Turkey’s Fight to Shut Off the Flow of PKK Finances

By: LT Mehmet Asim Kanmaz, Turkish Armed Forces

A terrorist organization, like any other organization, must struggle to secure adequate financial resources if it is to survive and continue its primary activity: carrying out acts of violence. As terrorism finance expert Michael Freeman notes, if terrorist groups do not have enough money, their violence will have to come to an end.1 Martha Crenshaw, a noted scholar of terrorism studies, points out that the ability to act is vital for terrorist groups' survival: "Acts of terrorism may be motivated by the imperative of organizational survival. … Survival is the minimal goal of any organization." 2 To achieve this minimal goal, terrorists therefore must have an organizational structure that supports financial stability. Sustaining a terrorist organization over the long term is more difficult than founding one, because an existing terrorist group has to meet the needs of its members, such as shelter, food, clothing, and medication, as well as provide the materiel and weaponry required for operations.3 For this reason, terrorist organizations need to find lucrative, reliable, and consistent resources to continue their activities.

Freeman suggests a typology that divides the sources of terrorist group financing into four categories: state sponsorship, illegal activities, legal activities, and popular support.4 The usefulness of each type of resource varies from one group to another. A country's efforts to interdict terrorist financing are an essential part of its overall counterterrorism strategy because successful interdiction will prevent terrorist groups from sustaining their activities or possibly even surviving. Additionally, successful countermeasures against terrorist financing would support other political and military countermeasures. Because terrorist groups take advantage of a variety of funding streams—drug trafficking, human smuggling, extortion, legal businesses, popular support, and state sponsorship—it can be difficult to get at the core of their finances. Furthermore, every terrorist organization has its own favorite funding source. To produce effective results, countermeasures therefore must address each terrorist organization separately and focus on each group's particular financing sources, especially the most lucrative and prevalent ones.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani–PKK) is one of the most notorious terrorist groups to emerge in the late twentieth century.5 Since the PKK began operating in Turkey in the early 1980s, it has been a significant threat to Turkey's national integrity and security. To sustain its activities, the PKK has benefited from all four of the aforementioned types of finance, including state sponsorship by the Soviet Union. When such support decreased due to the collapse of the USSR in 1990, the PKK adapted by shifting to illegal activities to compensate for the financial loss.

The PKK would be considerably weakened if Turkey were able to interrupt the group's diverse, lucrative sources of revenue. Turkey is a regional power and important trade partner in the Middle East and Europe. By utilizing international cooperation and insight from its past experiences, Turkey could minimize or even terminate the PKK's financial activities by taking effective countermeasures. This article first examines the PKK's financial resources according to Freeman's typology, and then focuses on Turkey's possible countermeasures against the PKK's funding streams.

State Sponsorship

Due to the covert nature of state sponsorship, it is hard to obtain precise numbers on the states that support terrorist groups.6 According to Mitchel P. Roth and Murat Sever, the PKK enjoyed a great deal of state sponsorship until the early 2000s.7 Although some of Turkey's neighbors, such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria, have been the PKK's main supporters by providing safe haven, funding, and weapons to the terrorist organization, the PKK has had sponsors throughout the world, including, at various times, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Bulgaria, Libya, Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia.8 Ninety percent of the PKK's financial aid came from three countries: the USSR (and later the Russian Federation), Greece, and Syria. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the few remaining communist countries generally stopped supporting terrorist groups, while other state sponsors, such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria, decreased their support for terrorist organizations due to Turkey's increasing power and trade volume in the region.9 The PKK leadership therefore realized that the group could not rely solely on state sponsors to survive; it had to find independent and consistent financial resources.10

Furthermore, even though state sponsorship has always been an easy and lucrative source of funds for terrorist groups like the PKK, there was always the possibility that a state sponsor would coerce the beneficiary groups to act within the state's interests. Terrorism expert Faruk Ekmekci cogently explains this view: "It seems that for many states terror is nothing but war by other means. … Terrorist organizations have provided many states a less costly alternative to direct confrontation with the enemy in both economic and political terms." 11 By using terrorist groups to do their bidding, in other words, some states have been able achieve their interests at a fraction of the cost of a conventional war. In recent years, terrorists have sought different funding sources to replace the state sponsorship they lost with the end of the Cold War.

Although the PKK suffered deeply from the decrease in communist state sponsorship, it was luckier than other terrorist organizations because several countries, including Syria, Iran, and Iraq, continued to support it.12 Researchers Gokhan Bacik and Bezen Balamir Coskun observe, "In terms of enjoying international opportunities, the PKK should be cited as an exceptional case that has been tolerated almost as a legal entity." 13 Adding to this, Özdemir and Pekgözlü contend that the PKK would not have been able to survive for over 30 years if it had not had continuous foreign support, even if such support has decreased in recent years.14

Iraq, for instance, has provided the terrorist group with safe haven within its borders since the group's inception, as a means to weaken Turkey.15 The PKK benefited from the turmoil caused by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq by increasing its safe havens and acquiring new camps in the northern part of the country, specifically in the Qandil Mountains. Iran also provided safe haven to the PKK, and Iranian officials let PKK terrorists travel freely within Iran's borders. In return for its aid, Iran has asked the terrorists to provide intelligence about Turkish and US military sites in the region.16 Similarly, Greece helped the PKK by providing logistical support and training for the group's members and attempted to spirit PKK founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan to asylum in 1999. Carrying a Greek-Cypriot passport, Öcalan was captured by Turkish agents at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya.17 Syria was another leading state sponsor of the PKK until 1998, when Ankara and Damascus signed the Adana Agreement, which explicitly forbade Syria from aiding the PKK. The PKK's one critical training camp, known as the Mahsum Korkmaz Academy, was located in the Bekaa Valley on the border of Syria and Lebanon. Until the 1998 accord was signed, PKK leader Öcalan had lived and traveled in Syria without any restriction. In a 1991 interview, Öcalan stated that of these three, the biggest supporter of the PKK was Syria, which was very hospitable to the terrorist organization. He also suggested that many European countries were just as hospitable as Syria.18

