A organization unknown to most Westerners seems to be reasserting its presence in Turkey and could make life miserable for security officials in the years ahead.
Photo via Flickr user Nigel Walker
On Tuesday, a hostage crisis in central Istanbul ended in a burst of gunfire and explosions as security forces stormed the courthouse, where two members of a militant leftist party held state prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz at gunpoint for six hours.
When the operation was over, officers found Kiraz, who had been shot three times in the head and twice in the body. He died at the hospital soon after. The two radical leftist assailants—members of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C)—were killed during the raid.
But perhaps the most significant part of this attack was not where it happened or who fired first, but the group behind it—an organization unknown to many that seems to be reasserting its presence in Turkey this year and may become a premier security threat in the near future.
Turkey has historically been home to dozens of militant organizations, with some of the most prominent being Islamists, representatives of hostile states, and factions of the marginalized and secessionist Kurdish population. Al Qaeda affiliates, Iranian or Syrian groups, and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are usually the go-to culprits in incidents like this, but Turkey also has a history of leftist insurgencies dating from the Cold War.
The DHKP-C—classified as a terrorist group by the EU, US, and Turkey —is the country's most prominent militant left-wing group, although its efforts have been sporadic in recent years. It originated in 1978 as part of Dev-Sol (the Revolutionary Left), initially an intellectual, political, and militant movement recruiting out of high schools and universities. During the 1980s, many members of the organization were thrown into jail, then proceeded to take over the prison system and use it as a base of operations for an increasingly violent movement that has killed dozens of security personnel and over 80 civilians to date.
DHKP-C "was always an active antigovernment group," Coskun Unal, a Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium analyst and retired Turkish Lieutenant Colonel, told VICE, explaining the overriding goals of the DHKP-C and its progenitors' unrelenting—if somewhat low-level—attacks from this era onwards.
"They aimed to harass every government in power... and were capable of planning and executing sensational attacks in Turkey," he added.
In 1994, after a series of complex fissions within the leftist world, one faction of Devrimici Sol emerged as the DHKP-C, which had moved beyond the prison system and installed itself in low-income neighborhoods, providing law and order and welfare to minorities like the Alevi Shi'a and Kurds, who often see the government as a threat.
"The DHKP-C is a part of us," Yucel Yildirm, a resident in Istanbul's Okmeydanı neighborhood, told Al Jazeera last year. "They are our brothers, sisters and children. The Turkish state is against the Alevi population here. They want our land. And the DHKP-C fights for our rights."
It was from this base that, starting in the 1990s, the DHKP-C and its progenitors began to adopt increasingly violent and flashy tactics targeting foreign assets and government officials.
In 2000, according to Varyan Khan of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), they launched the "Revolutionary Wave Program" to increase their visibility in the country, including a massive and deadly prison hunger strike and attempts to assassinate a number of prominent Turkish individuals. Some say they were drawing on al Qaeda tactics, including suicide bombings, which they tested on a police station in 2001 before ramping up small-scale attacks on Turkish governmental facilities in 2003. But after a series of crackdowns and with the illness of their leader, Dursun Kartas, aka Dayi, the group began to quiet down, fading into near-obscurity by decade's end.
"[They have] been through a long reorganization and regrouping process," according to Unal. "Between 2007 and 2012, when Kartas was still alive but struggling with cancer, they decided to revise the group and their objectives. They gave recruitment and octrine trainings utmost importance and tried to expand their influence among Turkey's [Alevi] groups, as well as among universities."
Unal believes that during that time they also developed a strong following among a number of lawyers, who took issue with the judicial system under now-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). This growing support sector may help to explain why the DHKP-C would target a courthouse and a state prosecutor working on behalf of Elvan. They apparently believed that this prosecutor was, as a state actor, was complicit in AKP hegemony.
After his death in exile in 2008, according to Khan, Kartas was replaced by three leaders: Musa Asoglu, Zerrin Sari, and Huseyin Feyzi Tekin, who had very different ideas about the DHKP-C. "The new leadership preferred avoidance of direct confrontations with the Turkish government," Khan said, "resulting in a low-key presence." For a time.
Unal suspects that Turkey's involvement in Syria—which under Assad may have funded the DHKP-C to destabilize a regional rival—also briefly disrupted the organization.
In late 2012 though, the DHKP-C roared back to life with a suicide bombing at a police station, followed in early 2013 by a suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Ankara, killing a guard and leading the US to issue a $3-million-per-head bounty for information leading to the arrest of key leaders. The group subsequently renewed their longstanding low-level attacks on state facilities too. (That summer, the state used the DHKP-C's presence in the Gezi Protest Movement as a justification for crackdowns on peaceful protests as well.)
In January, the DHKP-C launched another prominent attack, a failed bombing at the prime minister's office. This incident—along with a suicide bombing on a police station that the group initially claimed responsibility for—tipped off officials to the possibility of another large-scale event, like Tuesday's hostage crisis, but even in a state of vigilance, security forces were blindsided.*
"I can say that both Turkish Intelligence and police neglected [the DHKP-C] threat due to other concerns," said Unal, referring the conflict in Syria, peace talks with the PKK, this year's upcoming parliamentary elections, and concerns about other militant groups. "But they were following the group closely. They had a list of 13 potential [DHKP-C] suicide attackers with names and both [of the courthouse] attackers' names were on that list.
"Irony is, despite having accurate intel, Turkish security forces were not able to catch them before or stop them [during the incident]."
Unal sees Tuesday's hostage crisis as a simple reaffirmation of the group's goals—targeting government facilities and officials with suicide bombings. (He believes the explosives carried by the assailants were proof that they never intended to surrender, even if their demands were met.)
But Khan sees their hostage-taking, a novel move for the group, as a sign of a shift in tactics. She points out that since the hostage attack, there have been two failed assaults on government posts in Istanbul, both of which are unattributed but widely credited to the organization, possibly signaling the start of a new campaign of coordinated and widespread leftist violence.
"Keep in mind that Turkey's election is scheduled for 2015, coupled with rising socio-economic concerns and plummeting oil prices as well as the Islamic State or Turkey's doorstep," Khan says, "not to mention the outside pressure from the West over foreign fighters' migration through Turkey [towards Syria and Iraq].
"The stage is set for Turkey to be distracted long enough for DHKP-C to make significant [inroads]. As with all groups that are competing with [the Islamic State] for media attention, DHKP-C is likely going to escalate attacks even further to remain relevant enough to espouse their cause."
The real fear about the DHKP-C is not just that they will use unrest in Turkey to launch a new wave of low-level attacks across the country, though. The major concern is that they will attract other fighters, from fellow leftists like the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party to violent Kurdish separatists like the Kongra-Gel (Kurdistan People's Congress). That's especially worrisome as major negotiations with the PKK progress, threatening to create splinter groups with serious grievances against the Turkish state, eager to strike while the nation is preoccupied. As we've seen in the past few days, when they gear up for a major campaign, even rising from relative obscurity, the DHKP-C can fairly destabilizing and effective all on their own. But if their newest wave of violence metastasizes, then Turkey could be in for a very rough year.
Correction 4/8: This post originally attributed a bombing at an Istanbul police station to DHKP-C. Although the group claimed responsibility for the attack, it was in fact reportedly carried out by a Russian citizen.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.