On 8 November, a Turkish mosque in London run by the Turkish Government’s Presidency of Religious Affairs was attacked with windows broken and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) graffiti spray painted on the walls, reports the news outlet Tellmama. The attack was widely reported in English-language Turkish news and Turkish diaspora news, including reports that PKK affiliate groups had publicly promoted their involvement.
The PKK has been fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland on Turkish soil and in neighboring states since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unlike many Cold War-era rebel groups, the movement has seen significant violence and even an escalation in conflict since the Cold War ended.
The Turkish government and its ethnically Turkic majority-population have seen rising tension with its Kurdish minority population as of late. This tension has spilled over into the international stage as well. Pro-Turkish and pro-Kurdish camps recently became more openly hostile to each other during protests against the mass arrests of Kurdish political figures in Turkey following the failed coup in July this year and aerial bombings of Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq. In one case, a crowd or Kurdish protesters in London attacked a Turkish couple that was filming them. Bombings and other attacks blamed on PKK and other Kurdish groups are now part of life in Turkey, particularly for the security forces.
Turkish sources interpret the London mosque vandalism as part of a wave of attacks against Turkish targets across Europe. Other alleged attacks by PKK or sympathetic forces include an attack against the Turkish consulate in Paris with Molotov cocktails, and vandalism of the Yunus Emre Center in the UK. The Yunus Emre Center is part of a broader effort to expand Turkish soft power, cultural identity, and influence on the global stage.
The Kurdish struggle for an independent homeland has long drawn in militias from Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurdish separatist movements have drawn support from scores of geopolitical actors, including the US, Israel and Russia.
Northern Iraq has seen significant gains in the autonomy of Kurdish-held territory since the US invasion under former US President George W. Bush in 2003.
There are five takeaways here. First, the graffiti on the walls of the mosque indicates a Kurdish escalation of information operations against the Turkish diaspora abroad.
Second, a propaganda war of words could erupt over which party, Kurd or Turk, is persecuted and which is the aggressor. It remains possible that these attacks were staged by the Turkish government, which is frequently distrusted (along with pro-government media) by the Turkish population. However, the same population would be quick to point out that there is nothing trumped-up or manufactured about PKK attacks against Turkish targets.
Third, while Kurdish forces have become media darlings in the West due to their fighting the Islamic State, more attacks on Turkish mosques and people in Europe (and/or other regions) could tarnish the image of the Kurds.
Fourth, if this current tension between the Turks and Kurds escalates, a spillover of Middle East political violence into European cities is possible.
Fifth, looking further down the road, a serious escalation between Turks and Kurds in Europe (and/or other regions) could result in Turkish security forces enhancing their overseas operations. This might mean increased force application and expanded geographic reach. The Turkish film industry has already produced an infamous anti-American propaganda film promoting Turkish special forces acting abroad, and a fiercely nationalist culture could sanction such activities, thereby reducing domestic pressure on the government for expanding its international footprint.
Sources and further reading:
“PKK accepted mosque attack in London,” ILKHA, 10 November 2016.
“A timeline of PKK attacks on Turkish citizens in Europe,” Turkey Islamic Justice and Development, 10 November 2016.
“PKK sympathizers attack Turkish mosque in London,” BBC, 9 November 2016.
“Turkish mosque vandalised with PKK graffiti in London,” Tellmama, 8 November 2016.
“Turkish consulate in France attacked with Molotov cocktail,” Daily Sabah, 7 November 2016.
“Who are Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels?,” BBC, 4 November 2016.
“PKK claims attack on Turkish ruling party official,” Washington Post, 11 October 2016.
“Ten Turkish troops killed in two separate ‘PKK attacks’,” Al Jazeera, 26 September 2016.
“Turkish Business in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, 7 March 2016.
“America the Brutiful,” Foreign Policy, 15 August 2011.
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