Syria's support for the PKK evolved out of its several disputes with Turkey surrounding water resources, territorial claims, and regional politics. "Two major elements of the enmity between Syria and Turkey have been Syrian irredentist claims over Alexandretta (Hatay), which joined Turkey in 1939, and disputes over sharing the waters of the Euphrates River, in which Turkey is the upstream country." 19 In addition to these disputes, a third problem was Turkey's improving relations with Israel, which was (and is) regarded as an enemy by Arab states in the Middle East. Other than these international disputes, Syria had little reason to support the PKK. Because the PKK is an ethnic terrorist organization that aims to build a Kurdish state in the region, and because Syria has a substantial Kurdish population within its borders, Syria would be expected to consider the existence of a Kurdish terrorist organization as a threat against its territorial and demographic integrity. Aiding the PKK, which is an enemy of its enemy, however, apparently seemed more profitable and logical to Syria than trying to eradicate the group.20

Rising tension between Turkey and Syria eventually made Syria follow a more careful policy toward the PKK. In 1998, after Turkey had warned Syria many times to stop its aid to the PKK, Turkey deployed an additional 10,000 troops to the Syrian border. Syria was forced to step back due to the high cost of engaging in a war with Turkey, and the two countries signed the Adana Agreement on 20 October 1998. After this agreement came into effect, Syria expelled PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, closed the PKK's training camps, and stopped its logistical support of the PKK.21 The loss of Syrian support and the imprisonment of Öcalan shortly thereafter damaged the PKK, and as a result, its terrorist activities declined between 1999 and 2002. 22

Turkey's increasing military, economic, and political weight in the region dissuaded other neighbors from aiding the PKK as well. Iran, Iraq, and Russia, for example, saw that their aid to the PKK adversely affected their trade volume with Turkey. Ultimately, the cost of the aid became greater than its benefit to these countries. Moreover, the militant Kurdish group Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê [Party of Free Life of Kurdistan] emerged as a threat to Iran around 2004. Iraq and Russia began to cooperate with Turkey against the PKK, while Iran signed a security agreement with Turkey and declared the PKK to be a terrorist organization.23 Thus, the PKK's financial resources from state sponsors decreased substantially yet again between 2004 and 2006. To survive, the PKK had to find a way to compensate for the losses and consequently has come to rely on illegal activities to sustain its operations and its existence.

Illegal Activities

The PKK's geographical location is a critical factor in facilitating its involvement in illegal activities, for several reasons. First, the PKK is active in the southeastern region of Turkey where it borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Second, this part of Turkey is largely mountainous, which makes it more difficult for security forces to control the area. Third, the PKK's territory is close to the Golden Crescent countries of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, which are the biggest heroin producers in Asia. Finally, Turkey is in the middle of the primary heroin and opium trafficking route, which starts in the Golden Crescent countries and ends in Europe.24 Therefore, engaging in illegal activities that include drug trafficking, smuggling, and extortion is an easy and independent way for the PKK to raise a substantial amount of funds. Researchers note that "the PKK's annual income derived [solely] from criminal activities was estimated as 86 million US dollars at its peak in the 1990s." 25 Although it is difficult to determine precise numbers on the PKK's current income due to the covert nature of its activities,26 it can be assumed that its income has remained substantial because of these illicit revenue streams.

Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking is a lucrative resource for terrorists, and the PKK has involved itself in every phase of the regional drug trade.27 "A kilogram of heroin can be bought for between $1,000 and $2,000 in Thailand or Afghanistan. As it moves through the drug hierarchy to market, the value rises to $6,000–$8,000 in Turkey, before reaching Germany where it wholesales for $20,000–$80,000, with a street value of $200,000." 28 To maximize the amount of money that the PKK can make, it has formed an organizational structure that allows it to engage in more drug trafficking activities.29

In the PKK's early drug trafficking days, its only income was the protection money it demanded from drug smugglers. When the PKK noticed that it could acquire even more money by involving itself more actively in the drug trade, it started producing, distributing, and transporting narcotics, primarily heroin and opium, from the Golden Crescent countries to Europe. To become more effective at this enterprise, the PKK recruited people from the Kurdish diaspora in Europe to distribute drugs in the streets of European cities.30 Due to the vast number of these recruits, the PKK is widely active in countries such as England, Germany, the Netherlands, and France.31 Haydar Karaman explains this change for the PKK:

In most cases, these groups [like the PKK] do not engage in drugs during the initial stage of their combat. However, due to an increasing number of cadres and operations, during the enlargement stage, this necessity compels them to get involved in drug trafficking. Their success in terms of enlargement is related to the funding demands of the organization.32

