This week the United States announced that it was offering a bounty of several million dollars for information leading to the arrest of three top Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders. A “bounty” of $5 million dollars was placed on People’s Defense Forces (HPG) leader Murat Karayilan, $4 million for Cemil Bayik, and $3 million for Duran Kalkan.
The bounties are part of the US State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program. Established by the 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism, the program states that “the Secretary of State may offer rewards for information that leads to the arrest or conviction of anyone who plans, commits, aids or attempts international terrorist acts against US persons or property, that prevents such acts from occurring in the first place, that leads to the identification or location of a key terrorist leader, or that disrupts terrorism financing.”
The US State Department’s website claims that since the start of the program in 1984, “the United States has paid in excess of $125 million to more than 80 people who provided credible information that brought terrorists to justice or prevented acts of international terrorism worldwide. The program played a significant role in the arrest of international terrorist Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Today, the Rewards for Justice Program continues to play a critical role in US counterterrorism initiatives around the globe.”
At any one time, up to 25 “wanted individuals” are placed on the State Department’s list of people it will pay a reward for information leading to arrest. Before the addition of these three PKK leaders, the list included various al Qaeda leaders, Taliban leaders, Islamic State (ISIS) leaders, a Hamas operative, several Hezbollah operatives, the unknown killers of an American in Yemen in 2012, and smugglers of ISIS-captures oil and antiquities.
Since the program began, all of the named individuals on the list appear to have been responsible for killing, or plotting to kill, Americans. Hamas suicide bombings killed many American citizens in Israel over the years, and Hezbollah famously drove a bomb-laden truck into a US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 US service personnel. The Taliban, al Qaeda and its affiliates have likewise targeted Americans on more occasions than can be enumerated here. These are the kind of enemies that the program was intended to go after.
This is what makes the addition of PKK leaders to the list strange. The PKK has never targeted Americans or even threatened to target Americans. After the mid-1990s, the PKK even disavowed and generally ceased attacks on civilians in Turkey (with some debatable but rare exceptions), which is the usual definition of terrorism. The State Department announcement on Karayilan, Bayik and Kalkan in fact had to go all the way back to this era to find any wrongdoing against Americans, however unintentional and minor: the program’s website accordingly states that “In 1993 the PKK kidnapped 19 Western tourists including an American and in 1995 two Americans were injured in a PKK bombing.” That’s it. The tourists were released unharmed, and the two Americans injured in the 1995 bombing were not even the intended target.
The PKK and its affiliates have also been very important for the war against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. At a time when many in Europe are calling for the removal of the PKK from various terrorism lists, deeming the group to be guerrillas in a war with the Turkish state and its security forces rather than terrorists who target civilians, it thus seems bizarre for Americans to announce this bounty. Since when does the State Department’s program target the enemies of other states? The US has much better allies than Turkey, whose support of jihadists in Syria and recent invasion of Afrin, according to a US Defense Department report also released this week, seriously compromised the war against ISIS. Yet none of these countries’ enemies who have nothing to do with America ever appeared on the State Department’s list.
The decision to add PKK leaders to the “Rewards for Terrorism” list probably came from some misguided State Department official’s idea to try and mollify the Turks, who are angry about American cooperation with PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish groups. The ploy will achieve nothing, however, beyond making Americans look stupid. Turkish officials hardly proved very grateful for the American capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, and their response to this gesture was similar: they called the move “late” and stated that “It does not change Turkish policy on east of the Euphrates.” This means Turkey still intends to attack Syrian-Kurdish US allies in Syria, amongst whom American forces are embedded.
It would have made more sense for the US to announce a bounty for information leading to the arrest of Turkish president Erdogan’s bodyguards, who on more than one occasion intentionally assaulted and injured peaceful American demonstrators in Washington, D.C.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.