Smashing the Kurds; CIA Role in Kidnapping Abdullah Ocalan
By Kani Xulam
CovertAction Quarterly, Number 74
Fall 2002

On February 16, 1999, the Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit startled his country with the news that the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was in Turkey, “since 3 a.m. this morning.”1 “The operation,” he went on to say, “has been accomplished thanks to a close and harmonious cooperation between the Turkish Intelligence Organization and the Turkish General Staff.”2

If true, the Turks had reason to celebrate the exploits of their agencies the way they did in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir and other Turkish cities by dancing in the streets to the tunes of jingoistic Turkish songs. When a reporter asked the Prime Minister, “In which country was he [Mr. Ocalan] last?” Mr. Ecevit said, “We are not going to go into any detail on this subject.” As a former journalist himself, it was odd for him to add, “I ask you not to be inquisitive about it.”3

The Turks, the Kurds, the reporters and many others were inquisitive about it because a number of Greek and Kenyan missions had come under heavy attack by angry Kurdish militants especially in Europe. Ms. Semsi Kilic, an associate of Mr. Ocalan in Nairobi, Kenya, had already tipped some Kurdish reporters in Europe to the news of the abduction of the Kurdish leader adding that the Greeks and the Kenyans had conspired against him.

But if the latter account was correct, and the angry Kurds thought it was, the Turkish Prime Minister was duping the reporters in Ankara for thanking the wrong parties for the “good” news. But as the real parties to the abduction spoke, gradually, it became obvious that Ms. Kilic herself had not exactly known what had really happened in Nairobi, Kenya.

The day after the abduction, the Kurds, reacting to the news in some of the European dailies that perhaps Israeli agents were also involved in the kidnapping of their leader, attacked the Israeli Consulate in Berlin, Germany.4 The armed Israeli guards fired live ammunition on the flag- and picture-waving Kurdish crowd. Ahmet Acar, Sema Alp, and Mustafa Kurt were killed.5

On February 17, the United States government felt compelled to issue a travel advisory reminding Americans “residing or travelling abroad…to review their personal security.”6

The State Department was wary. Mr. Ecevit was circumspect. The Kurds, it became obvious to many, had learned nothing from their history and had allowed themselves to become the laughingstock of the world again, this time, live and free, courtesy of CNN, regrettably.

On February 18, the New York Times reported some progress on the Turkish front of what had happened to Mr. Ocalan and noted the following musings of the Turkish leader Ecevit at another press conference: “I will use a local expression and say, ‘let us eat the grape and not ask where it came from.’“7

A day later, when asked specifically about Washington’s role again, he said, “I can’t reveal that.…But you can make your own guess.”8

In fact, there was no need to guess. The next day, the New York Times reported on its front page, “U.S. helped Turkey find and capture Kurd Rebel.”9 A senior American official who “demanded” anonymity went on to describe how Ocalan was “discovered” in Nairobi, Kenya, and how Ankara was then alerted about its archenemy.10

Nothing was said about the Greek connection. The Kenyan missions in Europe remained closed, and Nairobi declared the Greek Ambassador to Kenya, George Kostoulas, persona non grata.11 The Israelis, like the Kenyans, denied culpability and noted, “…we certainly had no part in the capture of Ocalan.”12 The Greek Embassy in Washington felt compelled to issue a press release blaming Ocalan for the misfortune that befell him.13

On February 20, the Kurdish daily Ozgur Politika published an interview with Semsi Kilic, the eyewitness to Mr. Ocalan’s abduction, under the byline of Cemal Ucar. Ms. Kilic blamed the Greek government, especially its foreign minister, Mr. Theodoros Pangalos, for the cause celebre in Turkey. His office, she told Mr. Ucar, gave us assurances that, “…with the prepared plane [at the airport], you [Ocalan] will be able to fly anywhere in Europe.”14

Ms. Kilic was not allowed to accompany Mr. Ocalan. The Kenyan police who had come to escort the Kurdish leader insisted that he alone was getting the “ride.” Ambassador George Kostoulas who wanted to see his guest off at the airport was equally rebuffed. To the waiting arms of the Turkish commandos the Kurdish leader was delivered in one piece.

Six days later, the Greek Ambassador wrote for his government an account of what had happened in his residence, the last stop of Mr. Ocalan’s odyssey back to Turkey. That account was later leaked to the press.15 The emerging picture showed his government desperate to disassociate itself from Ocalan, the Kurds baffled and impervious to the intrigue that surrounded them, and the Ambassadorhimself often clueless about Athens’ ultimate intention to cooperate with all but the Kurds.