Since state sponsorships began to drop off in the early 2000s, drug trafficking has become the PKK's most profitable and popular financial resource for several reasons. First, it is easy to transport and hide narcotics because they can be divided into tiny packages.33 It is difficult for law enforcement officers in Turkey, both gendarmerie and police officers, to find hidden narcotics without any prior intelligence or notice from citizens. Since there are many methods and places to hide the narcotics, sometimes even trained dogs cannot find them. Second, drug trafficking brings in a huge amount of money in a short time because the production of the drugs is relatively easy, and they are in high demand. Third, large-scale narcotics trafficking requires international links.34 This requirement is not a problem for the PKK because the Kurdish diaspora extends across Europe and helps it sell the goods. In 2001, Michael Radu estimated that there were 800,000 Kurdish immigrants in Europe, mainly in Germany,35 and that a number of these people were involved in the PKK's drug distribution network. According to another report, "Germany's chief prosecutor asserted that eighty percent of the drugs captured in Europe have been linked to the PKK." 36 The same report says that the PKK uses money acquired from the drug trade to purchase weapons.37

Human Smuggling

The geographical location of the PKK's territory also provides opportunities for human smuggling. The PKK reportedly has joined a network with criminal groups in other countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Hungary, and Italy, which enables it to smuggle people from the Middle East and Asia into Europe.38 Three routes are most frequently used by the PKK and its partner organizations for human smuggling: Istanbul to Milan, Istanbul to Bosnia to Milan, and Turkey to Tunisia to Malta to Italy.39 The PKK's human smuggling activities have provided three main benefits for the terrorist group: a considerable amount of money, new recruits in Europe, and increased power in the region.40

Human smuggling has been the next most lucrative source of funds for the PKK after drug trafficking. Roth and Sever report that in the mid-1990s, the PKK demanded between 2,000 and 3,000 euros for each person they transported to Europe. An Italian police report reveals that the PKK was connected with the smuggling of 9,000 Kurdish people from Anatolia to Europe in 2001. In another case in 2005, Romanian police uncovered a branch of the PKK's human smuggling operation in Romania, along with a cache of fake passports and bank documents. Furthermore, the undocumented immigrants the police caught confirmed that the smugglers demanded 6,000 to 7,000 euros per person to go to Berlin, Vienna, Paris, or London.41 In addition to its smuggling activities, the PKK also threatens rival smugglers to force them to cooperate with it and demands that they pay a regular protection fee.42 Given the numbers of smuggled people and the money each one pays, the PKK can be assumed to be making a substantial income from its human smuggling network.

Another benefit of human smuggling activities, as mentioned earlier, is that they provide recruitment opportunities and help the PKK increase its influence among the undocumented immigrant populations in Europe. According to reports, the PKK forcibly incorporates the immigrants it brings to Europe, including Kurdish children from 10 to 14 years old, into its drug trafficking activities. In one such case, an 11-year-old child who was arrested in Hamburg in 1993 confessed that he was smuggled into Germany and forced to sell drugs by the PKK. These children are too young to face criminal liability, which makes them attractive to the PKK for its illegal activities.43 Thus, in addition to the financial gain from human smuggling, the PKK increases its power in Europe by recruiting and controlling these illegal immigrants, who are unable to turn to the authorities for help. Despite the PKK's listing as a terrorist organization, only a few European countries so far have moved to prosecute it for its organized crime activities on the continent.


Another popular financial resource for the PKK in Europe and the Middle East has been extortion, which the group tries to hide by calling the funds "revolutionary taxes" or "voluntary contributions." Extortion can be carried out through kidnaping for ransom or by threatening to destroy people's properties and businesses. In north London, for instance, many restaurants pay "insurance fees" to the local PKK to prevent them from damaging the restaurants, in a manner reminiscent of the "protection rackets" run by the Mafia. The PKK also extorts drug traffickers and smugglers by forcing them to pay so-called "taxes" on their activities. In addition, the PKK demands a "membership fee" from undocumented immigrants in European countries who work under a PKK front organization. Until recently, with the fear of arrest and deportation hanging over them, these victims were unwilling to complain to the authorities about these extortion activities.44 Since the United States and the European Union designated the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1997 and 2002 respectively, however, the PKK began to lose some of the leverage to extort Kurdish people with violence and threats as it had in the past.

Extortion brought a great deal of money to the PKK: "In 1993 alone the PKK extorted 2.5 million pounds from Kurdish immigrants and businessmen within Great Britain." 45 During Operation Sputnik, a coordinated police crackdown across several European countries which took place in 1996, Belgian police learned that the PKK was taking in almost 300,000 Belgian francs (a bit less than US$10,000) per month through extortion in Belgium alone. Similarly, in relation to the Belgian operation, German police discovered that the PKK acquired almost 250 million deutsche marks per month from its extortion activities in Germany.46 PKK founder Öcalan claimed in 1999 that the PKK's annual income from its extortion activities in European countries was 30 million deutsche marks.47 More recently, the German Ministry of Interior Report for 2006 and 2007 noted that "the PKK collected 1.4 million Euros as protection money from Kurdish people in the North Rhine-Westphalia state, Germany." 48 Although the group continues to collect a great deal of money from extortion, its income from such activity declined in recent years due to its terrorist designation. For this reason, it began to increase its legal activities in Europe, which are described in further detail below.

