The PKK and its terrorist acts in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have been subject to prime-time news, books, and reports for the last few decades now. The still-ongoing conflict, which had a brief stop during the reconciliation process in 2013-2015, has costed the lives of over 40.000 people. But the scope of the conflict is not limited to Turkey and the Middle East. Germany is home and host to over 800.000 people with Kurdish origins and millions of people with Turkish origins. It is only natural that the German state would want to keep a close eye on the parties involved and prevent the conflict from spilling over onto German soil, as it did in the past.
Extremist Groups in Germany
The German intelligence service is split into the domestic intelligence service (Verfassungsschutz) and the foreign intelligence service (Bundesnachrichtendienst). The Bundesnachrichtendienst aside, the Verfassungsschutz releases an annual report on noteworthy groups and terrorist organizations which pose or might pose threat to the German constitutional order (hence the name is Verfassungsschtz, meaning defense of Constitution).
Those groups are categorized into ‘politically motivated criminals’ (PMK), far-right extremists/terrorists, ‘Reichsbürger’ and self-governors, far-left groups, Islamist groups and lastly foreign extremist/terrorist groups.
The report estimates that there are 33.900 members in far-right groups, with about 13.500 of them being categorized as violent (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.52). But of these only 11.800 are in a truly organized structure while 15.000 are estimated to be unorganized. The biggest group here is the ‘Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands’ (NDP) with 3.150 members.
In the category Reichsbürger, there is an estimate of 21.000 in Germany (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.110). In the leftist scene, there are 10.300 violent leftists as of 2021 (Verfassungsschutzbericht, p.125), with more than 25.500 classified as non-violent extremists. The biggest violent leftist group is the ‘Interventionist Left’ (IL) with about 1.000 members in 30 locations.
In the Islamist spectrum, the Verfassungsschutz estimates that 11.900 people can belong to the Salafi movement (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.181). But the report does distinguish between simple Salafis and those who are actual members of terrorist organizations. So, while 11.900 people can be classified as Salafi, the report makes no estimates on how many or any of them are members of designated terrorist organizations.
Estimated Number of Members of Foreign Extremists in Germany
Yet all of these are dwarfed by the foreign terrorist/extremist organizations: specifically, the PKK. As of 2021, the Verfassungsschutz estimates that there are 28.650 members in foreign extremist/terrorist organizations, with the PKK alone having 14.500 members, more than any other single terrorist/extremist organization listed in the report (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.234). Instead of combating the terrorist group, Germany has turned into a safe base where the organization can gather money and funds (Verfassungschutzbericht 2013, p.281). The group was able to increase its members from 13.000 to 14.500, today (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2013, p.265). And unlike many of the other groups, be they far-right, leftist, or Islamist, the PKK is highly organized. Indeed, the report clearly defines that all PKK-related entities in Germany have no decision-making initiative of their own and their main function lies in receiving, transmitting, and executing the orders of the PKK leadership in Turkey and Iraq (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p. 236).
PKK in Germany
While the report does state that the PKK tries to appear non-violent in Europe, promoting its image as a democratic group that is trying to defend the rights of minorities and women, there is no illusion neither in the Verfassungsschutz report nor within the 14.500 members of the PKK in Europe about its true nature: a terrorist group that has no qualm in killing, torture, drug trafficking, murder, terrorism and any other crime that can be committed. As of right now, the PKK has chosen to appear less violent because it is in the PKK's interest to do so right now (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2013, p. 259). Europe, specifically Germany is considered a safe base for the PKK (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.232). Hence it does not want to threaten the safety of this base of operation by unnecessarily getting attention.
The main aspect of this safe base is that it functions as a financial and logistical base far away from the frontline and outside the range of the Turkish area of operations. But none of its acts in Europe are for the sake of its acts in Europe. They all are directly related to its armed clashes and terrorist activities in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. From its news stations in the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden the PKK is able to release its propaganda material, aiming to recruit teenagers for its violent campaign in the conflict region (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.239; p.241). Teenagers are the target recruits for the PKK as they are hot-headed, violent, and easy to influence. Of the sub-entities of the PKK in Germany, it is the youth organization “Tevgera Ciwanên Şoreşger (TCŞ)” which is the most violent of them (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.237), as it stages regular attacks and escalates rallies into violent clashes.
