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Ankara bombing: Why did the PKK attack Turkey now?

The Kurdish militant group could be feeling the heat as the Turkish military targets its affiliates in Iraq and Syria
A Turkish police officer stands guard after an attack in the capital, Ankara, on 1 October 2023 (AFP/Adem Altan)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

A PKK attack against Turkey’s interior ministry in Ankara on Sunday came amid an ongoing Turkish military campaign to hunt down the group’s members in northern Iraq and Syria.

Shocking to many Turks due to its brazen style, the attack by the Kurdish militant group targeted the headquarters of the Turkish security forces in broad daylight, just hours before the opening of Turkey’s National Assembly.

According to the interior ministry, two PKK fighters were killed during a gunfight, with one detonating a belt containing explosives.

Officials added that the pair had earlier murdered a veterinarian in the city of Kayseri before stealing his car, which they used in the attack.

Two police officers were wounded during the battle.

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The PKK claimed responsibility for the attack on the same day, through its proxy news agency ANF, announcing that two of its fighters had conducted “a sacrifice” operation to send a message to the Turkish state.

The PKK added that it could have killed more people had it changed the timing and location of the attack. 

Ostensibly a left-wing militant group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has fought a guerrilla war against the Turkish state since 1984, with its main demand being greater autonomy for the country’s Kurdish population.

Authorities in Turkey, the EU and the US have proscribed the organisation, following attacks that have targeted civilians.

Turkish authorities have long pursued the group in operations within Turkey, as well as in northern Syria and Iraq. 

'The fight against drugs has been carried out very effectively and it has diminished PKK’s drug profits'

Omer Ozkizilcik, security analyst  

The PKK periodically conducts attacks on Turkish territory, usually getting into gunfights with security forces or targeting public places.

In a suicide attack in September 2022, the PKK targeted a police building in the southern city of Mersin, killing one police officer. Both the attackers, who were women, killed themselves by detonating explosive vests.

In November, Turkey blamed the PKK for a bombing in Istanbul that killed six civilians. 

However, the intensity of the attacks has diminished in recent years, as Ankara has deployed an arsenal of sophisticated weapons, including armed drones. This has left many in Turkey asking why the PKK has decided to attack now, and how it was able to.

Military operations

Middle East Eye’s sources within the Ankara establishment put forward a number of possible reasons why the PKK had decided to attack Turkey’s centres of power.

On 18 September in Erbil, Iraq, an unidentified gunman entered the office of a PKK umbrella organisation, the Kurdistan National Congress, and killed one of its members, Deniz Hevi.

The style of the attack, which happened in broad daylight and was inside a PKK building, has parallels with this week's attack by the PKK in Ankara, which may have been a direct retaliation.

'The PKK is under serious pressure in Iraq. Its [military] leader, Murat Karayilan, has even threatened the Kurdistan Regional Government with war'

– Omer Ozkizilcik

The day after Hevi’s killing, a suspected Turkish drone air strike killed three people at an airport near Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, which the Counter Terrorism Group, affiliated with the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was using as a base. Fighters from the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, were also reportedly receiving training at the location. 

Since 2022, Ankara has shut down its airspace for flights to and from Sulaymaniyah, due to the PKK presence in that city.

Turkish forces struck the city’s airport in a drone strike in April, apparently targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) leader Mazloum Abdi Kobani, who was reportedly travelling with US forces at the time. 

Omer Ozkizilcik, an Ankara-based independent security analyst, said Ankara’s relentless drone campaign in Iraq and Syria has put the PKK and its affiliates under pressure and the group was therefore looking to respond.

“Senior figures such as Uman Dervis [YPG leader in Manbij] were targeted in drone operations,” Ozkizilcik said.  “Cooperation between the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and Turkish Armed Forces in Iraq has been increasing recently.

“As a result of this cooperation, the PKK is under serious pressure in Iraq. Its [military] leader, Murat Karayilan, has even threatened the Kurdistan Regional Government with war. The organisation planned this attack to respond to these threats.” 

The SDF, which is dominated by the YPG, last month blamed Turkey for allegedly providing support for the Arab tribes that rebelled against its rule in Deir Ezzor.

Ocalan’s prison conditions

These military operations outside of Turkey come as Ankara’s new interior minister, Ali Yerlikaya, is stepping up police operations against mobsters and drug traffickers associated with the PKK.

“Many people involved in organised crime have been arrested in recent days,” Ozkizilcik added. “The fight against drugs has been carried out very effectively and it has diminished PKK’s drug profits.”  

However, there are others who think the attack in Ankara on Sunday is also linked to domestic Turkish politics. 

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In an article for the opposition-leaning Karar newspaper, columnist Yildiray Ogur mentioned that the PKK’s justifications for the latest attack included the Turkish government's use of “isolation policies in dungeons”.

The expression is an apparent reference to the decades-old imprisonment of PKK founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has not been able to see his lawyer or family members for close to three years.

Ogur said in his column that the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party (YSP) had organised a campaign to pressure Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government into ending Ocalan’s isolation.

The campaign is set to begin on 8 October, the anniversary of Ocalan’s capture in 1999, and will continue until March.

The YSP is a key organiser in the Turkish local elections, especially in the large cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya. Ocalan called for Kurdish neutrality in the 2019 elections, but the YSP did not listen to him. 

“The fact that the Ocalan campaign led by the YSP will continue until March 9 shows the connection of this campaign with the local elections on March 31,” Ogur wrote. 

“The PKK's resumption of suicide attacks in parallel with the Ocalan campaign of the YSP shows that terrorist attacks are part of the pressure campaign to lift his isolation.”   

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