Money Laundering and Other Financial Activities

Money laundering, counterfeiting, and smuggling in all its various forms have brought significant income to the PKK. As part of Operation Sputnik, for example, Scotland Yard and the Belgian Police seized 350 million Belgian francs after they discovered that Med TV, a PKK-affiliated broadcasting company, was being used for money laundering. Even though this business shut down in 1999, the PKK founded another broadcasting company, Medya TV, the next year.49 In addition, "banks in Belgium, Cyprus, Jersey [in the UK], and Switzerland provide privacy for PKK funds; monetary transactions are carried out through the hawala system or by cash couriers." 50 Of these countries, Cyprus is especially known as the PKK's money laundering center. Furthermore, in the mid-1990s, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) uncovered the PKK's involvement in making counterfeit stamps and banknotes. The terrorist group also engaged in cigarette and arms smuggling in Turkey's southeastern region.51 Blood smuggling is another illegal resource for the PKK. Researchers Roth and Sever contend that in a period up to and including 2005, the PKK collected 3,000 blood donations from Kurdish people under the so-called Kurdish Red Crescent organization. The terrorist group claimed that it collected this blood from the Kurdish people for charitable aims, but the PKK smuggled the blood out of Turkey, sold it abroad, and profited from people's kindness. Ultimately, the PKK benefited from selling the blood both for use in patients and to foreign laboratories for analysis.52

Semi-Legal Business Activities

The PKK conducts legal business through legitimate media, trade, and cultural organizations that it has set up or affiliates within Europe. For example, Roj TV, the PKK's leading broadcasting company, located in Denmark, broadcast ideological programs for Kurdish people, and Kurdish businessmen supported the TV station by sponsoring commercials. Nevertheless, even though Roj TV was considered a legal business entity, the PKK founded it with money obtained from drug trafficking.53 Therefore, some authorities regard Roj TV as an illegal business. In 2012, Roj TV was indicted in Danish court and fined 5.2 million Danish crowns (US$894,800) for spreading terrorist propaganda: "The court said that between February 2008 and September 2010 the TV channel had ‘one-sidedly and uncritically disseminated (PKK) messages, including incitement to revolt and to join the organization.' " 54

In addition to its broadcasting company, the PKK has several publications in Europe and Turkey. The terrorists forcibly sell these publications, especially to the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, with threats of violence. The selling prices reportedly depend on the buyers' level of income: the PKK charges a higher price to people who make more money.55

The PKK founded its trade and cultural organizations in Europe with the initial support of European countries. In addition to serving as financial and political bases, these organizations also spread the PKK's ideology and cover its illegal operations. They organize social activities in which the PKK compels Kurdish people to participate.56 In other words, these legal organizations are serving as illegal extortion operations in practice by forcing people to donate to them.

Popular Support

The PKK wants to utilize the European Kurdish diaspora's loyalty, just as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploited Irish-Americans.57 For this reason, it has set up charity organizations, such as the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor a Kurdistanê [HSK]), that collect donations from people in Europe, especially from the Kurdish diaspora. Headquartered in Germany, the HSK has a website that allows it to collect donations worldwide, ostensibly to distribute funds to poor Kurdish people. In reality, however, it gives the money raised from these charitable donations to the PKK. The HSK commercials on Roj TV (which has changed its name to Stêrk TV) and advertisements in Ozgur Politika (Free Policy) newspaper, reveal the organization's connections and cooperation with the terrorist group.58 Öcalan claimed that, in the early 1990s, the PKK collected two million deutsche marks as donations in one campaign alone in Germany.59 Due to the lack of public knowledge about the connection between the charity organizations and the PKK, the terrorists benefit from the goodwill of the Kurdish people and mislead them into supporting the terrorists even if they are not sympathizers of the PKK. Moreover, it is suspected that pro-PKK mayors support the PKK through municipal funds and institutions, which means that people's taxes are being diverted to serve as another financial resource for the PKK while the citizens suffer from a lack of municipal services.60

The PKK also exploits the religious responsibilities and activities of Kurdish people to increase its popular support and recruitment. Because most of the Kurdish people are Muslim, they have several religious responsibilities during the year, such as sadaqat alfitr and zakat—to tithe and give money to poor people. Even though the group's Marxist-Leninist ideology contradicts religious beliefs, the PKK established the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, or Hereketa Islamiya Kurdistane (HIK), to collect this religious aid. For this reason, there are few people who know about the connection between the HIK and the PKK, including even some members of the PKK.61

Possible Countermeasures Turkey Can Use against the PKK's Funding Methods

Turkey has been dealing with PKK terrorism for over 30 years. Even though Turkey almost brought an end to the PKK's operations several times, it could not completely succeed due to the substantial support the group was receiving from its state sponsors. The decrease in state support in recent years, however, has weakened the PKK's power while strengthening the impact of Turkey's countermeasures against the terrorist group. Accordingly, the efforts Turkey makes to undermine the PKK's funding—by countering drug trafficking and human smuggling, stopping state and popular support, and closing the PKK's so-called legal businesses—will significantly help Turkey achieve its goal of ending PKK terrorism.

In the effort to shut down terrorist financing channels, states can benefit from studying the past experiences of other countries in addition to their own. The experiences of Spain, the United Kingdom, Colombia, the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan demonstrate that countermeasures have been most effective when they include cutting off state aid to terrorist groups. Examples of state aid to foreign insurgencies include French assistance to the Basque separatist group known as ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), indirect American aid through the Irish diaspora to the IRA, and Pakistan's support of the Taliban.62 The foremost action these countries undertook to counter terrorist financing methods was to build a strong and strict legal framework that: gave authorities the power to freeze, block, and confiscate the assets of terrorists; mandated stricter reporting requirements for banks; made it illegal to engage in business with terrorists or their supporters; increased the power of judges and law enforcement officers; required government officials to be trained in terrorist financing and investigation methods; and obliged financial institutions to verify their customers' lack of any relationship to terrorist groups before providing service. In addition to increasing the numbers of terrorism financing experts and improving coordination between domestic government agencies, international cooperation and alliances have strengthened all efforts to counter terrorist financing.63

Curtailing the Drug Trade

Since the PKK's primary financial resource is drug trafficking, Turkey should first concentrate its counter-efforts on preventing or minimizing this method of funding.64 Some scholars suggest cost-effective methods that require countering only a specific phase of terrorists' drug trafficking activities to bring the whole enterprise down.65 Because the PKK organization engages directly or indirectly in every phase of drug trafficking, from cultivation and manufacturing to transport and sale, however, Turkey's countermeasures should separately address every phase of drug trafficking activities.66 The cost of such countermeasures should be of secondary importance to Turkey because the continuation of PKK terrorism costs more than the projected countermeasures, especially considering the lives of the thousands of young people that have been lost to terrorist acts, crime, and drug addiction.

