The murder of Kurds in Paris: what we know now

At least superficially, the PKK’s charge that Turkey is responsible for Friday’s murders appears to have no more foundation than Turkey’s charge that the SDF was behind the Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul.
Protestors stand in front of riot police officers following a statement by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin , Dec. 23, 2022 (Photo: Thomas SAMSON / AFP)
Protestors stand in front of riot police officers following a statement by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin , Dec. 23, 2022 (Photo: Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Less than 48 hours have passed since an apparent white racist killed three Kurdish activists in Paris on Friday.

While the investigation is ongoing, here is what we know for now. 

Two significant points can be noted. One is the identity of the murderer—a 69-year-old Frenchman with a criminal record that includes a prior arrest for an attack on a migrant camp, as well as a conviction for illegal weapons possession.

The second key point is that one immediate impact of the attack is to raise the already high tensions between Turkey and its Kurdish population, particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.)

Why should an attack by a racist Frenchman on Kurds in a European capital raise tensions with Turkey? The center he targeted is pro-PKK, and the PKK has played a significant role in promoting the notion that Turkey was behind the attack.

That may also help explain the vehemence of the protests that followed, which included throwing rocks and other objects at French police, injuring eleven of them, while setting fires in the street, and damaging property, including automobiles.

In some respects, such a response may be understandable. But it is also extremely short-sighted. France is not the enemy of the Kurdish people. Rather, it has been a long-standing supporter, as Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani affirmed late on Friday.

Indeed, Paris’ support for the Kurds goes back to the 1980s and Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French President, Francois Mitterrand. He played a key role in pushing the US to reverse policy after the 1991 Gulf War and protect the Kurdish people, who had revolted against Saddam Hussein and then fled his fearsome reprisal, as the US looked on, expecting he would be ousted in a military coup.

Read More: PM Barzani hails historical role of late Danielle Mitterrand in meeting with her son 

The French Gunman and the Attack on the Kurdish Cultural Center

French authorities have identified the gunman as “William M.” They describe him as a 69-year-old, native-born Frenchman, a retired train driver from the state-owned National Company of French Railways (SNCF.) He has a prior criminal record, including violence against foreigners.

In 2017, William M. was given a suspended prison sentence for “prohibited possession of weapons,” Le Monde reported. In 2022, he was sentenced to twelve months in prison for violent actions committed earlier with those weapons. The legal proceeding is still ongoing because he appealed his conviction, and he has not yet had to serve that sentence.

But a third crime did send him to jail. He is suspected of slashing two people with a saber at a migrant camp in Paris, inhabited largely by Sudanese men. That occurred in Dec. 2021. He was arrested but was never tried for the crime. So, he was released a short time ago—on Dec. 12—after nearly a year in pre-trial detention, which is the maximum allowed for such incarceration under French law.

Eleven days later, William M. killed three Kurds in the center of Paris.

Turkey versus the PKK: Syria

Long ago, the US and European Union designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. It was founded in 1978 and was originally supported by the Soviet Union and Moscow’s ally, Syria’s Baathist regime.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria lacked the ability to protect the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The US obliged Damascus to expel him from the country. Ocalan traveled to Kenya, where he was captured by Turkish authorities and then imprisoned.

Last month, on Nov. 13, a bombing in downtown Istanbul killed six people. Turkey blamed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main US partner in fighting ISIS in Syria.

Whereas the US considers the SDF an ally, Turkey sees it as the Syrian branch of the PKK. That has created serious tensions between Washington and Ankara.

Ankara’s claim that the SDF was behind the Istanbul bombing appears dubious for several reasons. The SDF had no evident motive for attacking Turkey then. The SDF enjoyed a comfortable position as America’s partner fighting ISIS in northeast Syria, where it controlled a significant amount of territory.

Secondly, Turkish authorities, using video from street cameras, quickly identified and arrested the woman who carried and planted the bomb. They then published her photograph. But she did not look Syrian—neither Arab, nor Kurdish. Rather, she appeared to be North African!

Read More: US: Turkish-backed group killed head of ISIS last month—throws new light on Istanbul bombing

Nonetheless, a week later, on Nov. 20, Turkey began bombing and shelling the SDF. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan justified the assault as a response to the Istanbul bombing. Moreover, he threatened a cross-border ground attack against the SDF.

US officials, fearing such an attack would disrupt military operations against ISIS, spoke strongly to their Turkish counterparts and appear to have succeeded in dissuading them from conducting a ground attack. Nonetheless, as recently as Thursday, CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Michael Kurilla, expressed concern that Turkey, might, nonetheless, carry out such an assault.

Read More: CENTCOM: ISIS, Iran are two big threats in region

Nearly ten years ago, on Jan. 13, 2013, three Kurdish activists from the PKK, including a co-founder of the group, were shot dead in Paris. French police arrested and charged a 32-year-old Turkish national, Omer Guney. Just before his trial began, however, in late 2016, he died of brain cancer.

Suspicion within the PKK then and even among some French authorities, fell on Turkish intelligence. Erdogan had begun an effort to reconcile with the PKK, and, perhaps, some Turkish elements opposed to a reconciliation were behind the murders.

Whichever party was behind the murders a decade ago, the PKK was quick to revive that charge following Friday’s murders. It accused Turkey of responsibility, even though the gunman was a Frenchman who held racist views and who had previously attacked migrants.

At least superficially, the PKK’s charge that Turkey is responsible for Friday’s murders appears to have no more foundation than Turkey’s charge that the SDF was behind the Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul. It is as if one mirrors the other.

Nonetheless, the result, at least initially, has been an increase in tensions between Turkey and the Kurds. Depending on what happens next, it could revive the prospect of a Turkish ground offensive into northeast Syria, irrespective of U.S. protests.

Turkey vs. the PKK: Finland, Sweden Applications to Join NATO

The other issue which might be affected involves the applications of Finland and Sweden to join NATO after Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine.

To do so, they need the approval of all NATO members. However, Ankara has objected on the grounds that the two countries have harbored anti-Turkish terrorists—Gulenists, as well as the PKK.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom visited Ankara to address Turkish concerns. He met with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, as well as members of Turkey’s parliament.

In a joint press conference on Thursday, as Billstrom’s visit ended, Cavusoglu expressed appreciation for the steps Sweden has taken, but he also stated that Sweden had not gone even “halfway” toward fulfilling its commitments to Turkey.

Ankara is playing hardball, and the murders in Paris may further strengthen its position, given the prominence of the PKK in fanning anti-Turkish sentiment in France.

It has been only 24 hours since the murders, and what we know is relatively little. It may turn out that the murders are what they seem: the depraved violence of an aging, racist Frenchman. Or they may prove to be something more complex, engineered by a party seeking to promote Kurdish-Turkish tensions. Only time will tell.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg contributed to this report.