No independent body has appointed a commission to undertake a study of what happened in Nairobi, Kenya.

Nevertheless, after the debacle, there was fallout in Athens. Three ministers of the Simitis administration were sacked, including the acerbic foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos. A Greek parliamentary committee that investigated the Greek side of the events blamed private Greek citizens for breaches of law in welcoming and harboring the Kurdish rebel in Greece. If the Kurds were awaiting an apology, it did not come.

For the time being, a report that hit the wires on February 28, 1999 came as close to full disclosure as any fact-finding investigation that the Kurds could hope for. “Disrupting Terrorists,” by Associated Press writer John Diamond, began, “Frustrated by restrictions on using military force against terrorists, the United States is turning to a lower-profile tactic. The CIA calls it ‘disruption’—working with foreign law-enforcement services to harass and hamper terrorists around the world.…

“…Disruption has the advantage of utmost secrecy, hiding the hand of the United States and avoiding the cumbersome congressional reporting requirements that go with CIA-directed covert operations.…The recent arrest by Turkish forces in Kenya of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan is one of the rare examples where the disruption tactic gained public notice.”16

Perhaps the most telling part of the whole Ocalan episode was the name he was given in the fake passport that the Greeks had issued him. When the Turks seized him, they confiscated the document and shared it with the world. He had the name of Lazaros. His cover was the diseased pauper in the biblical parable of the rich man and the beggar. The Greek leaders, lacking honor, treated Mr. Ocalan like a vagabond. They were glad to be rid of him.

And the irony doesn’t end with the Greeks. It actually started with the Turks. In the 1920s, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal, with an unbecoming modesty had assumed the last name of Ataturk, the father of Turks, for himself. He and his officials trotted the country and gave Turks and Kurds alike new Turkish last names. The name Ocalan, which means avenger, was given to Mr. Ocalan’s family.

In 1998, the Turkish President Suleyman Demirel accused the Kurdish leader and his fighters of killing 5,555 Turkish personnel.17 The Kurdish losses are often dismissed, and estimates vary, but the Turkish human rights activists often cite figures of over 30,000 dead, close to four thousand Kurdish villages destroyed and some four million Kurds rendered homeless seeking refuge in large Kurdish or Turkish cities or abroad. This writer has heard more than one Kurd quip that the avenger, Mr. Ocalan, only tried to live up to his name.

Kani Xulam is Director of American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) in Washington, DC, and has been active for many years in defense of Kurdish rights. He is currently consulting for a forthcoming feature film about the Kurdish people.

1. Greece and PKK Terrorism II, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ankara, April 1999, p. 66

2. Greece and PKK Terrorism II, p. 67

3. Greece and PKK Terrorism II, p. 67

4. Editorial, Farce and Tragedy for Apo, Il Faglio, Italy, February 17, 1999

5. Special to Ozgur Politika, Here is a Murderer [the photograph of an Israeli Agent], Ozgur Politika, February 21, 1999, p. 1

6. U.S. Issues Travel Warning, Philip Shenon, New York Times, February 18, 1999

7. Roger Cohen, 3 Kurds Killed by Israeli Guards in Berlin, New York Times, February 18, 1999, p. 1

8. Vernon Loeb, U.S. Tip to Turkey Led To Capture of Ocalan, The Washington Post, February 21, 1999, p. A27

9. Tim Weiner, U.S. Helped Turkey Find and Capture Kurd Rebel, The New York Times, February 20, 1999, p. 1

10. Tim Weiner, U.S. Helped Turkey Find and Capture Kurd Rebel, The New York Times, February 20, 1999, p. 1

11. Kieran Murray, Kenya says had no role in Ocalan’s capture, Reuters, February 16, 1999

12. Joel Greenberg, Israel Denies Role but Fears Reprisals for Ties to Turkey, The New York Times, February 18, 1999

13. Embassy of Greece Press Release, February 16, 1999

14. Cemal Ucar, Ozgur Politika, February 23, 1999, p. 8

15. The report was leaked to the press. The Greek daily Ta Nea published it on March 6, 1999. The American Kurdish Information Network got a copy of it as well.

16. John Diamond, Disrupting Terrorists, Associated Press, February 28, 1999

17. Nadire Mater, Mehmedin Kitabi, Metis Yayinlari, Ucuncu Basim, Istanbul, Turkey, 1999, p. 257