Intelligence and the Capture of PKK
Leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999
In 1999 Greece’s
National Intelligence Agency (EYP) conducted a high-risk operation that ended
in a debacle and strained its relations with the United
and other nations. The operation was an effort to transfer Abdullah Ocalan, the
fugitive founding leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from Greece to a country in Africa
to avoid his capture by Turkish authorities. Athens’s
plan was to hide Ocalan in the Greek embassy in Nairobi until he could be transferred to
another location. Army Major Savvas Kalenteridis, an EYP officer, was assigned
to escort Ocalan to his destination. Instead, his actions in Nairobi not only failed to keep Ocalan from
his pursuers but led to an international flap and ended several careers,
eventually including his own. In the process, the Greeks exposed the
ineffectiveness of their intelligence apparatus, which violated numerous
fundamentals of intelligence tradecraft.
This account of events was compiled from press
reports, leaked official Greek government documents, testimony given during a
trial in 2003 of those who illegally brought Ocalan into Greece in 1999
and precipitated this misadventure.
By 1999, Abdullah Ocalan had become the
world’s most prominent Kurdish figure and a fugitive driven out of several
countries. Born in 1948 in the village
of Omerli in southeastern Turkey, Ocalan
became politically active during his college years and founded the PKK in 1974.
Ocalan’s vision, rooted in
Marxist-Leninist ideology, was to set up an independent Kurdish state by waging
an armed struggle against Turkey.
The first shots of this conflict were fired in 1984, but it continues even now,
having claimed, by some estimates, about 44,000 lives.
Since the PKK’s formation, Turkey has formally declared the group a
terrorist organization, a stance adopted by the United States, the European Union,
and much of the international community. Ocalan became an international fugitive
since about 1980, when he fled to Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon, where
he set up his PKK headquarters. He was driven from Syria
under international pressure and has sought safe haven in Italy, Russia,
where he arrived with two female aides on 29 January 1999. The group had
been spirited out of St. Petersburg,
Russia, on a
private plane hired by a retired Greek Navy officer, a long-time friend of
From Patterns of Global Terrorism,
Kurdistan Workers' Party
Established in 1974 as a Marxist-
Leninist insurgent group primarily
composed of Turkish Kurds. In recent
years has moved beyond rural-based
insurgent activities to include urban
terrorism. Seeks to set up an independent
Kurdish state in southeastern
Turkey, where there is a predominantly
Primary targets are Turkish Government
security forces in Turkey but
also has been active in Western
Europe against Turkish targets. Conducted
attacks on Turkish diplomatic
and commercial facilities in dozens of
West European cities in 1993 and
again in spring 1995. In an attempt to
damage Turkey's tourist industry, the
PKK has bombed tourist sites and
hotels and kidnapped foreign tourists.
Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 guerrillas.
Has thousands of sympathizers
in Turkey and Europe.
Location/Area of Operation
Operates in Turkey, Europe, the Middle
East, and Asia.
Receives safe haven and modest aid
from Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
a Published by the US Department of
State in 1998.
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Greek Intelligence Mission
Ocalan’s secret and unsanctioned arrival in Greece set off a scramble in the Greek
government, which sought to avoid the regional and international repercussions
of harboring Turkey’s
most wanted fugitive before knowledge of his presence became public. To deal
with him, the government called on the EYP. After quickly contemplating several
scenarios, Athens decided to fly Ocalan and his
aides, escorted by intelligence officer Savvas Kalenteridis, to Kenya and on to South Africa, where it hoped to
negotiate asylum for him.
Greek-registered Falcon jet carrying the Ocalan group, including Kalenteridis,
landed in Nairobi
at 1100 on 2 February. The day before, Vassilis Papaioanou, a senior aide
to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, had informed the secretary of the
embassy in Nairobi
that the Falcon would arrive with important passengers. On the following day
the passengers arrived—Ocalan traveling with a falsified passport with the name
of a prominent Cypriot journalist, and alleged PKK sympathizer, Lazaros Mavros.
On its arrival, the group was taken to the residence of Ambassador Georgios
following day, Papaioanou called again, this time to inform Ambassador
Costoulas that from then on any communication with the foreign minister’s
office could only be conducted by telephone. At this point, Kalenteridis
revealed his government’s complete plan. He explained that his orders were to
depart for South Africa
as soon as possible to make arrangements for Ocalan’s asylum and to obtain a
valid passport for him. Ocalan was to remain in the custody of the embassy
until the arrangements were complete.
busy Thursday, the 4th, began with a early call from an officer of the US embassy in Nairobi seeking to arrange a meeting with the
ambassador on Friday.
