Who is Abdullah Ocalan?

By Michael Radu
Foreign Policy Research Institute
November 16, 1998

On November 13, the Italian police arrested Abdullah Ocalan, founder and leader of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) at Rome’s airport. He had just arrived from Moscow with a false passport and, upon arrest, asked for political asylum. Coming at a time when British authorities are detaining former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet, who stands accused by a Spanish judge of terrorism and genocide, the arrest of Ocalan on an outstanding warrant issued in Turkey promises to raise significant questions about European politics, international legal standards, and the very possibility of cooperation in combating terrorism.

Born in 1948 in a village in Eastern Turkey, Ocalan studied political science at Ankara University, where he became a Maoist. By 1973 he had organized a Maoist group – which initially included Kurdish as well as Turkish militants – whose goal was socialist revolution in Turkey. After years of recruiting and indoctrinating followers, the PKK was formally established on November 7, 1978. In the previous year, he committed his first known murder, that of an ideological rival accused of working for the government.

Since then, the group has evolved into a deadly insurgence against Turkey, reaching a strength of some 5,000 by 1992. From his bases in Syria and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Ocalan conducted a ruthless campaign, ostensibly for Kurdish independence but, as widely available PKK internal documents suggest, the ultimate goal is the creation of a Maoist state in areas of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Ocalan’s ambitions were clearly defined in 1995 at the Fifth Congress of the PKK, where the “Resolution on Internationalism” stated that “By effectively arguing in favor of socialism and by spreading socialist ideas to the people of the region, [the PKK] is the vanguard of the global socialist movement.” In 1984 the PKK was a founding member of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM), a sort of loosely structured Maoist version of Lenin’s Comintern that also includes Peru’s Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso).

Indeed, the similarities between the PKK and the Shining Path are striking: like the latter’s founder, Abimael Guzman, Ocalan is a Maoist with global leadership ambitions; their tactics are particularly bloody, even by terrorist standards, and the main victims are civilians who refuse to submit to their groups. Frequent targets include teachers, members of village self-defense groups, and elected local officials. So far, since the beginning of its operations in 1980, the PKK is primarily responsible for a war that has left some 30,000 people dead (compared with 25,000 for the Shining Path). In addition, the PKK was responsible for a number of murders of Turks in Germany, which is the reason the German government has also issued a warrant for Ocalan’s arrest.

For almost two decades, Ocalan has operated from Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon. However, last October, after Turkey very nearly went to war against Syria, Damascus backed down, closed PKK camps and expelled Ocalan. First he fled to Moscow, where he has enjoyed close relations for decades. While the Russian government denied any knowledge of his whereabouts, on November 4 the Duma unanimously voted to demand that he be given asylum. Two days later, 109 socialist and communist members of the Greek Parliament – one third of the entire body – issued an invitation to Ocalan to come to Greece as “leader of the world’s most oppressed people.” The collective invitation, supported by Greece’s deputy speaker Panayiotis Sgouridis, was renewed by a Greek Socialist parliamentarian in Rome, after Ocalan’s arrest.

To its credit the Russian government, under pressure from Turkey and the United States, expelled Ocalan, forcing him to flee to Italy. The terrorist leader’s choice was not accidental: Italy’s government is dominated by ex-communists of the party of the Democratic Left and supported by the unreconstructed ones. Sure enough a prominent Democratic Left leader has already expressed support for Ocalan’s request for asylum, while leaders (and parliamentarians) of the Greens and the orthodox communists became his lawyers. In fact, the orthodox communist Giuliano Psiapia, one of Ocalan’s lawyers, used to be chairman of the Italian Parliament’s Justice committee. As the influential Milan newspaper La Stampa put it, the communist Justice Minister, Oliviero Diliberto, has a dilemma on his hands: “What would the Italian government do with Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK and the Kurdish resistance, a terrorist for the Turkish and German authorities, who want him in their jails, and a patriot for the Italian Greens and Communists?”

Ocalan’s arrest raises serious issues that include, but go beyond that of dealing with terrorism. Judging by the number of victims, Ocalan is in rarefied company in today’s terrorist Pantheon – only Guzman himself and the other Maoist cum nationalist Vellupilai Pirapaharan of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka are in the same league. That the dominant parties in the Russian Duma and NATO members Italy and Greece openly support and lionize him is disturbing indeed. In Russia’s case this suggests that an eventual Communist replacement of Yeltsin could well bring back some of Moscow’s worst Cold War habits: support for large scale international terrorism. As for Greece, it appears that the traditional reflexive support for any enemy of Turkey is reaching dangerously provocative and irrational heights &emdash; not a good omen for the stability of the Alliance’s southern flank.

Italy already has had a bad record in dealing with foreign terrorists: they routinely walk away from its jails, are given asylum or allowed to transit freely. It is also important to see if the ex-communists dominating the government in Rome have indeed become democratic or still share Ocalan’s beliefs in “proletarian internationalism,” and put them above justice and good sense. Furthermore, an Italian refusal to extradite Ocalan will irreparably damage Europe’s already tense relations with Turkey and make a further mockery of the European Union’s pontifications about “human rights” and international law. Indeed, if Ocalan goes free after a campaign that has left 30,000 dead in the name of Maoism, while Pinochet is put on trial for the deaths of 3,000 in winning Chile’s war against communism, then we will know that the European capacity for political hypocrisy has not been exhausted by the fall of the Soviet Union.