To produce better countermeasures against opium cultivation, Turkey should cooperate with Afghanistan, which is the center of the world's opium production but lacks the ability to tackle the problem on its own. A chronic lack of security, economic opportunity, and government control in large areas of Afghanistan are the primary reasons for widespread drug production in the country.67 Another reason is because, as researcher Feroz Khan explains, "opium cultivation is a usual way of living for local people." 68 Because many Afghans make their living by cultivating opium, they do not consider the morality of their work.

Afghanistan and Turkey are almost sister countries and enjoy a decent and strong relationship that should ensure effective cooperation and significant benefits for both countries if they work together on drug control. Therefore, Turkey should cooperate with Afghanistan in an outreach program to change people's minds about opium production. Since the level of literacy is low in Afghanistan,69 television broadcasting may be a better tool than internet sources, books, and magazines to reach individuals. Moreover, Afghanistan should more strictly implement its legal countermeasures to minimize opium cultivation. Although Afghanistan's government has attempted to substitute wheat for opium production, its efforts are not close to achieving this objective. Turkey should share its experience and data with Afghanistan to increase wheat production by lowering the profits of opium cultivation through strong countermeasures, providing crop subsidies to farmers, deploying agricultural engineers to assist farmers to make the transition to licit crops, and creating a more suitable environment for wheat production and marketing.

Turkey's involvement in eliminating drug manufacturing labs in Afghanistan can also significantly contribute to reducing the drug trade. Afghanistan is a safe haven for many drug labs, so traffickers need to bring in the precursor chemicals required to manufacture heroin from raw opium. Preventing these chemicals from reaching Afghanistan therefore is as crucial as stopping the transportation of the manufactured drugs. Even though there is a UN convention that addresses precursor chemicals (called dual-use because they have many legitimate uses besides the processing of illegal drugs), this convention lacks legally binding requirements for countries to strictly control their production and sale, and many countries have no corresponding domestic laws. Afghanistan does not have a legal framework or an effective system of control for precursor chemicals, which allows traffickers to easily and securely transport them within the country.70 Mark Colhoun, technical advisor to the UN International Narcotics Control Board, reports, "From the cases we have seen, [precursor chemicals] are being smuggled [into Afghanistan] as well. Why they are smuggling them in is a mystery because they are not controlled, so they could just ship them over a border." 71

To address this lack of control, Turkey should encourage and help Afghanistan to enact laws to regulate the circulation of dual-use precursor chemicals within the country. In addition, Turkey could assign experienced military and law enforcement personnel to Afghanistan to share its experience in controlling and preventing the diversion of dual-use chemicals. Furthermore, traffickers' communication with industrial suppliers creates vulnerabilities, which make it possible for Afghan officials to gather intelligence on traffickers' activities.72 As a trusted ally, Turkey can also request particular intelligence and GPS data from the United States to allow Afghan forces to conduct instant operations that target opium fields and mobile labs.73 Thus, by causing substantial damage to both drug production and manufacturing activities, Turkey and Afghanistan can undermine drug trafficking at the beginning of the process. By helping Afghanistan, in turn, Turkey would also be preventing the PKK from funding itself through the drug trade.

Border Security

To forestall the PKK's drug trafficking and human smuggling, Turkey also needs to improve the effectiveness of its border security system. Because smuggling—human smuggling in particular—is often conducted through the Mediterranean Sea, "border security system" in this context refers to both land and marine border security. The prevention of human and other smuggling is as critical as the prevention of drug trafficking, because extorting smugglers is another of the PKK's fundraising methods.

The mountainous geography of Turkey's southeastern border region is a serious challenge for border security, especially because terrorists and smugglers typically conduct their activities under the cover of darkness, which makes visual detection very difficult. To eliminate this disadvantage, security officials should have access to a variety of current technological equipment, including thermal imaging cameras, night vision scopes and goggles, x-ray control devices, and mobile surveillance systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Turkey already uses UAVs in surveillance activities, but it should increase their numbers and the number of operators to improve overall surveillance capabilities on the borders. Additionally, x-ray car scanners that are able to scan big and long trucks are essential at every border crossing. These machines are quite useful in detecting contraband goods, and they save valuable time and help increase security at busy, crowded border crossings. Longer wait times can also negatively affect the flow of trade. Dogs trained to search for narcotics are significantly effective in finding contraband, but they are able to work for only a limited time—approximately 30 minutes once or twice a day—so increasing their numbers at border crossings could be even more helpful. Finally, border security officials should have an extensive archive of statistics available to them. With the help of this kind of information, officials could pinpoint days or weeks when the capture rates for narcotics have historically been high, identify border posts that have detected specific types of prohibited items or have particularly high rates of interdiction, and detect when transit density increases at certain crossing gates. Making this data available to border personnel could greatly improve the effectiveness of border security.

