When four consecutive bombs shook two of Turkey's sun-drenched Mediterranean coastal resorts last week, it was, quite literally, a blast from the past. Turkish authorities attributed the strikes, which left at least three dead and dozens injured (including 10 British tourists), to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (p.k.k.), a Kurdish separatist group that reached the height of its power some two decades ago.
If it is responsible, the p.k.k. is back with an ominous bang. Once one of Turkey's most potent terrorist organizations, the p.k.k. fought a 15-year war with Turkish security forces throughout the 1980s and '90s that left some 30,000 dead. Declaring a cease-fire in 1999 only after the capture and imprisonment of its charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan (known to Kurds simply as "Apo"), the group, numbering several thousand, retreated to the mountains of northern Iraq. There, its members abjure worldly goods and alcohol, practice strict gender equality (though sex between members is not allowed), while rising early to pore over left-wing political tracts.
While they fought originally for a "free Kurdistan" for all Kurds, lately they have limited their demands to improved rights for Turkey's Kurdish minority and an amnesty for p.k.k. fighters: "We want to be acknowledged," Zübeyir Aydar, the head of Kongra-Gel, the p.k.k.'s political wing, said. "Everything after that is negotiable." In 2004, after calling off its cease-fire, the group waged an escalating guerrilla war against Turkish security forces. It has bolstered its arsenal with plastic explosives and other munitions acquired from the Iraqi military after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Despite Turkish authorities' claims, the p.k.k. denies involvement in the bombings at the seaside towns of Antalya and Marmaris. Another Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (t.a.k.), has claimed responsibility. Considered a p.k.k. offshoot, the t.a.k. boasted in a written statement that "we have promised to turn monstrous Turkey into hell," with "more actions, bigger blows." Aydar told Time last week that the p.k.k. and t.a.k. differ in their underlying philosophies and do not collaborate on operations: "We are not responsible for what they do."
Whether masterminded by the core p.k.k. or a splinter group, the bombs mark a troubling departure in tactics. They are the first by the p.k.k. or any of its offshoots to target civilians and tourists on such a scale in recent years, threatening an $18 billion tourism industry. "We are facing an al-Qaeda–like terrorist gang," an editorial in the newspaper Hürriyet said the next day. "[They] take not only people's lives, but also their jobs and the bread from their hands."
The blasts could provoke a change in thinking in how to deal with the p.k.k. Turkey had been urging the U.S. to help root out the group from northern Iraq. Last week Washington finally responded by naming retired General Joseph Ralston, the former nato Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, as a special anti-p.k.k. coordinator. Ralston has close contacts with the Turkish military and will set up a "tripartite" group between Turkey, Iraq and the U.S. designed to ensure that "the p.k.k. cannot conduct terrorist activities," according to a U.S. State Department spokesman. Ralston is expected to travel to the region later this month.
Exactly what shape the initiative will take is not yet clear, although some kind of military response by Turkish forces seems likely. Even before last week's bombings, pressure was building on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Administration for a more forceful answer to the p.k.k. threat. Scores of Turkish soldiers have been killed in skirmishes with the group; more in some recent months than U.S. troops killed in Iraq.