKK

February 1999 was certainly one of the busiest months of the year. Following the global celebrations of Saint Valentine’s Eve, the world was dazzled on the 15th of February as news broke out mentioning the capture of Abdallah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers Party, PKK, that has been the center of violent events taking place in the Middle East for fifteen years. Much more surprising than the event itself was the fact that Ocalan was arrested nowhere near or inside Turkey, but rather, thousands of miles away, in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya where Ocalan had taken refuge for a few days. Abdallah Ocalan is one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, the leader of the bloodiest military organization, and at the same time, the symbol of liberty and martyrdom for the Kurds.

Ocalan’s trip into exile

Abdallah Ocalan, known as ‘Apo,’ which in Kurdish means ‘Uncle,’ has been at war with Turkey since 1985 (Sancton 22). He is the secretary general of the Kurdish Workers Party, PKK, a communist organization that was established in Turkey 1978. In 1981, Ocalan sought refuge in Syria as he was wanted by the Turkish government on accounts of violence and opposition to the state. In 1984, Ocalan declared guerrilla war against Turkey and ran his military operations from Syria which gave him full support and coverage. In 1992, following the Gulf War, most of the PKK’s operations were moved from the Syrian borders into the northern Iraqi borders where the Kurds enjoyed more movement and freedom. Ocalan and his cadres, however, remained in Syria (Usher, 25). Ocalan’s goal behind this war was to force Turkey to grant independence to the Turkish Kurds, or at least an autonomous state (Sancton 23).

A strong-headed military man, Ocalan has dealt with his enemies mercilessly, not only the Turks, but also his Kurdish opponents. His war with Turkey has claimed more than 30,000 lives, including a large number of civilians (Sancton 22). While the majority of the Kurds are not communists, and even though many of them actually oppose Ocalan over political, ethnic and other differences, over the years, the communist leader has come to represent a large sector the Kurdish community. The 25 million Kurds, constituting the largest nationless community in the world, are dispersed in several countries. Turkey alone hosts 12 million Kurds along its southern borders. Several millions live in Iran, Iraq, and Germany, in addition to large communities in other countries such as Spain, Syria and Lebanon (Sancton 23).

It was not until 1998 that Ocalan began to face trouble as the Syrians, almost going to war with Turkey because of their support to the PKK, finally asked him to cease his operations and leave the country. Yet, because of American pressures on various European countries such as Italy, Greece, Netherlands and Russia, Ocalan was denied refuge, particularly due to his terrorist record (Dennis & Seibent 15).

Greece, however, the ancient enemy of Turkey, offered help as much as possible. Even though Greece could not offer refuge to PKK leader, the Greek authorities granted him a Cypriot passport in the name of Lazarus Mavros. The Greeks also provided Ocalan with a jet plane and high diplomatic escort. Ocalan’s demand for political asylum was refused with the Turkish intelligence tracking him from one destination to another. The Greeks offered him several options to stay in Libya, South Africa and a number of other possible destinations in Africa, but he refused. Finally, he was transported to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where he was hosted inside the Greek ambassador’s residence. Probably found out by FBI agents, the Greeks tried to escort Ocalan outside Nairobi but he was captured by Kenyan policemen and a Turkish special unit on his way to the airport (Sancton 24).

Consequences of Ocalan’s arrest

While the Greeks denied any treason on their part, the Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit claimed that he did not know how exactly the operation was carried out. However, he also claimed that the Turkish Special Forces, using four or five commandos men were able to arrest Ocalan in Kenya on his way out from the Greek ambassador’s residence to the airport. The fact that Turkey did not condemn Greece for diplomatically hosting Ocalan pointed fingers of accusation towards the Greek authorities. The probability of US and Israeli involvement in the operation is very high, especially as both countries enjoy strategic relations with Turkey, and their intelligence in Kenya highly active (Sancton 22).

