The Cable

Meet the Obscure Kurdish Fighters Taking Responsibility for the Ankara Bombing

These obscure Kurdish fighters just took responsibility for this week's Ankara bombing.

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A Kurdish militant group has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s bloody car bombing in in the Turkish capital of Ankara that left at least 28 dead. It’s just not the one most people thought.

A little-known militia called the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, or TAK, took credit for the attack with a statement on their Web site. Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have tried to tie the group to the  Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, and the Kurdish YPG, Washington’s closest battlefield allies in the ground war against the Islamic State in Syria. Erdogan has publicly accused the YPG of being responsible for Wednesday’s carnage.

Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that few had heard of TAK before December 2015, when the group said it was responsible for a mortar attack at an airport in Istanbul that killed one and injured one.

TAK, also known as the Kurdish Freedom Falcons, maintains it has severed ties with the PKK, a separatist group that has been fighting Ankara for decades. However, according to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the group are separate in name only.

“The Freedom Falcons are a group that assume responsibility for PKK attacks when it’s not convenient for the PKK to do so,” Cagaptay said. “It allows the group to avoid a public diplomacy debacle. The PKK want to attach it to their cause, not their organization.”

“It’s a nebulous organization,” he added, suggesting TAK does not have its own leadership, but takes its cues from the PKK.  

According to Aliriza, TAK was formed in 2004. He said that unlike the PKK, which tends to carry out attacks in southeast Turkey, TAK is committed to operations in urban areas. For instance, in 2010, TAK claimed that they detonated a remote-control bomb next to a military bus on the outskirts of Istanbul, leaving five dead and 12 injured.

He also said TAK’s claim of responsibility is only likely to further muddle the calculus between Erdogan and President Barack Obama, who spoke by phone Friday. The Turkish president wants Obama to drop his support of the YPG fighters — which are viewed as the most effective against the Islamic State — in Syria.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby refused to do so.

“It’s not about choosing sides here,” Kirby told reporters. “The side that we think everybody needs to be on is the counter-Daesh side,” he said, referring to the Islamic State.

Aliriza said the White House is already struggling to choose between Ankara and the YPG, a group that the U.S. views as vital to the war against the Islamic State. Now, he said, the administration’s calculus will have to “add this, a group that no one has heard of.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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