The Power of Media

To undermine the PKK's drug trafficking activities, Turkey should also use the power of outreach. Drug trafficking ultimately causes serious harm to human health, so terrorist organizations like the PKK do not want the public, especially their supporters, to know about the group's involvement in the drug trade.74 Although the PKK's drug trafficking is well known to government officials, the military, and police officers, the civilian population in Turkey is largely unfamiliar with this aspect of its affairs. To increase people's awareness of the PKK's criminal activities in the region, Turkey's government could produce documentaries and TV series that expose the PKK's covert activities. Broadcast channels can allocate a significant amount of time to cover the PKK's criminal activities. Many people in Turkey watch TV shows and the news on a daily basis, so informing people through these broadcasts would be fast, easy, and effective. In addition, government officials and senior leadership can disclose the PKK's involvement in illegal activities in their speeches. Increasing public awareness of the PKK's connection to the drug trade would cause the terrorist group to lose credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters and sympathizers and consequently, much popular support.

Eliminating the PKK's money laundering activities and limiting its financial transactions can have a profound impact on the group's financing. After making inordinate amounts of money from its illegal fundraising methods, the PKK must convert its funds into "legitimate" resources through laundering. Turkey should enact strict laws against money laundering, as has been done in a number of countries, including Spain, the UK, Colombia, and the United States. Accordingly, Turkey should revise its current money laundering laws to improve law enforcement's ability to freeze, block, and confiscate the assets of suspected or known terrorists, and it should require the reporting and recording of large bank transactions to prevent citizens from doing business with terrorists or their supporters. This reporting requirement would increase scrutiny of existing terrorist bank accounts as well. Writing these laws is not enough, however; the laws must then be enforced. The lack of prosecutions and convictions related to money laundering crimes up until recently seems to indicate that Turkey is failing in this area.75

The Turkish government needs to coordinate the implementation of anti–money-laundering laws among its institutions to ensure the effectiveness of such financial countermeasures. As a member of the multinational Financial Action Task Force (FATF),76 Turkey should increase its international cooperation efforts. Turkey currently falls within the category of Improving Global Anti-Money Laundering/Countering Terrorist Financing Compliance.77 Taking the further countermeasures recommended here would serve to improve Turkey's ranking and categorization within the FATF and further enable it to counter the PKK's financing. Also, Turkey's efforts to follow Spain and Colombia's leads in increasing its number of counterterrorism experts would contribute to the success of the country's anti–money-laundering activities. For this reason, Turkey should improve the national security and counterterrorism departments in its universities and increase the number of these departments nationwide. Finally, Turkey should implement effective financial oversight of the municipal expenditures of its city mayors, to prevent pro-PKK mayors from abusing their authority by diverting public funds to the PKK.78

Ending State Sponsorship

Finally, the experiences of Turkey itself and other countries prove that the prevention of state sponsorships is pivotal to ensuring the effectiveness of countermeasures. The decrease in state support in the late 1990s and early 2000s diminished the PKK's strength and subsequently the number of its terrorist attacks, but the PKK has continued to enjoy some forms of state aid.79 Turkey should follow a zero-tolerance policy against state aid. The PKK's camps in Iraq and Syria prove that these countries serve as safe havens. Turkey can implement sanctions against the state sponsors of the PKK by leveraging its considerable political and economic power in the region. In spite of state sponsorship's covert nature, Turkey's National Intelligence Agency should be able to identify the countries that support the PKK directly or indirectly. Furthermore, Turkey should be wary about the role that Western countries have given the Kurds to combat extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) in the Middle East, because aid to the Kurdish people can become a new type of financial resource for the PKK.80

Ending the Flow of Charity Money

Because the PKK uses its drug trafficking money to create so-called legal businesses and charity organizations, Turkey should also take precautions against these entities' support for the PKK. As described earlier, the Kurdish Red Crescent (HSK), which collects donations from people in Europe, does not use the collected money to help poor and needy Kurdish people. Instead, it delivers the money directly to the PKK terrorists and its supporters. If people knew about the relationship between the two organizations, they probably would not donate to the HSK. Turkey should therefore take steps to increase people's awareness through a media outlet that broadcasts in Turkish, Kurdish, and English. The Turkish authorities should encourage broadcasters to promote special programs regarding the PKK's so-called charity and business organizations. Moreover, magazines, newspapers, and journals should be encouraged to talk about the PKK's relationship with these organizations. Although these so-called legal organizations have been operating in Europe, European countries are not responding adequately to stop them. Turkey should inform European countries about the HSK and other organizations' relationship with the PKK by providing documents and intelligence data and increasing its partnership and cooperation with Europe. Turkey should also appeal to the EU to conduct stricter oversight of suspect organizations and close those organizations that are affiliated with the terrorist group.


Like any other organization, the PKK needs to look for ways to survive and continue its activities. Therefore, it tries to maintain stable, lucrative financial sources to sustain it. As changing regional and global conditions over the past 30 years caused state sponsorship to diminish, the group was forced to look for new funding sources, primarily from illegal activities. Its success in making this shift reflects the PKK's strong organizational ability to adapt to changing conditions to survive, just as other human communities do. Stanley Milgram explains the role of survival in human behavior:

Behavior, like any other of man's characteristics, has through successive generations been shaped by the requirements of survival. Behaviors that did not enhance the chances of survival were successively bred out of the organism because they led to the eventual extinction of the groups that displayed them.81

Similarly, the requirements of PKK's survival shaped its choices of funding sources, such as drug trafficking, human smuggling, and extortion.