The Kurdish reaction to the arrest of the PKK leader was very violent. In more than twenty cities over Europe, in addition to other parts of the world, violent demonstrations broke out, and several Greek embassies were attacked. Israeli and American diplomatic headquarters were also targeted by Kurdish mobs. Several young Kurdish demonstrators have even soaked themselves in gasoline and burned themselves alive in front of western embassies in London and Amsterdam. Other violent events have also taking place, including an attempt by a number of Kurd demonstrators to attack Israeli and American embassies. This has forced the governments of countries accused of being involved in the Ocalan arrest to increase the security measures taken to protect their citizens and diplomatic headquarters worldwide, especially in areas where Kurds are politically active (Dennis & Seibert 14).

Kurdish rhetoric following the arrest was also very violent, and intimidating messages such as “We will destroy every flower and tear the head off every bird” were not uncommon, threatening to mobilize thousands of Kurds in a holy national war against Turkey and its allies. Violent and emotionally charged, these threats are taken seriously, not only inside Turkey, but also all over Europe where large Kurdish communities reside in several countries (Sancton 22).

Political observers agree that the arrest of Ocalan is going to be a severe blow to the PKK especially that he had served as the symbol of the party and its patriarchal ruler for two decades. Nevertheless, the fact that the Kurds are showing signs of consolidation and unity is warning that Ocalan has already become the symbolic martyr of all Kurds, not only the Turkish Kurds or the PKK. Kurdish angry feelings even ran higher as Ocalan was publicly humiliated by his captors who held him drugged and hooded in black while they made fun of him and celebrated his capture on a recorded video tape that was broadcast worldwide (Usher 25).

Aware of the security problems, political consequences, and pressures by human rights organizations, Turkey is enthusiastic about having Ocalan tried as soon as possible in order to minimize the arousal of Kurdish sentiments. However, that would be extremely difficult. Even though Ocalan’s trial will take place in the high security island of Imrali, he already faces a death sentence on the accounts of treason, “ordering massacres and establishing a separatist organization.” The trial itself is going to be a test for Turkey’s human rights record, but apparently, the court’s decision is most likely going to be political rather than judicial (Sancton 25).

Abdallah Ocalan is perhaps one of the bloodiest guerrilla leaders in the twentieth century. His capture has already become more famous than the capture of Carlos a few years ago. Capturing Ocalan can be seen as a victory for Turkey in its war against the Kurds. However, this certainly does not imply the end of ethnic violence. On the contrary, violence has already increased substantially, not only inside Turkey, but almost wherever Turkish and Kurdish presence intersected. For more than twenty years, Turkey and the Kurds have failed to establish a common ground for peace talks and negotiations. With Ocalan out of the way, it is now possible that the PKK and other Kurdish organizations are going to be more compromising. However, this depends on Turkey’s ability to seize the opportunity. The way in which Turkey is going to handle the Ocalan trial will certainly play an important role in determining the future relations between the two communities, in addition to defining the scale of violence. Furthermore, the Ocalan trial is going to corner Turkey in a difficult position as European countries reacting to Kurdish pressures will connect the trial to Turkey’s potential membership in the European Union, an issue that has long been controversial and sensitive in the Euro-Turkish relationships. If the Turks insist on humiliating Ocalan, then they will be turning him into a heroic national figure. In such a case, Ocalan will be able to unite the Kurds from inside his dark cell, turning them into a mobilized mass of violent guerrillas, a goal which he has not been able to achieve while he was free. While he awaits his trial, Ocalan is certainly aware that his end has finally come. After all, the Turks have incurred heavy financial, military and political losses in order to capture him. Not only will this Turkish victory be used in the elections, but it will certainly be used as a means through which Turkey asserts its dominance against the Kurds. Whether Ocalan knew that he was going to end up in the hands of his enemies or not is no longer an issue. What they are going to do to him is not the issue either. The issue right now is how the Kurds are going to react on the long run, and whether moderate positions will be taken by the Turkish and Kurdish communities with respect to the future of peace between them. Although the capture of Ocalan will certainly escalate the tension on the political and military levels, it is now more possible and feasible than ever to resort to political rather than military communication. After all, Ocalan was and remains an extreme, but so do those who are making decisions in Turkey.