Soon after, Costoulas was summoned to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry where he was
questioned about the Falcon and its passengers. At about the same time, Kenyan
authorities in Nairobi’s airport detained and
questioned Kalenteridis, who was about to board a flight to South Africa.
Forced to miss his flight, Kalenteridis returned to the official residence.
- Ocalan’s picture on a passport bearing the identification of a prominent Cypriot journalist.
Friday, the 5th, the Kenyan government intensified its queries about the
passengers of the Falcon. A nervous Costoulas called back to Athens for instructions, and Papaioanou told
him to “act like a shepherd and whistle indifferently” to the questions of the
Kenyan authorities. Later on that same day, Papaioanou switched gears and
instructed the ambassador to tell Ocalan that “he needs to be removed from the
national [Greek] colors.”
the ambassador asked where Ocalan should go, Papaioanou told him “The big
singer [Pangalos] is upset. We did a favor. They shouldn’t make us regret it.
Tell him to go on a safari. Tell him to go wherever he likes. He should stay
away from [our] national colors.” When Costoulas and Kalenteridis suggested
transferring Ocalan to a UN building in Nairobi,
where he could ask for asylum, Papaioanou rebuffed them and continued to insist
on Ocalan’s removal from “national colors.”
fear for his life, Ocalan, rejected the eviction order and instead filed a
written request for political asylum with the Greek government. As the pressure
from Athens for
his removal intensified, the women Ocalan had brought with him threatened to
set themselves on fire in the embassy garden.
Cowed, embassy members contemplated alternative escape scenarios over the next
“Tell him to go on a safari. Tell him to go wherever he likes. He should stay away from [Greek] national colors.”
standoff continued into Friday, 12 February, when it became clear that
Kalenteridis was not helping his government’s cause. On that day, the chief of
EYP, Haralambos Stavrakakis, called Kalenteridis and pleaded with him to kick
Ocalan out of the residence: “Tell him to get out right away and to go wherever
he wants. We didn’t promise him anything. Kick him out, Savvas, so we can
finish with this. I am begging you, my child!” Kalenteridis refused the order.
next day, Ocalan’s Greek lawyer arrived in Nairobi. Ocalan still had no valid passport
and no fresh plans for departure to a new destination. After consulting with
his lawyer, Ocalan insisted, unsuccessfully, that even if Greece rejected
his application for asylum, the Greek government had an obligation to prosecute
him in accordance with international law.
Stavrakakis called Kalenteridis and ordered him to remove Ocalan from the
embassy, by force if necessary. Kalenteridis again refused, saying he could not
do it for practical reasons. Not long after, Kalenteridis received still
another call from EYP headquarters, this time from someone by the name of
Michalis. “Savvas listen to me, I am Tzovaras and present are three ministers
and the chief. The careers of three ministers are on the line because of your
actions, do you understand that? You should go and remove him [Ocalan] by force
“The careers of three ministers are on the line because of your actions, do you understand that? You should go and remove him [Ocalan] by force at once.”
refused yet again, saying he was unable to use force. Tzovaras continued to
plead with him. “I am begging you, Savvas, throw him out so we can finish with
this. You can do this. Be careful, because if you don’t do this when you come
back they will discharge you. You can do this. There are three ministers here…”
unmoved, refused again, his fourth refusal into the mission. Only then did the
government in Athens
decide to dispatch a four-member EYP security team to enforce its orders. This
development was conveyed to Ambassador Costoulas by the EYP and Papaioanou at
the Foreign Ministry, who informed him that a “theatrical group, a football
team” would be arriving the next day, which if necessary “will play ball.”
Sunday, the 14th, at 1300, the security team reached the residence, having been
briefly detained and questioned by Kenyan authorities at the airport. The
agents realized they were under surveillance by Kenyan and other foreign
agents. A couple of hours before the EYP officers arrived at the Greek embassy,
the secretary of the embassy received a call from Papaioanou at the Foreign
Ministry, who asked him to take detailed notes as he provided new directions.
These, he warned, were to be followed to the letter:
- The “football
team” will have instructions to act fast, and if necessary by force.
grandmother (Ocalan) is to be removed immediately.
