Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1999, pages 60, 102
The Ostrovsky Files
Capture of Kurdish Rebel Leader Ocalan Recalls Mossad Collaboration With Both Turkey, Kurds
By Victor Ostrovsky
“I want to make very clear to all of you,” wrote Mossad head Efraim Halevi in a letter to all employees of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency and their families, “that we had nothing whatsoever to do with the apprehension of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] leader.”
By this extremely unusual step, Halevi wanted to send a message to the public, without having to make direct contact with the media, to refute allegations that his organization was linked to Ocalan’s kidnapping from Nairobi.
Over the years the Mossad has had so many strange bedfellows that the Israeli spy agency may have earned undisputed admission to the world’s very oldest profession rather than merely coming in second along with other intelligence agencies.
Mossad supported South Africa’s apartheid regime when no one else would, and provided arms and training for such murderous leaders as Idi Amin of Uganda, Papa (and Baby) Doc of Haiti, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Manuel Noriega of Panama, Nicolai Ceaucescu of Rumania, and the vicious Communist Dergue regime in Ethiopia.
In fact, because of such Mossad activities and its casual attitude toward the export of high tech weaponry, Israel sometimes finds itself on both sides of the same conflict. This has been the case in Sri Lanka, Cyprus and Bosnia. Such also has been the case with the Turks and the Kurds. This is further complicated by the fact that the divided Kurds themselves are sometimes on more than one side of an equation.
The long-standing alliance between Israel and Turkey is only slightly older than the close ties between Israel and some Kurdish factions. On Aug. 29, 1958, a secret agreement was reached between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes calling for Israeli-Turkish collaboration against Middle East radicalism and “Soviet influence.” After the Turkish military coup of 1960, which resulted in Menderes’s execution, relations between the two countries grew more distant.
In 1964, prime ministers Levi Eshkol of Israel and Ismet Inonu of Turkey met in Paris to revive the “Trident Agreement” of 1958 and pledged technical and across-the-board training for intelligence and security services, placing the Mossad’s Istanbul liaison station in charge.
In 1974 there were rumors of Israeli aid in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Since 1975, the Turkish air force has acquired Israeli-made Shafrir air-to-air missiles, and a large selection of other military equipment.
Israel continued to regard Turkey as an ally sent from heaven.
During the 1970s the Mossad also was keeping a close eye on the unraveling of civil order in Turkey as right-wing Islamic and nationalist groups clashed with extreme left-wingers, threatening to plunge the country into a civil war and strain Turkey’s relationship with Israel.
After the military coup of 1980, however, the love affair resumed.
In fact, to maintain it, any mention of the Armenian massacre of 1915 in Turkey is banned from any Israeli government-owned media. And in 1982 Israel’s Foreign Ministry protested a scheduled discussion of the Armenian genocide at an International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide.
At the same time, the Mossad recognized the intelligence-gathering potential and destabilizing possibilities of the non-Arab Kurdish minority in the Middle East, which is split among six countries: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Armenia and Russia.
Iraq has the largest Kurdish population and has granted it the most autonomy, including the printing of school textbooks in Kurdish. In Turkey, however, Kurds are referred to as “mountain Turks,” and movements for autonomy or independence are outlawed.
The on-and-off Kurdish rebellion in Iraq fits especially well into Israel’s “bigger picture” for the region. Starting in 1958, as part of an alliance with the shah of Iran, Israel started arming and training Kurds in northern Iraq to revive their struggle against the Baghdad government. In 1963, Mossad increased the volume of aid, turning what up until that time had been a small intelligence contingency kept alive with occasional arms shipments into a massive onslaught of weapons and military advisers, all channeled through Iran.
Iraq Sidelined in 1967
In August 1965, the first training course run by Israeli instructors for Kurdish officers was held in the mountains of Kurdistan. Israeli meetings with Kurdish political leaders were held in Tehran. One result, according to some reports, was that the Kurds mounted an offensive against the Iraqis at the time of the June 1967 war, keeping Iraq from offering aid to other Arab armies. After the 1967 war, the Kurds were supplied with Soviet equipment captured by Israel from Egypt and Syria.
Israel also provided the Kurds with some $500,000 a month, and Iraqi Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani visited Israel in 1967 and again in 1973.
Also in 1973 the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq was expanded from a purely Israeli-Iranian project to include support from the U.S. Several CIA liaison officers were stationed in Barzani’s headquarters.
In 1975, however, all aid was cut off when Iran reached an agreement with Iraq, mediated by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who also had authorized the U.S. intrusion into the Kurdish struggle two years earlier. This ended the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq, mainly because all Israeli aid to the Kurds had to pass through Iranian territory.
