Turkey's attack on Kurdish civilians tied
to U.S. military drone
By Adam Entous and Joe Parkinson - The WSJ
May 16, 2012
Four months after the Turkish military, working with
U.S. Intelligence, bombed Kurdish civilian convoy
incorrectly identified as Kurdish militants,
survivors and relatives are demanding answers.
Photo: Reporting and video by WSJ's Joe Parkinson in
See Related Links
Locals gather in front of the bodies of Kurdish
were killed in a warplane attack in the Ortasu
village of Uludere, in the Sirnak province [Turkey
Kurdistan], on December 29, 2011. Turkish warplanes
killed 34 Kurdish villagers in an air strike near
the Iraqi Kurdistan border, Photo: EPA
ULUDERE, The Kurdish
region of Turkey, — After winding along a narrow
mountain ridge, a caravan of 38 men and mules paused
on the Turkish-Iraqi border. Then they heard the
propellers overhead. Minutes later, Turkish military
aircraft dropped bombs that killed all but four of
The strike in late December was meant to knock out
Kurdish separatist fighters. Instead it killed
civilians smuggling gasoline, a tragic blunder in
Turkey's nearly three-decade campaign against the
guerrillas. The killings ignited protests across the
country and prompted wide-ranging official
The civilian toll also set off alarms at the
Pentagon: It was a U.S. Predator drone that spotted
the men and pack animals, officials said, and
American officers alerted Turkey.
The U.S. drone flew away after reporting the
caravan's movements, leaving the Turkish military to
decide whether to attack, according to an internal
assessment by the U.S. Defense Department, described
to The Wall Street Journal. "The Turks made the
call," a senior U.S. defense official said. "It
wasn't an American decision."
The U.S. role, which hasn't previously been
reported, revealed the risks in a new strategy for
extending American influence around the globe. It
raises an outstanding question for the White House
and Congress: How far do we entrust allies with our
deadly drone technology?
After a decade of troop-intensive land wars, the
Obama administration is promoting advanced drones,
elite special forces and intelligence resources as a
more nimble, and less expensive, source of military
power. The strategy relies heavily on close
cooperation with regional allies, in part to reduce
the need for American troops on the ground.
In Pakistan and Somalia, where local authorities
can't or won't act against militants, the U.S.
employs armed drones and special-operations teams to
track and kill suspected terrorists. In Yemen, the
U.S. carries out drone strikes with the government's
approval. In Turkey—a North Atlantic Treaty
Organization member that has a modern air force—the
U.S. helps provide intelligence for operations but
plays no direct role in any strikes.
The downside to such arrangements, say current and
former U.S. officials, is that countries can use
U.S. intelligence in ways the Pentagon and the
Central Intelligence Agency can't control. Allies
have varying standards for deciding who is a
justified target. And these partnerships can embroil
the U.S. in local disputes with only slender links
to the security of Americans.
"What happens if this information gets to the
[foreign] government and they do something wrong
with it, or it gets into the hands of someone who
does something wrong with it?" said Rep. Mike Rogers
(R., Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence
Committee, who didn't know specific details of the
At the Pentagon, press secretary George Little said
when asked about the strike, "Without commenting on
matters of intelligence, the United States strongly
values its enduring military relationship with
The conflict between Turkish security forces and the
outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has taken
an estimated 40,000 lives since violence first
flared in the 1980s. Ethnic Kurds, about 18% of
Turkey's population, have long sought a degree of
political autonomy and the right to public education
in their native tongue. Tensions have risen since
Turkey last fall intensified its campaign against
the PKK, which the U.S. and European Union designate
a terrorist group.
U.S. drone flights in support of Turkey date from
November 2007, when the Bush administration set up
what is called a Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell
in Ankara, part of an effort to nurture ties with
the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan. U.S. and Turkish officers sit side by side
in the dimly lighted complex monitoring real-time
video feeds from Predator drones.
The Obama administration has moved to expand
cooperation—by stepping up intelligence sharing and
by supporting Turkey's request to buy armed and
unarmed U.S. drones to give the Turks full control.
The issue is sensitive for both sides. Turkey
doesn't want to be seen as reliant on the U.S. And
selling drones to Turkey faces opposition from key
members of Congress, who worry about spreading the
technology, as well as Turkey's standards for
deciding when to launch a strike.
While the White House is moving forward with plans
to provide Italy with arms for its drones, proposals
to sell or lease drones to Turkey face resistance in
Congress, which reviews such sales in advance.
Proponents argue they build long-term military
relations with close allies, as well as give U.S.
companies better access to the fast-growing global
The caravan strike is illustrative of the dangers.
Servet Encu, 42 years old, said he had made the
journey across the mountainous border separating
Turkey and Iraq several times a month since he was a
teenager, smuggling all kinds of goods.