Allowing for these media centers to operate essentially not only radicalizes young European teenagers and puts them under the spell of a terrorist organization, but directly puts their lives in danger, as over 30 of the 295 who went to fight for the PKK in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey were killed in action. Of the remaining 150 returned to Germany. These are people who have been indoctrinated with extremist and hateful ideologies for the majority of their teenage and adult life to be sent to combat. Whether they die or survive, they pose a risk to themselves and others. The ones that die in action aside, even those that survive either come back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event, or are extremists that have no problem with killing people for their cause. Europe has been discussing the threat of DAESH returnees for years now, but neglecting the threat posed by the PKK returnees.
"the PKK tries to appear non-violent in Europe, promoting its image as a democratic group that is trying to defend the rights of minorities and women, there is no illusion neither in the Verfassungsschutz report nor within the 14.500 members of the PKK in Europe about its true nature: a terrorist group that has no qualm in killing, torture, drug trafficking, murder, terrorism and any other crime that can be committed."
The argument that the rallies, campaigns, and protests are for a peaceful purpose is also being discredited by the Verfassungsschutz (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2013, p.281). In many instances, the PKK uses these large mass gatherings to directly recruit people from the masses for its armed wing and in some instances, people travel directly to training camps after the mass rally. Furthermore, this did not happen in 2016, 2017, 2018, or later. The report suggests the recruitment for the armed wing in Europe was taking place in 2013, during the height of the reconciliation process between Turkey and the PKK (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2013, p.280).
While most of the money it gathers in Europe is used for the upkeep of its European operations, everything that is left is used to pay for its armed activities at its main base (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.233). Their biggest financial source in Europe is the vast fundraisers the organization conducts every year, with 2021 being financially the most successful year for the PKK so far (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p.240). The organization was able to raise 16.7€ million just in Germany, with the total gain from the fundraisers hitting the 30-million-euro mark. This makes Germany the PKKs biggest financial base. Other than fundraisers the organization receives money through membership fees as well as the sale of various writings, books, audio and video files, and tickets to concerts organized by local representatives (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2021, p. 233).
"Sister Organization" PYD/SDF
Lastly, when looking at the PKK, one cannot neglect to look at the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The largest faction within the SDF is posed by the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD. It is European and US policy to deny that the SDF is related to the PKK and indeed assert that Turkey's concerns are unbiased or indeed stemmed from Turkey's general fear of all things Kurdish. But it is not just Turkey claiming this. The Verfassungsschutzbericht directly supports Turkey's “concerns”, stating that the PYD is the Syrian branch of the PKK and that the PYD sees KCK, the decision-making body of the PKK as its highest legislative authority (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2013, p.259). The Verfassungsschutz reaffirmed the relation between the PYD and the PKK in its subsequent reports in 2014 (p. 125) and 2015 (p. 129). Between 2017 and 2019 the Verfassungsschutz changed the relation of the PYD to the PKK from the Syrian branch to a “sister organization”. Since 2020 the PYD has been absent from the reports published by the Verfassungsschutz. The absence here is concerning as there have been no organizational changes within the PYD that changed its relationship with the PKK in the past 2 to 3 years.
Hiding behind the Veil of Freedoms
While the methods and videos released by the PKK are most certainly less gruesome than those of DAESH, this is not a situation where European countries have to choose between the lesser evil. It is within the scope of European capabilities to reject both organizations. In some instances, Germany takes action, such as in the arrest of a few PKK members and even regional directors. But these are meager attempts. As the Verfassungsschutz suggests, these members and regional directors barely hold any power and have no decision-making capability of their own. Their role lies in following the orders from the PKK headquarters. To combat foreign terrorism effectively, Europe and Germany have to combat the PKK-affiliated entities and take away Europe‘s title as a safe haven and base of operation. Stopping the propaganda operations in Europe would significantly impact the recruiting capabilities of the PKK. Stopping the cash flow from Europe to its area of operation in the conflict region would decrease its ability to continue its killing spree in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The lacking action in Europe and indeed the support of terrorists in EU member states such as Sweden leads to an ever-increasing death toll in the countries threatened by the terrorists.
That Europe can counter the PKKs propaganda apparatus is showcased by the shutdown of “Nûçe TV” which was up until 2012 the main media outlet of the PKK and its predecessor “Roj TV” for being supporters of the PKK (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2013, p.275). Shutting down the PKK media and propaganda would also decrease the organization's cash flow. Without any official and public media, it wouldn’t be able to organize events and fundraisers at the scale it has today. Europe needs to stop hiding behind the veil of freedom of speech when this terrorist propaganda is costing the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people in Turkey and the Middle East.
*The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of Terrorism Analysis Platform.