Iraq Turkmen Front leader, Ershad Salihi, says the PKK is using drug trafficking across the country to support its terrorist activities.
Recent revelations from some prominent Iraqi figures like Ershad Salihi, the leader of Kirkuk-based Iraq Turkmen Front, show that the PKK has increased its illegal drug trafficking activities across the country to finance its terror network.
The US, Turkey and the EU designate the PKK as a terror organisation.
“We speak about these issues [on their drug trafficking] based on concrete evidence,” Salihi tells TRT World.
In July, Iraqi security forces launched an anti-narcotic operation in Kirkuk detaining two suspects. Kirkuk is an oil-rich city, which has been in a political dispute between Turkmens, Kurds and Arabs for a long time.
“These two drug dealers are from Ranya and Kalar, where the PKK terrorist organisation has serious activities. Kirkuk police department released one of the drug dealers under pressure from some outside powers [which appeared to have connections with the PKK] after it launched its investigation,” Salihi says.
Ranya and Kalar are towns located in Sulaymaniyah, a heavily Kurdish-populated city in Erbil-based Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Kurdish authorities from both Erbil and Sulaymaniyah were involved in applying pressure on Kirkuk’s law enforcement to release one of the suspects, according to Salihi.
“As a result, unfortunately, the Kirkuk prosecutor released him. The other suspect is still under detention, waiting for his court day,” the Iraqi Turkmen leader says.
Kirkuk: a transit point
“We expect a clear statement from the Iraqi intelligence that these illicit drugs came to Kirkuk from Kalar. In recent months, through the drug trafficking, using Kirkuk as a transit point between northern Iraq and southern Iraq, the PKK has been able to garner a lot of financial sources,” he says.
Kirkuk, a strategic city located in central Iraq between Kurdish-populated north and Shia-Arab populated south, has long been a transitional point for various trade activities as well as human smuggling and illegal drug trafficking.
“Using these kinds of drug groups, the PKK terror organisation transfers illicit drug materials from northern Iraq to Kirkuk and then, from Kirkuk to southern Iraq,” Salihi says.
Salihi has also called on both central Iraqi authorities and the Kurdish regional government to go after the PKK’s illicit drug activities more firmly. “This is a serious problem for us because this poison has been mostly distributed to people living in Kirkuk,” he says.
“We have a close eye on their drug trafficking activities anyway,” he says, adding that he continues to receive information on their activities from Iraqi intelligence.
The PKK’s leading figures, Murat Karayilan, Cemil Bayik, Duran Kalkan, Ali Riza Altun, and Zubeyir Aydar, have been designated as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers (SDNT) by the US Department of Treasury at different times between the 1990s to 2010s.
“To secure funding, the PKK has long engaged in criminal activities such as trafficking of counterfeit money, illegal foreign currency exchanges, smuggling, tax evasion, and drug dealing,” wrote Matthew Levitt, the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at American think-thank The Washington Institute, in an article.
“As a result of the PKK's increasing activity in the international narcotics trade, the Treasury Department has designated the group a significant foreign narcotics trafficker in May 2008,” Lewitt added.
In 2011, the UN also drew attention to the PKK’s drug trade in one of its reports, saying that political instability across Iraq helped the terror group use the country as a centre of its trafficking activities, bringing Afghan heroin into the country.
The PKK has reportedly earned hundreds of millions of dollars from its drug trafficking.
Since the late 1990s, the PKK has operated its terror network from northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. Turkey demands both the KRG and central government authorities to kick the group out of Iraqi territories.
“Everybody knows that terror groups like Daesh and the PKK have long exploited certain security breaches across the country to benefit their networks from illicit drug trade,” says Salihi.
These armed groups use different tactics including bribing both security forces responsible for checkpoints and customs officials responsible for border gates to conduct their illegal business, according to Salihi.
In October, the PKK, whose decades of terror have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, killed Gazi Salih Ilhan, the manager of Serzer bordergate between Iraq and Turkey, according to Bekir Aydogan, the Erbil-based correspondent of Anadolu Agency.
After the killing, Mesrur Barzani, the KRG prime minister and the son of Masoud Barzani issued a strong statement. In it, they condemned Ilhan’s killing by “terrorists led by dark forces”, promising that the “people responsible for the killing will pay a heavy price”.
The PKK has also recently clashed with KRG peshmergas, particularly the ones loyal to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP and the PKK have long been at loggerheads over a number of issues.
In July 2019, the terror group also assassinated Osman Kose, a Turkish diplomat, in Erbil.
“The PKK has also been involved in assassinations against Turkmen [in Iraq]. One of our office managers was killed by the PKK two years ago according to our own information,” Salihi says.
But now that the PKK is resorting to actions, according to Salihi, there may be serious problems ahead, both socially and politically, for the Iraqi people.
“There have recently been some incidents in Sulaymaniyah. Their fingerprints were there,” says the Turkmen leader, referring to alleged PKK involvement in some protests in the northeastern city of Iraq.
“In regions like Kalar, Kifri and Garmiyan, which are under the control of Kurdish parties [like the KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)], they appeared to become more active,” he adds.
The Turkmen leader also sent a strong message to all Iraqi Kurdish parties, demanding they do not allow PKK activities in regions under their control. “At the end, if they allow the PKK activities in their regions, their inaction will damage the Kurds,” he views.
“The PKK did not help any Kurds. Instead, Kurds living across Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey have suffered from the PKK,” he concludes.