In his and other impoverished Kurdish villages of
southeastern Turkey, smuggling is a trade made
profitable by differences between the two countries,www.ekurd.net
including taxes and currency values. Fuel costs
twice as much in Turkey as in Iraq, a substantial
oil producer, rewarding smugglers who ferry jugs of
gasoline through the mountains. The Turkish military
usually doesn't bother villagers crossing the
border, as long as they aren't smuggling weapons or
drugs. But PKK militants also cross the border in
The convoy, laden with food and gasoline, was
returning to Turkey on Dec. 28. They were less than
an hour from home after hiking along barren, icy
ridges for more than four hours, Mr. Encu said in an
Mr. Encu called his Kurdish village by cellphone for
help picking a route to avoid Turkish soldiers who
might confiscate their cargo, he recalled.
Above and out of sight, a U.S. Predator drone
loitered. It was on a routine patrol when U.S.
personnel monitoring its video feeds spotted the
caravan just inside Iraq and moving toward the
Turkish border, according to U.S. officials and the
Pentagon's assessment of the fatal strike.
U.S. military officers at the Fusion Cell in Ankara
couldn't tell whether the men, bundled in heavy
jackets, were civilians or guerrilla fighters. But
their location in an area frequented by guerrilla
fighters raised suspicions. The Americans alerted
their Turkish counterparts.
U.S. officials said additional surveillance from the
Predator might have helped the Turks better identify
the convoy. But, they said, Turkish officers instead
directed the Americans who were remotely piloting
the drone to fly it somewhere else. U.S. officials
said compliance with the Turks' request was standard
As darkness fell, Mr. Encu said, the men in the
caravan heard the dull hum of Herons—the
Israeli-made surveillance aircraft used by Turkey
and less sophisticated than U.S. drones.
Then Turkish warplanes appeared. "It was like a
lightning bolt," Mr. Encu said. "I saw a bright
light and the force of the explosion threw me to the
ground…When I turned my head I could see bodies on
fire and some were missing their heads."
The strikes lasted for about 40 minutes, survivors
said. Of the 34 men killed, 11 were members of Mr.
Encu's extended family. It was the largest number of
Kurdish civilians killed in a single attack in
Turkey's long conflict with the region's militants.
Rescuers dug for corpses under a collapsed mountain
ridge. They wrapped body parts and loaded them on a
trailer that was towed to the nearest village,
according to accounts of residents and local
The killings sparked clashes between hundreds of
stone-throwing protesters and the police in Kurdish
parts of Turkey. In the town of Uludere, Mayor Fehmi
Yaman charged that the attack marked the latest in a
series of government efforts to intimidate the local
population, much of which supports Kurdish
"The military knew these people were civilians. It
was a deliberate attack," he said. "The government
has tried all means of suppression, which have
failed, and now they tried this."
The Turkish military initially said it ordered the
strike because the convoy moved along a pathway
frequently used as a staging point for attacks by
the PKK. Turkey's government and its armed forces
both have open investigations into the matter.
Turkey's military didn't respond to repeated
requests for comment for this article. Turkey's
Prime Ministry, Interior Ministry and Defense
Ministry said they would neither comment on the
incident nor on questions over the scale of military
cooperation between Turkey and the U.S.
The killings threaten to spoil efforts to forge a
Turkish-Kurdish consensus for a planned new
constitution expected to partly address the issue of
rights for the Kurdish minority.
A former senior U.S. military official, involved in
sharing intelligence with Turkey before the December
attack, said he and fellow officers were sometimes
troubled by Turkish standards for selecting targets.
The former official said Turkish officers sometimes
picked targets based on a notion of "guilt by
association" with the PKK.
A current U.S. intelligence official defended the
partnership. "That is going to be the exception. It
is a horrible exception. It's a tragic exception,"
he said of the caravan strike. "But the vast
majority of efforts to expand our information
sharing and to work with our partners and allies
around the world are going to have positive
U.S. personnel work in the Ankara Fusion Cell, in
part, to monitor Turkey's use of U.S. intelligence,
U.S. officials said.
Turkish officials have assured the U.S. of their
measures to avoid civilian casualties. They say
privately that Predator drones help reduce attacks
on the PKK using less precise weapons, such as
But U.S. officials say such mistakes are feeding a
debate within the intelligence community and the
Defense Department about setting better guidelines
for sharing of U.S. intelligence.
Intelligence officials are divided on the issue.
Some say the U.S. should withhold intelligence if it
believes an ally might abuse the information. Others
warn new rules could slow intelligence sharing
In Uludere, December's events continue to
reverberate. Local men have reduced cross-border
smuggling trips, slowing the local economy.
Monuments to the dead have sprung up in villages. In
Gulyazi, home to 13 of those killed, a 30-foot-high
tent shelters a memorial where residents left
handwritten messages next to portraits of the dead.
On the outskirts of one village, widows and bereaved
mothers gather regularly. One day last month, scores
of women marched along a dirt track to a makeshift
cemetery where many of the dead were buried.
Fatma Encu, a cousin of Servet Encu, clutched a
framed portrait of her eldest son, Huseyin, who was
killed at age 19. "I don't want compensation," she
said. "I just want the murderers to be found and
Chief of the Turkish general staff, Necdet Ozel,
said the military was sharing information with
prosecutors, according to a Turkish news agency. "We
are not hiding anything," he said.
—Ayla Albayrak and Siobhan Gorman contributed to
Copyright ©, respective
author or news agency, The
Wall Street Journal
does not take credit for and is not responsible for the
content of news information on this page