Despite their seeming abandonment by Mossad, the Kurds continued a more limited cooperation with Israel, which increased somewhat during the Iran-Iraq war.
While all this was going on, however, Israel continued to regard Turkey as an ally sent from heaven. Turkey is a large country with a large army flanking Syria, Israel’s mortal enemy. And, much to Israeli delight, Turkey and Syria have a major territorial dispute over prime Syrian lands handed over during the French Mandate to Turkey. These lands include Antioch/Antakya, once one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, and the strategic port of Mersin.
Thus when Abdullah Ocalan formed the PKK and allied himself with the Hezbollah and Syria in a struggle against Turkey, he acquired the Mossad as both a friend and an enemy.
For some time it was Mossad that, despite Israel’s warm relations with Turkey, tipped off the PKK leader about Turkish attempts to capture him. This kept him free to harass Israel’s Turkish “friend,” and drive it to seek even closer ties with the Jewish state.
At the same time Mossad, assisted by unit 8200 (Israel’s equivalent of America’s code-breaking National Security Agency), continued tracking Ocalan and his followers in their various Syrian and Iraqi hideouts for many years.
The first public mention of that fact surfaced in a 1996 revelation by Turkish authorities after a car bomb in Turkey killed several members of what were believed to be Turkish death squads. In a television interview Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz confirmed that Turkish agents had cooperated with Mossad in an unsuccessful attempt on Ocalan’s life in Damascus.
After Turkey and Israel signed their current military cooperation agreement, Turkish forces moved to the Syrian border in the summer of 1998 and successfully pressured Syria to expel Ocalan or face an invasion.
After leaving Syria, Ocalan went to Iran with the cooperation of Syrian intelligence. From Tehran he traveled to Russia, which denied him permission to remain. He therefore traveled on a false passport to Italy in hopes of disappearing into the large Kurdish community in Europe.
Mossad advisers helped the Turkish intelligence agency stay on his trail, and Italian intelligence was warned of Ocalan’s pending arrival. On Nov. 13, 1998 Ocalan was arrested at Rome’s airport, at which time he asked for political asylum.
After a long legal battle, Italy decided to deport Ocalan rather than hand him over to the Turkish government. The Italians were fearful of Turkish economic reprisals if they gave Ocalan asylum and Kurdish revenge if they handed the PKK leader over to Turkey.
After being turned away when he sought to fly to the Netherlands, Ocalan eventually landed at a remote airport in Greece, a staunch enemy of Turkey. His flight was sent on to Nairobi, however, by Greek authorities who were not ready at that point to enter into a public squabble with Turkey. In Nairobi, the Greeks provided Ocalan with a Cypriot passport under the name of Mavros Lazaros, a Greek Cypriot journalist with strong links to Ocalan’s PKK. Then after a short stay at the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, Ocalan was to be conducted by Kenyan authorities to the airport from which he would fly out of Kenya to a safer place.
Several days earlier, however, a 10-member Turkish security team had flown to Nairobi on a small passenger jet owned by a Turkish textile magnate. The Turkish agents intercepted Ocalan’s car as he was being driven to the Nairobi airport, followed by Greek diplomats. Ocalan was drugged and bound and put on the small business jet which flew him to Turkey.
His arrest was enthusiastically celebrated on Turkish television, but sparked violent demonstrations across Europe by Kurdish expatriates protesting the Turkish action and suspected Greek, Kenyan and Israeli involvement in Ocalan’s capture.
In the most serious of these protests, Israeli security officers opened fire, killing three demonstrators at the Israeli Embassy grounds in Berlin. There is a dispute between the Israeli version of that incident and that of the German authorities. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Ocalan awaits trial in a military-civilian court on treason charges, which carry a death penalty. ❑
Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad case officer, is the author of By Way of Deception and The Other Side of Deception, both of which are available on audiotape from the AET Book Club. ❑
Born in 1948 in a village in eastern Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan studied political science at Ankara University, where he is believed to have become a Maoist. By 1973 he had organized a socialist group, initially including both Kurdish and Turkish militants, with a goal of socialist revolution in Turkey. On Nov. 7, 1978, the PKK was established. More about the PKK can be learned from their Web site at <http://burn.ucsd.edu/~ats/PKK/pkk.htm>
The Kurdish People
Between 15 and 20 million Kurds live in a mountainous area straddling the borders of Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Of these, eight million live in southeastern Turkey.
The Kurds, whom many identify with the Medes of antiquity, are a non-Semitic people whose Indo-European language is related to Farsi (Persian) sect of Islam. Most Kurds adhere to the Sunni sect of Islam.