Turkey Pulse

PKK's IED attacks catch Turkish military off guard

Article Summary
The majority of Turkish security forces killed fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party since early July have died in attacks using improvised explosive devices, a tactic the Turkish military had not anticipated.

On July 7, Turkey was plunged into a spiral of violence that takes a turn for the worse with each passing day. With two major incidents Sept. 6 and Sept. 8, Turkey was introduced to the destructive potential of roadside improvised explosive devices (IED).

The first attack occurred in southeastern Turkey, in Daglica, a rural area of Yuksekova district in Hakkari province, killing 16 soldiers, including the newly assigned battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel. Situated along the Iraq-Turkey border, the mountainous Daglica region, with its rough terrain and adverse weather conditions, is the main point of entry into Turkey for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters from camps at Avashin-Basyan, Hakurk and Qandil, in northern Iraq. This is why Daglica has been a target of the PKK’s most blood-soaked attacks. In October 2007, after a PKK operation at Daglica, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched airstrikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq, and after four months of bombing, staged a short, cross-border ground operation against the same targets, in February 2008.

Since early August, when army-PKK clashes intensified, TSK units based at Semdinli-Yuksekova, covering a rural area that includes Daglica, had most of their connections severed with the towns of Semdinli and Yuksekova. The main reason was the PKK creating so-called zones of death by planting IEDs along the roads linking the military bases to the towns. 

On Sept. 6, an armored patrol had moved out of the Daglica base to check that the critical, main supply route between the Border Battalion Command at Daglica and the town of Yuksekova was open and safe. It was a foggy and rainy day. Two of the armored vehicles were hit with 300- to 400-kilogram (661- to 882-pound) IEDs reinforced with C4 explosives. At the point of attack, the patrol then came under heavy machine-gun fire from PKK militants deployed in strategic positions. Clashes continued late into the evening. Because of adverse weather, no aerial medevacs could be conducted nor could reinforcements be brought in. The PKK kept up its mortar and heavy machine-gun fire throughout the night from hardened positions and prevented the deployment of military reinforcements by road.

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Two days after the Daglica attack, which produced the highest death toll sustained by the TSK in a single confrontation with the PKK, an escort vehicle and a minibus carrying policemen were hit by a 1,000-kilogram IED, killing 13 officers en route to their post at the border crossing between Turkey and the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan, near the town of Igdir.

Turkey — having lost 29 security personnel in two days — had been caught off guard by the PKK's sophisticated IED attacks. Since July 7, a total of 60 Turkish security personnel have been killed in such operations, including the Aug. 19 attack in Siirt, in which eight soldiers died.

Of the 110 Turkish security personnel killed between July 7 and Sept. 8 , 54% died in IED operations. This percentage appears to indicate that the PKK, which in the past had attached only secondary importance to IEDs, has now made them its primary means of combat.

What was the PKK hoping to achieve with the Daglica and Igdir attacks? Security sources who spoke to Al-Monitor emphasized that the Daglica attack, on rural terrain, represents a deviation, a shift from the PKK’s traditional operations in urban areas. The PKK might have planned the attack as a diversionary tactic — to ease pressure on its fighters in the 13 provincial capitals and 40 towns where Turkish security forces have significantly reinforced their presence by forcing Ankara to shift the military's focus to the rural areas. The army has already begun such redeployments to Daglica and other rural locations. A desire to expand and diversify the combat zone was offered as a possible reason for the attack near Igdir, hundreds of kilometers from the current theater of conflict. This too is thought to be related to the PKK’s need to ease pressure on its urban forces by spreading Turkish forces over a larger area.

The intensified, hit-and-run IED attacks by the PKK are low-risk and relatively effective and sensational operations that could well help relieve pressure on urban areas and to better impose its “self-government” political model. Security sources believe that during the period of non-hostility that began in March 2013 as part of the solution process, the PKK took the opportunity to move tons of explosives to critical areas and even pre-plant triggering systems. The sources, however, did not offer explanations for how the PKK got away with seeding key routes in the southeast with its “sleeping bombs,” contrary to expectations that it would sit and wait during the solution process.

The PKK will likely use IED operations on a frequent basis to hamper armored convoy movements by Turkish security forces, sever connections with towns and bewilder the state authority. In light of IED use in Afghanistan and Iraq, one should expect critical days ahead in Turkey. It is therefore vital that Ankara prepare the public psychologically as well as adapt on the ground to deal with the looming tempest of sleeping bombs.

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Found in: turkish-kurdish relations, terror attacks, solution process, peace process, pkk, kurds, kurdistan workers party

Metin Gurcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq as a Turkish military adviser from 2002 to 2008. After resigning from the military, he became an Istanbul-based independent security analyst. Gurcan obtained his PhD in 2016 with a dissertation on changes in the Turkish military over the preceding decade. He has published extensively in Turkish and foreign academic journals, and his book “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan: Understanding Counterinsurgency in Tribalized, Rural, Muslim Environments” was published in August 2016. On Twitter: @Metin4020

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