To counter the PKK's funding streams, Turkey can benefit from the experiences of other countries that have fought against terrorism and adopt a broad strategy that begins with a robust legal framework and related regulations. Experience shows that financial countermeasures can begin to work when state support to terrorist organizations is stopped. Turkey should aim to disrupt the PKK's drug trafficking operations, the group's most lucrative resource, by targeting every phase, from cultivation and manufacturing to trafficking and selling. To achieve this objective, it should form partnerships to ensure regional and international cooperation. Turkey also needs to improve the effectiveness of its border security by employing more advanced technology, increasing the authority of its government officers, and enacting stronger laws. To decrease the popular support of the PKK, Turkey should use the power of media to inform the public of the PKK's involvement in the drug trade and reveal the illicit relationships between quasi-legal businesses and charity organizations, and the terrorist group. The PKK's operations as a transnational criminal organization are a threat for European countries as well. Therefore, Turkey should convince European countries to cooperate with it to counter the PKK's influence within Europe.

In conclusion, the struggle to close down financing sources is vital to combating terrorism. Although attacking its funding alone might not stop the PKK's violence, success in this area would support other military, political, and social countermeasures, and perhaps finally end PKK terrorism in Turkey.

About the Author(s):
First LT Mehmet Asım Kanmaz is a gendarmerie officer in the Turkish Armed Forces.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. Michael Freeman, "The Sources of Terrorist Financing: Theory and Typology," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 6 (2011): 461. 
  2. Martha Crenshaw, "An Organizational Approach to the Analysis of Political Terrorism," Orbis 29, no. 3 (1985): 473. 
  3. Necati Alkan, "Terör Örgütlerinin Finans Kaynaklar? [Financial sources of terrorist organizations]," Polis Dergisi [Police Review] 40 (2004): 28. 
  4. Freeman, "Sources of Terrorist Financing," 465–71. 
  5. Haydar Karaman, "Terrorism and Its Financial Sources," Strategic Outlook (2 December 2012): http://www.strategicoutlook.org/publications/Terrorism_and_Its_Financial_Sources.pdf 
  6. Faruk Ekmekci, "Terrorism as War by Other Means: National Security and State Support for Terrorism," Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 54, no. 1 (2011): 128: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0034-73292011000100008  
  7. Mitchel P. Roth and Murat Sever, "The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as Criminal Syndicate: Funding Terrorism through Organized Crime, A Case Study," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30, no. 10 (2007): 906. 
  8. Gokhan Bacik and Bezen B. Coskun, "The PKK Problem: Explaining Turkey's Failure to Develop a Political Solution," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 3 (2011): 261; Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 906. 
  9. Bacik and Coskun, "PKK Problem," 261–62. 
  10. Rex A. Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? (Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1999), 339: http://fas.org/irp/threat/frd.html  
  11. Ekmekci, "Terrorism as War," 125. 
  12. Bacik and Coskun, "PKK Problem," 261. 
  13. Ibid. 
  14. Habib Özdemir and ?lker Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money? A Case Study: Financial Resources of the PKK," International Journal of Security and Terrorism 3, no. 2 (2012): 96: http://utsam.org/images/upload/attachment/cilt3/Sayi2/UGT%20Dergi%20Makale-6.pdf 
  15. US Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism (2003), 126: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/31912.pdf 
  16. Bacik and Coskun, "PKK Problem," 261. 
  17. Alkan, "Terör Örgütlerinin Finans Kaynaklar?," 28–35; Karaman, "Terrorism and Its Financial Sources," 11. 
  18. Alkan, "Terör Örgütlerinin Finans Kaynaklar?," 28–35. 
  19. Ekmekci, "Terrorism as War," 131. The large province of Alexandretta had been part of the Ottoman Empire, was transferred to French Syrian control following World War I, and after years of dispute and legal ambiguity, became the Hatay province of Turkey in 1939. 
  20. Ekmekci, "Terrorism as War," 131. 
  21. Meliha Benli Altun???k and Özlem Tür, "From Distant Neighbors to Partners? Changing Syrian-Turkish Relations," Security Dialogue 37, no. 2 (2006): 237–38. 
  22. Bacik and Coskun, "PKK Problem," 251; Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert, "Conclusion: Taking Stock of Efforts to Counter the Financing of Terrorism and Recommendations for the Way Forward," in Countering the Financing of Terrorism, ed. Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert (London: Routledge, 2007), 289–304. 
  23. Bacik and Coskun, "PKK Problem," 261–62. 
  24. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 88–89. 
  25. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 906. 
  26. Nikos Passas, "Terrorism Financing Mechanisms and Policy Dilemmas," in Terrorism Financing and State Responses: A Comparative Perspective, ed. Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 31. 
  27. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 89; Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 908; Glenn E. Curtis and Tara Karacan, The Nexus among Terrorists, Narcotics Traffickers, Weapons Proliferators, and Organized Crime Networks in Western Europe (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2002), 21: http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/WestEurope_NEXUS.pdf 
  28. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 907. 
  29. Ibid., 908; Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 89. 
  30. For more on this aspect of the PKK's drug operations, see Kashif J. Khan and Olcay Er, "Cutting the Link between Illegal Drugs and Terrorists," CTX 3, no. 3 (August 2013): https://globalecco.org/cutting-the-link-between-illegal-drugs-and-terrorists 
  31. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 90. 
  32. Karaman, "Terrorism and Its Financial Sources," 9. 
  33. Alkan, "Terör Örgütlerinin Finans Kaynaklar?," 28–35. 
  34. Ibid. 
  35. Michael Radu, "The Rise and Fall of the PKK," Orbis 45, no. 1 (2001): 55: http://web.macam.ac.il/~arnon/Int-ME/extra/RISE%20AND%20FALL%20THE%20PKK.htm  