- A room for
him should be booked at a local hotel.
- He was to be
given a little bit of money if necessary.
- He was to be
taken to a location near the hotel, even if wrapped in a bed sheet.
- He and his
associates were to be abandoned and any communication with him ended at that
had to be finished by Monday, the next day.
finished it was, but apparently not as the Greeks had intended—at least not as
Kalenteridis had intended. On Monday, 15 February, Costoulas was summoned to
the Kenyan Foreign Ministry and told that the Kenyan government knew Ocalan was
hiding at the residence. Costoulas was offered an aircraft for a swift
departure to a country of Ocalan’s choosing. Contacted, Foreign Minister
Pangalos accepted the Kenyan offer and agreed to remove Ocalan within the
two-hour window the Kenyans provided.
Athens asked for details about
the aircraft and its flight plan but was rebuffed. The Kenyan government also
refused to permit the Greeks to use their embassy car—sovereign territory—to
take Ocalan to the airport, insisting instead that Kenyan government cars be
used. After intense negotiations in the embassy, Ocalan boarded a Kenyan
government vehicle—without his aides and without any Greek official. He was
driven to the airport and placed on a waiting plane, where Turkish agents
seized, shackled, gagged, and blindfolded him. He
was returned to Turkey
and put on trial that year.
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went wrong for the Greeks?
the political foundations of the decision to take Ocalan to Kenya, Athens’
neglected important operational considerations, dooming the effort virtually
from the start.
objectives of the EYP’s mission were clear enough:
and his team were to take Ocalan to a temporary secure location outside of Greece from
which Ocalan could find permanent refuge elsewhere.
- The mission
was to proceed in a way that no other country would know that Greece was
harboring and helping Ocalan.
- Ocalan was to
be protected from any agents seeking to seize him and transfer him to Turkey.
objectives would fall victim to international pressure, as we have seen, but in
all probability the operation was compromised very soon after it began, and the
Greeks should have known it.
Athens’ neglect of important operational considerations doomed the effort virtually from the start.
decision to take Ocalan to Kenya
was a poor one. As the theater in which this operation was to be carried out, Kenya was inappropriate for several reasons, the
most important of which was the fact that just less than six months before, the
US embassy there had been
bombed by al Qa’ida, and numerous US officials were likely to have
been investigating the scene. In addition, Kenyan authorities would most likely
have been on high alert and, even if they were not, they were unlikely to have
been helpful in any effort that might have implied support for a declared
terrorist like Ocalan.
to EYP chief Stavrakakis, Foreign Minister Pangalos initially wanted to
transfer Ocalan to Holland,
but the attempt failed because Dutch authorities refused landing rights because
a large crowd of Kurds had gathered at the airport. Pangalos later claimed that
the EYP had suggested Kenya
as a way station while negotiations with South Africa took place. Given the
circumstances in Nairobi
and the many alternative locations around the world housing Greek diplomatic
facilities, the EYP’s choice is puzzling.
tradecraft of the EYP and other components of the Greek government were
exceedingly lax. Members of the organization paid inadequate attention to
communications security, counterintelligence, protection of sources and
methods, as well as threats to the security of the personnel involved in the
the Dutch experience, conditions in the Kenya, and the intense interest in
Ocalan around the world, there was every reason to believe Ocalan’s movements
were being tracked. Leaked documents indicate that both the Turkish and US
governments knew Ocalan was in Greece
and knew when he was transferred to Kenya. The documents show that the
Turkish embassy in Athens made an inquiry to the
Greek Foreign Ministry while Ocalan was still in Athens;
in addition, the request of the US
embassy in Kenya
for a meeting with ambassador mentioned above also implied knowledge of the
communications practices most likely contributed to compromises. The most
critical field communications of the operation, specifically from EYP
headquarters in Athens,
took place entirely by telephone—even payphones. Codenames like “grandmother”
(Ocalan), “big singer” (Pangalos), and “football team” (team of intelligence
officers) were inadequate to provide a layer of security to communications.
Moreover, not everyone was addressed with a codename. The lead field agent,
Kalenteridis, was always addressed by his given name, according to the leaked documents.
the physical security of Ocalan, his aides, and the escorting team was
inadequate. As Stavrakakis later noted, the Public Order Ministry had provided
too few security personnel for the mission, even leaving them unarmed.
