Release of Turkish Hizbullah members sparks controversy over its future strategy

?ZG? GÜNGÖR
ANKARA

AA photo
AA photo

The recent release of leading members of the Turkish Hizbullah, an illegal organization that has left a bloody trail behind in Southeast Anatolia, has prompted speculation regarding the organization’s possible revival.
The organization, unrelated to the Lebanese Hezbollah, is regarded as responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people during the mid-1990s, the worst years of the conflict between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and Turkish government forces.
“The current circumstances don’t impel Hizbullah to resort to weapons [again]. But those who were released may play a leading role in the politicization of the organization,” former daily Cumhuriyet columnist Mehmet Faraç, known for his research into Hizbullah, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview Thursday.
While some commentators argue that, contrary to its violent actions in the past, Hizbullah will politicize its activities in the upcoming period, others – including government officials – have raised concerns the group may return to the violence it is accused of having practiced in the past.
Some claim Hizbullah will “redefine itself” and enter a new era following the releases, but others say the possibility that the group returns to violence is now stronger than ever before, given that it has grown into a “mass movement of militants” through traffic on its websites and charity activities of some foundations that are accused of being front organizations for Hizbullah.
“The Turkish Hizbullah may even push to obtain seats in the forthcoming elections from independent candidates and may run in provinces such as Batman, Diyarbak?r, Van and Mardin,” Faraç said.
While pro-Kurdish circles claim Hizbullah was a weapon against the Kurdish political movement, the wider public knew of the organization after mass graves that held dozens of hogtied bodies were discovered in the year 2000.
The public relived those days of horror when five Hizbullah members, two of which were allegedly leaders of the organization, were freed last week, as their cases, waiting to be discussed at the high court, did not come to a conclusion in 10 years’ time.
Hizbullah came to prominence in the late 1980s in southeastern Turkey. Some experts say its aim is to destroy the secular order and spread “true Islam” throughout the country, by force if necessary. However, strong claims have surfaced that it was the state itself that established the organization to fight the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, through illegal means, such as summary executions.

Other experts dismiss such claims, but acknowledge that the Turkish state has long failed to appropriately investigate the group.

Indeed, many of those killed in the Southeast during the 1990s, usually with meat cleavers or a bullet in the neck, were known to be active pro-Kurdish politicians or journalists.

Many members of groups that preceded today’s Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, are believed to have been killed by Hizbullah, though hundreds of such murders still remain unsolved.

Dispute with the PKK

The state “did not create the Turkish Hizbullah but did use it against the PKK,” according to Faraç.

Sedat Laçiner, president of Ankara-based think tank USAK, however, said such claims are the product of an “urban legend” that has no evidence to support it.

Most experts agreed that the groups are ideologically different, with Hizbullah espousing fundamentalist Islamist views while the PKK is based on a separatist Marxist revival; a distinction many believe led to the conflict between the two groups in the 1990s.

For Laçiner, Hizbullah gained support by voicing a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the conservative southeast, a region that was prone to terrorist attacks from the PKK and that suffered from the state’s failure to adequately protect its residents.

Hizbullah grew stronger in the 1990s when it is said to have started killing PKK members and supporters. The state’s real tension and conflict with Hizbullah emerged in the mid-1990s when the organization grew excessively and expanded its target base from PKK members to moderate Islamists and other opponents.

In the late 1990s Hizbullah reportedly widened its area of operations from the east to the big cities in the west – including Istanbul.

The organization’s collapse began when Turkish security forces killed one of the group’s leaders, Hüseyin Velio?lu, during an operation in Istanbul in January 2000. Subsequent operations led to the discovery of dozens of mass graves containing the bodies of victims who had been kidnapped, tortured and buried alive.

Velio?lu’s death led the group to target Turkish security forces in 2001, a principal motivation behind government crackdowns on the organization in the following years.

The organization is also charged with the murders of 188 people, including Islamist feminist writer Konca Kuri? and Diyarbak?r Police Chief Gaffar Okkan, who commanded huge respect in the city.

For Faraç, over time the organization went through some critical self-reflection and tried to restore its image, with 2003 seeing the establishment of various foundations and associations. “The organization has come to the conclusion that the process of politicization will be better for its future interests,” Faraç said.

Demilitarization process

Following operations by the Turkish security forces in the early 2000s, the organization laid down its arms and demilitarized, according to Laçiner. “But, this demilitarization process does not mean the group has given up on terror. Rather, it implies the group is structuring itself underground, with a strategy to protect itself from the Turkish state and restore its strength,” Laçiner said. “It is a strategy to come back in a stronger, massive way. The group still has an aim to come back with violent actions.”

The recent prison releases may imbue in the organization a degree of excitement, but the released prisoners’ contribution to the organization is likely to be only symbolic, as they will remain under the observation of security forces. It is likely the whole structure of the organization was re-oriented while those who have been released were in detention, he said.

“The organization is now stronger as it is growing into a mass movement. There is unemployment and a gap in the Southeast that either the PKK or Hizbullah can fill. The PKK doesn’t satisfy the soul while Hizbullah promises a more spiritual world to those living in the region, a crucial factor in it’s being a potentially massive movement,” Laçiner said.

In a column in daily Vatan last week, Ru?en Çak?r said the releases had added morale to the organization, which has become stronger compared to 10 years ago.

Entering the third phase

The organization entered its second phase when it laid down arms and displayed its “civic sensibilities” by maintaining social and cultural activities, such as coordinating websites, running publishing houses and establishing foundations, associations and local newspapers following Velio?lu’s death, according to Çak?r.

The recent prison releases represent the “third Hizbullah phase,” according to Çak?r. The releases, which have coincided with the organization’s efforts to redefine itself, are likely to change the balance within the group and inflect the organization’s future strategy and tactics, he said.

Daily Radikal’s Ankara representative Murat Yetkin, who spoke to a senior government official, said Friday the official was concerned that the group could return to its violent ways.

Former Interior Minister Saadettin Tantan, who ran operations against the organization 10 years ago, was quoted as saying the released prisoners could escape to Iran or revive the organization’s activities from underground.

The releases added morale to the organization and could trigger a battle between the PKK, Hizbullah and Fethullah Gülen, the founder and leader of the Islamist Gülen Movement, for the support of many locals in Turkey’s east southeast regions, according to Tantan.


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