  36. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 908; Curtis and Karacan, Nexus among Terrorists, 20. 
  37. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 908. 
  38. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 91. 
  39. Curtis and Karacan, Nexus among Terrorists, 20; Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 909. 
  40. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 91. 
  41. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 909. 
  42. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 91. 
  43. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 910. 
  44. Ibid. 
  45. Ibid. 
  46. Ibid., 911. 
  47. It's unclear whether Öcalan meant 30 million deutsche marks per country, or he was purposefully giving a low estimate. The German police data is probably more accurate. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?" 92.  
  48. Ibid., 95. 
  49. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 911. 
  50. Curtis and Karacan, Nexus among Terrorists, 20. 
  51. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 212; Curtis and Karacan, Nexus among Terrorists, 20. 
  52. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 912; Freeman, "Sources of Terrorist Financing," 468. 
  53. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 93. 
  54. John Acher and Henriette Jacobsen, "Danish Court Fines Kurd TV for Promoting Terrorism," Reuters, 13 January 2012: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/13/us-denmark-tv-turkey-idUSTRE80C1EU20120113 
  55. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?" 
  56. Ibid., 94–95. 
  57. Provos: The IRA and Sinn Féin, documentary film, directed by Peter Taylor, televised by BBC One on 23 and 30 September and 14 October 1997.  
  58. Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), Jane's World Insurgency and Terrorism (London: IHS Jane's, 26 February 2014) (requires login): 26: https://janes.ihs.com.libproxy.nps.edu/CustomPages/Janes/DisplayPage.aspx?DocType=Reference&ItemId=+++1320763&Pubabbrev=JWIT; Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 95–96. 
  59. Alkan, "Terör Örgütlerinin Finans Kaynaklar?," 28–35. 
  60. Özgür Cebe, "PKK için Haraç Alan BDP'li Ba?kana Dava [Pro-PKK mayor who is accused of extorting for the PKK was sued]," Sabah, 8 July 2013: http://www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2013/07/08/pkk-icin-harac-alan-bdpli-baskana-dava 
  61. Özdemir and Pekgözlü, "Where Do Terror Organizations Get Their Money?," 96. 
  62. Alkan, "Terör Örgütlerinin Finans Kaynaklar?," 10; Laura K. Donohue, Anti-Terrorist Finance in the United Kingdom and United States, Research Paper No. 12-031 (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Law Center, 2006): 323–24: http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1812&context=facpub ; Justin Y. Reese, "Financing the Taliban," in Financing Terrorism: Case Studies, ed. Michael Freeman (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2012), 107. 
  63. Mitchel P. Roth and Murat Sever, "Cutting Off the Hand That Feeds It: Countering Terrorist-Financing in the 21st Century," International Journal of Security and Terrorism 1, no. 1 (2010): 68–69: http://utsam.org/images/upload/attachment/cilt1/sayi1/4.Cutting-off-the-hand-that-feeds-it.pdf ; Donohue, Anti-Terrorist Finance, 325–40; Saul Hiram Bandala, "The FARC of Colombia," in Financing Terrorism: Case Studies, ed. Michael Freeman (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2012), 210–15. 
  64. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 908. 
  65. For an example of this policy viewpoint, see Khan and Er, "Cutting the Link." 
  66. Roth and Sever, "Kurdish Workers Party," 908; William A. Byrd, Responding to Afghanistan's Opium Economy Challenge: Lessons and Policy Implications from a Development Perspective, Policy Research Working Paper 4545 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, March 2008), 21: http://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/pdf/10.1596/1813-9450-4545 
  67. The seven provinces that are suffering most from lack of governmental control include Helmand, Zabul, Uruzgan, Kandahar, Farah, and some territories of Jalalabad and Kunar provinces. Joanna Wright, Poppy Purge (London: IHS Jane's, 9 January 2008) (requires login): 2: https://janes.ihs.com.libproxy.nps.edu/CustomPages/Janes/DisplayPage.aspx?DocType=News&ItemId=+++1195439&Pubabbrev=JIR 
  68. Feroz Hassan Khan, "Politics and Security in Afghanistan and Pakistan" (lecture, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif., 25 August 2014).  
  69. Byrd, Responding to Afghanistan's Opium Economy, 21. 
  70. Joanna Wright, "Targeting Drug Lab Chemicals Is Key to Undermining Traffickers," Jane's Intelligence Review, 17 March 2006: 1–9. 
  71. Ibid., 1. 
  72. Ibid. 
  73. Wright, Poppy Purge, 2. 
  74. Freeman, "Sources of Terrorist Financing," 463. 
  75. US Department of State, "Countries/Jurisdictions of Primary Concern—Turkey," in 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) (Washington, D.C.: US Dept. of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs): http://www.state.gov/j/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2014/vol2/222837.htm 
  76. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an intergovernmental body established by the G-7 in 1989 "to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory, and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing, and other related threats" around the world. See the FATF website: http://www.fatf-gafi.org/pages/aboutus/ 
  77. This category means that Turkey is identified as a country that has "strategic weaknesses in [its] anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing (AML/CTF) framework [but has also] developed an action plan with the FATF to address these AML/CTF weaknesses." FATF, "High-Risk and Non-Cooperative Jurisdictions": http://www.fatf-gafi.org/topics/high-riskandnon-cooperativejurisdictions/ 
  78. Cebe, "PKK için Haraç Alan BDP'li Ba?kana Dava." 
  79. Bacik and Coskun, "PKK Problem," 251, 261–62. 
  80. Reuters, "America's Ally against Islamic State: A Terrorist Group," Newsweek, 21 August 2014: http://www.newsweek.com/americas-ally-against-islamic-state-terrorist-group-266122 
  81. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper Perennial/Modern Thought, 2009), 124. 
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