As Turkish people wonder if the simultaneous fires in multiple Turkish cities are arson attacks, the country’s air force bombed around 40 targets of the PKK terror group in northern Iraq.

More than 71 forest fires that blazed across at least 17 Turkish cities in three days between 28-30 July, left many wondering if the fires were caused by acts of terrorism and sabotage. 

Natural causes such as weather conditions or campfires left behind by picnickers are among the common causes of forest fires. Agriculture and Forestry Minister said the fires that occurred simultaneously at multiple points without wind carrying them further are the main reason behind the growing suspicion.

"This is not something we will ignore. After all, these are fires that, although broke out in different places, happened almost at the same time, from Manavgat to Marmaris and Bodrum," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said speaking to the media on Friday.

A non-stop effort put up by firemen brought 57 fires under control but at least 1140 locations are still burning. Locals are making an essential contribution to firefighting efforts as they carry water to the sites in private vehicles. 

Erdogan said several aeroplanes have been dispatched to douse the fire, including the ones purchased from Russia and Ukraine. This is in addition to 38 helicopters, 9 unmanned aerial vehicles, 680 water trucks, and 4.000 personnel that were already working to extinguish the fires.

But as the country held its breath, Turkey, on the night of July 30, sent other planes to Northern Iraq for a completely different operation. They struck at nearly 40 PKK targets, destroying them immediately, according to Turkey's Ministry of National Defence.

Meanwhile, Turkey is investigating the cause of forest fires in various cities. For the authorities, the PKK's role cannot be ruled out since the armed group, which has been designated a terror organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU has a history of setting forests on fire.

Arson as a PKK tactic

The prime suspect PKK has not claimed responsibility for the ongoing fires yet. However, environmental destruction is one of the methods of vengeance used by the group, whose supporters were quick to take pleasure in the deadly blaze swallowing trees and wildlife while commenting about it on social media. 

In 2020, on the anniversary of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan's expulsion from Syria on October 9, 1998, major fires exploded across Turkish cities on October 10, burning down approximately 400 hectares of forests, empty residential buildings, and several dozen animals.

Children of Fire Initiative, a PKK affiliate group, claimed responsibility for the fires in a statement published on Nuce Civan, an online pro-PKK publication. 

“We salute the holy fire,” the group said in reference to October fires. 

PKK, the terror group that has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984, a couple of years after the group was founded, did not deny the claim. In the wake of their battle, it has left more than 40,000 killed, including civilians so far. People’s United Revenge Militia (HBIM) is another PKK-linked group that claimed responsibility for fires in the past.

While the group launched its first attack in Turkey in 1984, the group adopted forest fires as a strategy in the 1990s. Greece, where some PKK terrorists were trained, also had its share in the deliberate fires by PKK, as the group set alight the forests that attract Turkish tourists, according to a leaked Turkish intelligence report. 

Members of PKK not only set the forests on fire but also oil pipes and government institutions. 

The fires in the Mediterranean, a region that is the heart of Turkish tourism, saw 2,000 hectares of land destroyed in five days as a result of PKK arson attacks that the group claimed responsibility.

In some instances, the group sees setting fires as an act of revenge from the Turkish state that it accuses of burning the areas upon the termination of the resolution process between the state and the group in July 2015. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, on the other hand, refused these claims, publishing the data regarding the fires that took place during the process.

In other instances, it was a tactic to distract the Turkish security forces to create an easy escape route for the terrorists who were captured.

“We came here to keep guard of marijuana fields. Another team after ours was supposed to come to fetch us. (…) A clash started. We said to the peasants, “Come here and set this forest on fire to save us. We are stuck.” Then, I ran out of bullets and I surrendered,” a statement by a PKK terrorist from the Children of Fire group read

Turkey’s extensive counterterrorism operations, the group’s urban warfare attacks have been damaged especially since 2016. 

But Murat Karayilan, one of the PKK leaders that the US put bounties on their heads, said regarding the forest fires last year that arson is a tactic to adapt when the members have no arms.

“Two or three youths may well gather and do something. They may say ‘we don’t have a weapon’ but their weapons are lighters and matches,” he said.