Militarism in the Kurdish Diaspora PKK Circumverts Ban in Germany

There are fears that the conflict currently brewing between Turkey and the Kurdish separatist group the PKK has spread to Germany amid violent clashes in Berlin. Now a prominent politician has slammed the ineffectiveness of the supposed ban on the PKK in Germany.

By Yassin Musharbash in Berlin

Riot police intervene after violence breaks out in Berlin's Kreuzberg district Sunday.

Riot police intervene after violence breaks out in Berlin's Kreuzberg district Sunday.

The ongoing tension between Turkey and the Kurdish separatist group the PKK has been making headlines in recent weeks as fears grow of a Turkish invasion into northern Iraq. The conflict even appears to have spread to Germany as an anti-PKK demonstration in Berlin degenerated into violence on Sunday afternoon.

Now a German politician has questioned the effectiveness of the supposed ban on the PKK in Germany. "There is effectively no prohibition of the PKK in Germany," Cem Özdemir, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It is openly known that the PKK agitates and recruits in Germany. What's the use of such a ban?" The politician, who is of Turkish origin, wonders "whether security forces are, for some reason, deliberately turning a blind eye."

It was almost exactly 14 years ago -- on November 26, 1993 -- that the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) was prohibited in Germany. But in the minds of Özdemir and many others, not much has changed since then. Even the authorities that Özdemir is attacking tend to agree.

As far back as 1995, Germany's police union was complaining that the ban was complicating their work because the people they were after had gone underground. In the same year, intelligence officials in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia said that the ban had created an "aggressive attitude among PKK followers towards the German state." Meanwhile in Lower Saxony intelligence agents claimed that the number of PKK members had doubled since the ban had taken affect.

In March 2007, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, reported that the successor organisation to the PKK "is still functioning as an illegal, conspirative group" in Germany.

Back in 1993, a ban on the PKK seemed urgently necessary. The PKK had begun importing its terrorism into Germany at the beginning of the 1990s. On Nov. 4, 1993, 60 Turkish properties in Germany were vandalized. Travel agencies, banks and restaurants were attacked and one person was killed.

There was no doubt that the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist group with terrorist leanings, was behind the violence. The group had been active in Germany in previous years; in one instance, PKK fighters had occupied Turkish consulates.

Many Kurds in Germany saw the ban as evidence that Germany was siding with Turkey in the dispute. In 1996, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan pronounced: "Germany has declared war on the PKK. We can fight back. Every Kurd is a potential suicide bomber." Shortly thereafter, he watered down the threat: The enemy was Turks in Germany, not Germans, he said.

After Öcalan's arrest in 1999, the PKK adopted a less aggressive line. It started propagating democracy and peaceful forms of resistance. But a cloud of suspicion still hangs over the movement, especially in Germany. The country offers an ideal additional front for the Kurdish conflict: Nowhere in Europe is home to more Kurds and Turks.

But it's not only the Kurds who threaten to bring the conflict to Germany, as became evident last weekend in Berlin. On Saturday, Kurds demonstrated peacefully against a possible Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. Then on Sunday, stones and bottles began flying as Turkish ultra-nationalists surrounded a Kurdish cultural center in Berlin's Kreuzberg district.

The "Gray Wolves" -- the unofficial militant arm of what used to be the National Movement Party, which was banned in Turkey in 1980 -- are thought to have fanned the anti-Kurdish flames. There are an estimated 8,000 Gray Wolves members in Germany. While regarded as not particularly active, their ideas enjoy widespread acceptance. It's safe to assume that this group could be roused to action if the PKK or its successor group, Kongra Gel, were to re-surface in Germany.

For the time being, Kongra Gel, which is thought to have 11,500 members in Germany, is showing a peaceful face, but it is far from inactive. It is constantly founding new groups whose connections to PKK circles are deliberately obscured.

According to security authorities, Kongra Gel discretely collects money -- in the millions -- for Kurdish causes. Those who don’t contribute receive a friendly reminder to pay their "taxes." It organizes large meetings, attended by thousands of Kurds. The public broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk and other media have revealed that recruiters from militant Kurdish groups -- such as the PJAK which launches attacks on Iran from Iraq -- can often be seen at such events.

According to sources in German security circles, the groups hold meetings in other European countries, where they're likely to be observed less closely than in Germany -- even though the EU declared Kongra Gel to be a terrorist organization in 2004.

In a March 2007 report, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution estimates that roughly 10 percent of the Kurdish population in Germany "could be mobilized for the Kongra Gel cause." The current one-sided ceasefire could, theoretically, be reversed at any moment.

In Turkey, the organizations that have succeeded or are associated with the PKK are in no way wed to the principle of non-violence. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a militant new grouping within the PKK spectrum, staged a bloody attack in August 2006 on the Turkish tourist destination of Antalya.

There is nothing to suggest that Kongra Gel is preparing violent activity in or against Germany. The vast majority of the group's members "have for years stayed within the law with their activites," as Berlin's Interior Minister Eckart Körthing commented last week.

Nonetheless, Cem Özdemir warns: "Anyone who means well with the Kurds cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the PKK." With reference to the riots on Sunday, he demands clear limits. "It's legitimate for Turks and Kurds to express and demonstrate their political views here -- but violence in any form is unacceptable," he says.

The state and its security forces must send very clear signals, he feels: "Otherwise, the conflict will spill over into Germany."


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