The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons: A distinct terrorist threat

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons: A distinct terrorist threat

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons are proving to be a major terrorist threat, and could continue to pose even more of a threat than the PKK for Turkey.

In July 2015, Kurdish separatist militants restarted their decade-long insurgency in the south-eastern provinces of Turkey. Violence flared up as Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters have been keeping up the tempo of attacks. While the large majority of insurgency-related incidents occur in Kurdish majority regions, several high-profile attacks took place in Turkey’s  major cities in the western part of the country, highlighting the role played by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK).

On Tuesday, June 7th, a remotely triggered car bomb hit a police bus in Istanbul’s central Fatih district. The blast occurred in the vicinity of the Vezneciler subway station and killed at least 11 people. The attack, carried out by TAK militants, came as a stern reminder of the current terrorist threat faced by Turkey.

While the Turkish government regards all Kurdish separatist militants as linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) has, since July 2015, carried out major terrorist attacks in Turkey’s western cities in what appears to be a strategy independent from the PKK. The TAK modus operandi and organization differs from the PKK ones, and has been leading to increasing questions regarding the potential links between the two groups. The separatist outfit maintains a highly secretive command and control structure and has a very limited communication strategy.

Little is concretely known about the TAK; however, the group has claimed responsibility for major attacks carried out the last quarter of 2015 and the first six months of 2016. As such, it is positioning itself as the main threat group and is raising specific concerns regarding the evolution of the terrorist threat in Turkey.

Urban terrorism

Since the resurgence of the Kurdish separatist threat in July 2015, PKK-linked militants have begun switching their traditional strategy of focusing their operations in rural and remote areas to more urban guerrilla-style attacks. This has substantially changed the nature of the conflict in south-eastern Turkey.

On top of that, the TAK stepped up its terrorist attacks in major urban centres outside of the main insurgency area. The militant group has been responsible for at least four noteworthy attacks.  

In late December of 2015, TAK fighters fired mortar rounds against Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, damaging several parked aircraft and killing one airport worker. In February 2016, the separatist organization conducted a suicide bombing that targeted a military convoy in Ankara and left 29 dead. TAK followed up the attack with a second suicide bombing in the capital that hit a busy transportation hub and killed 37 people in March. In May, a TAK bomber detonated her explosive belt in the vicinity of a mosque in Bursa; the attack failed to result in any fatalities only because the assailant exploded too early.

This string of terrorist attacks underscores two main tactical characteristics of the TAK. The group has the will and the capacity to repeatedly plan and carry out major bombings in the western part of the country. This highlights the group’s bomb-making and coordination capacities and raises questions concerning Turkish security forces’ capability to successfully respond to this specific threat. The TAK operational abilities differ from the PKK, as the latter mainly operates in the country’s south-eastern provinces. On the other hand, TAK militants have shown their willingness to hit civilian soft targets in major urban centres, a tactic that is not widely used by the PKK in the current round of violence.

Relations with the PKK

The concrete relations between the TAK and the PKK remain the source of much debate. The secretive Kurdish-separatist organization broke off from the PKK in 2005 and stated that it opposes the group’s willingness to negotiate with Turkish authorities.

According to unconfirmed information released by former PKK members, the group initially planned to expand its offensive capabilities by setting up militant cells in Turkey’s western cities. These cells would act independently and would have no direct link to the PKK central command and control structure. These small groups of highly ideological Kurdish extremists may have morphed in the early 2000s into the TAK.

At this point, there is no indication that TAK militants receive direct orders from the People’s Defence Forces (HPG), the PKK military structure. However, given the PKK tendency to centralize command and prevent the existence of potential rival Kurdish separatist groups, it is likely that the two groups keep loose and unofficial contacts and do not oppose one another’s interests.


The Kurdish separatist insurgency is expected to remain a main driver of the terrorist threat in Turkey in the medium term. In late May, police forces thwarted PKK attempts to establish deep operational networks in the western Izmir region. This would underline the group’s evolving strategy and its attempts to widen the scope of the insurgency.

Within the current Kurdish separatist threat, TAK militants are likely to maintain a semi-independent stance and continue to plan and conduct attacks in major cities. The majority of these attacks are likely to directly or indirectly lead to civilian fatalities. Given recent terrorist incidents in Turkey, TAK are likely to remain the group that is posing one of the greatest threats to business in the country, as they have proved their willingness to hit transportation hubs, tourist areas, hotels and airports.

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.