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In Turkey, an Old Threat Resurges

4 MINS READApr 1, 2015 | 21:15 GMT
In Turkey, an Old Threat Resurges
(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish police take position near police headquarters in Istanbul on April 1.

Two members of the Turkish militant group the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) stormed an Istanbul courthouse March 31, taking prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz hostage. The group blamed Kiraz for not prosecuting police officers for the death of Berkin Elvan, a teenager who died after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister during the June 2013 demonstrations in Istanbul. Following a prolonged standoff, Turkish authorities entered Kiraz's office after reportedly hearing gunshots. Kiraz and the militants died after the subsequent exchange.

Another DHKP-C member, a woman reportedly wearing an explosive vest, was killed April 1 when she and another assailant attempted to storm an Istanbul police station.

The DHKP-C is a Marxist organization that began as a splinter of the radical Revolutionary Left. The group, which opposes the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been steadily declining for many years. However, growing anti-AKP sentiment in Turkey has breathed new life into the group.

Background

The Revolutionary Left, or Dev-Sol, arose in 1978 as one of the many Turkish communist groups supported by the Soviet Union. Led by Dursun Karatas, Dev-Sol specialized in urban guerrilla tactics. But in 1994, Karatas left Dev-Sol over disagreements with other leaders and formed a new group, the DHKP-C.

The founders of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C): Bedri Yagan (L), Dursun Karatas (C) and Sinan Kukul (R) in Bayrampasa prison in Istanbul, date unknown. (AFP/Getty Images)

The DHKP-C's goals include overthrowing the Turkish government and replacing it with a communist one. In the 1980s Dev-Sol focused predominately on attacking Turkish security and military officials in armed assaults. After the split in the 1990s, the DHKP-C began a new campaign against foreign interests inside Turkey, believing that the Turkish government is under the control of Western interests, particularly the United States. Only beginning in 2000 did the DHKP-C begin to use suicide bombings and armed assaults as a tactic. Attacks like the one against Kiraz are often planned as suicide operations.

The DHKP-C trained in Greece, outside the reach of Turkish authorities. An agreement was even reportedly made between Greek intelligence services and members of the DHKP-C to permit the group to train in exchange for a guarantee not to conduct attacks inside Greece. Upon completing their training, DHKP-C members wait to receive orders from group leaders to attack a target in Turkey. Once a military unit has been assigned, the members travel to Turkey, usually assisted by other DHKP-C members.

It is unclear exactly how many members the DHKP-C has; estimates vary from the low hundreds to some 7,000. But Turkish and Greek officials have arrested several hundred alleged members in the past two years, including DHKP-C leader Huseyin Fevzi Tekin, who was seized in Athens in February 2014.

Police escort Huseyin Fevzi Tekin (C), suspected leader of DHKP-C, to an Athens court in February 2014. (LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite its training, the DHKP-C is more ambitious than it is capable. Since 2000, the group has carried out only about a dozen effective armed assaults, suicide bombings and assassinations. As many attempts have been thwarted or botched, including a May 2003 attack in which a DHKP-C member accidentally discharged her suicide device inside a restroom. The group was also behind a failed Feb. 1, 2013, suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.  

A Renewed Threat

A few years ago, the DHKP-C appeared to be withering as its older members aged and died. However, the DHKP-C cadre took a leading role in fomenting violence during the 2013 demonstrations. The group's willingness to stand up to the riot police attracted the attention of many young, disaffected Turkish radicals. Consequently, new members with anti-AKP sentiment flocked to the DHKP-C. Now, a group once considered on the verge of extinction will pose a persistent, low-level threat to authorities and foreign interests in Turkey for years to come.

DHKP-C militants shoot in the direction of riot police during a May 2014 demonstration after the funeral of a protester killed in protests. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, the DHKP-C's resurgence could also validate several of the security measures that Erdogan and the AKP, the group's political target, have passed through parliament. The opposition has charged Erdogan with turning Turkey into a police state for measures such as jailing protesters who use Molotov cocktails and other weapons. But as security gradually deteriorates and political unrest becomes more visible, the government is already preparing itself for more crackdowns.

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