Exclusive: Inside the PKK’s frontline fight against ISIL

Labeled a terrorist organization by the US and much of Europe, the PKK may be Sinjar’s best hope for defeating ISIL

SINJAR, Iraq — Sitting on a couch with a few friends, Jacko played a tune on a jammed-up electronic keyboard while explaining that he's not a terrorist.

As the commander of a PKK unit, he spends hours every day on his belly with his sniper rifle propped on a cushion pointing through a hole in the wall.

His fellow fighters — none older than 25 — snake through the abandoned buildings that make up the invisible front line in Sinjar. The city is largely under ISIL control, but Jacko says his group holds about a fifth of the city and all the strategic points.

“ISIL is on the defensive,” said Jacko, who asked to be identified by only his first name. “We have built up a front line inside the city. We are standing by. Any move from them, and we will act.”

Last year ISIL swept through northern Iraq and left a trail of death, massacring thousands of the Yazidi minority and stranding tens of thousands more in the mountains to die. Eventually, Kurdish peshmerga forces, aided by U.S. airstrikes, were credited with breaking the siege and saving the Yazidi. But the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, deserve just as much credit for halting further slaughter. 

For Sinjar, a city under siege, the PKK may be the best hope for driving out ISIL, even if the U.S. and most of Europe classify it as a terrorist organization.

Jacko, the commander of the PKK in Sinjar, hopes the U.S. will accept the group as an ally before it’s too late.
America Tonight

"We are currently, more or less, alone on the front lines," Jacko said. "There are no peshmerga with us. The coalition forces do not take our advice. They should listen first to the fighters on the front line. But we understand that this is a result of state politics."

Formed in the 1970s, the PKK is an armed separatist group that hoped to win independence from Turkey for the Kurds. To that goal, the group's tactics have included bombings and kidnappings, and it has killed thousands. But a cease-fire in 2013 ended the PKK's open conflict with Ankara, though tensions remain. Now the PKK's fighting is focused on ISIL.

"Why is it important to fight ISIL? Because ISIL has a twisted ideology," said Jacko. "It is not Islam. It destroys all of humanity, not just the Kurds or the Shias. It's a threat against Christianity, Judaism, the Yazidis. It is a virus of the 21st century, and it has to be removed."

Despite a rising death toll, that belief propels Jacko forward. He carries grainy photocopied images of his fallen comrades. So far, 57 have died in Sinjar.

"Not everyone gets to die with dignity," he said. "I am glad that our friends are able to. It's an honor."

‘Not everyone in Europe accuses us of terrorism. It’s mostly the media and governments. If they looked at the facts, they would realize we aren’t terrorists.’


commander of a PKK unit

The group's reputation on the front lines against ISIL has started to shift international attitudes slowly in its favor. Some in the U.S. have called for the group to be delisted as a terrorist group, but such a move risks rankling Turkey, a critical American ally.

"Not everyone in Europe accuses us of terrorism," Jacko said. "It's mostly the media and governments. If they looked at the facts, they would realize we aren't terrorists." 

Because of its classification, the PKK can't buy weapons from the West and relies on old weapons that often fail to fire. Jacko has watched with frustration as weapons flow freely to the peshmerga, who stay far from the front lines.

"It's fine to arm any force that fights ISIL," he said. "But if half of their weapons were in our hands, we would be able to liberate Sinjar."

A PKK sniper in Sinjar.
America Tonight

Another frustration for the PKK is its inability to coordinate directly with U.S. air power. Jacko forwards the locations of ISIL units to the peshmerga, who pass them on to U.S. pilots. Accuracy suffers, sometimes with near-deadly results.

Despite their many obstacles, Jacko finds it easy to motivate his fighters, who come from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, united against what they consider an existential threat.

"Life is difficult," said a female sniper in his unit, who asked not to be named. "But when you believe in and understand the goal of your fight, then it is not."

As a Marxist-oriented group, the PKK isn't religiously motivated, and men and women fight side by side. Having female fighters is a particularly effective psychological tactic. Many ISIL fighters fear being killed by female fire, with some believing it would prevent them from going to heaven. When a woman notches a kill, the PKK fighters taunt ISIL.

"They attack with heavy weaponry," the female sniper said of ISIL forces. "Without that, they are scared to attack. They are not strong fighters."

The PKK unit in Sinjar is holding ISIL at bay, armed mainly with light weaponry and relying heavily on sniper fire. Jacko said his fighters will continue to struggle alone but added that he hopes the U.S. and others will come to accept the PKK as a true ally against ISIL before it's too late.

"If the Americans joined us in the fight, we would be at the front lines even if we were just four fighters," he said. "And if the peshmerga were to join us, it would be even better. That would show that the Kurds are united. We hope they will come too."

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Crisis in Iraq, ISIL, PKK, Terrorism

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