Kalenteridis’s selection to head the Ocalan mission brought distinct advantages… At the same time, there should have been suspicions about his suitability for
the sensitive mission.
chain of command was broken as senior officials of ministry rank became
intimately involved in the operation. Testimony during the 2003 trial and
leaked Greek government reports make clear that ministerial rank officials were
involved in the macro- and micro-management of the operation. Such breakdowns
in the routine chain of command can signal failings in authority above; create
uncertainty in the field; and permit, or force, field operators to question and
even challenge their orders, especially when a core mission has changed so
clearly and rapidly.
involving itself in Ocalan’s relocation, selection of Kalenteridis to lead the
mission was the Greeks’ most critical error. A qualified selection to head an
autonomous operation such as this one would ideally have the knowledge and
expertise appropriate to the nature and location of the mission. These include
fluency in specific foreign languages, knowledge of specific cultures and
locations, and so on. These, on the surface at least, Kalenteridis had.
was born in 1960 in the small town of Vergi near
the northern Greek city of Serres.
His family had its origins in an ethnic Greek community on the Black Sea, known
to Greeks as Euxeinos Pontos (Hospitable
Sea). Like most Greeks
whose families were repatriated from faraway places, Kalenteridis was raised to
respect, admire, and honor Greece’s
history and heritage. Vergi is a historical one, home to several ancient ruins
of the archaic era (800–500 BCE). Moreover, the town is not far from Greece’s northern border with Bulgaria, an
area that traditionally has had strong nationalist sentiments.
excelled in school, and in 1977 his high marks earned him entrance to the
Evelpidon Military Academy, Greece’s top military academy. Kalenteridis
graduated in 1981 with the rank of second lieutenant. He went on to serve in
several tank and paratroop units in Greece and in posts abroad. At one
time he was a military attaché in Izmir,
fluency in Turkish and knowledge of foreign affairs made him an asset to the
National Intelligence Agency, for which Kalenteridis worked covertly for
several years, mainly in Turkey.
selection to head the Ocalan mission brought distinct advantages: his expertise
in Turkish affairs, his fluency in the language, and his knowledge from past
service as an EYP agent in Turkey.
At the same time, there should have been suspicions about his suitability for
the sensitive mission.
his superiors might have considered his family’s roots and the tradition of
nationalism it implied, even if Kalenteridis himself had never expressed them
More pointedly, EYP officials later revealed they knew that in December 1998,
just a month before Ocalan arrived, Kalenteridis had been in Rome acting as the interpreter in a meeting
Ocalan had with Panagiotis Sgouridis, a vice chairman of the Greek Parliament.
The task apparently had not been assigned or sanctioned by the EYP.
the same period, EYP chief Stavrakakis received a tip that Ocalan might be
brought to Greece
in late January 1999. It was at that point, EYP Espionage Division Director
Col. P. Kitsos told his superiors that he had concluded that a component of EYP
was operating autonomously and that officers in that component were prone to
disobey official government orders.
Athens may not have emerged unscathed from this episode even if Kalenteridis had done as he had been told. In the end, his refusals extended the problem
and magnified the
fiasco in Nairobi.
this operation, Kalenteridis apparently overrode his government’s and his
intelligence service’s interests—as the Greeks would say, “He was wearing two
hats.” Kalenteridis has never publicly explained his position, but we know his
obligations: He had taken an oath to serve and protect his country and it was
not his position to pass judgment on the political, diplomatic, and
intelligence matters that drove the changes in his mission. He should have
obeyed his orders.
Athens may not have emerged
unscathed from this episode even if Kalenteridis had done as he had been told.
But in the end, his refusals extended the problem and magnified the fiasco
in Nairobi, led to the embarrassment of his government, added
new strains in relations with Turkey
and the United States,
and fueled the wrath of Kurds worldwide.
Three cabinet members and the chief of the EYP resigned soon after Ocalan’s
seizure. Kalenteridis would himself resign a year later. Ocalan was tried in
1999 in a Turkish court and sentenced to death. The penalty was reduced to life
in prison in 2002 after Turkey
abolished the death penalty. He has been serving his sentence in solitary
confinement on the prison island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara off northwestern Turkey.
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 According to press reports, Ocalan believed the Turks had arranged an assassination
attempt to be carried out by a Russian underworld group.
 Whether that meeting took
place or not is unclear, and the subject of it was never revealed, although its
timing implies knowledge of the embassy’s predicament.
 One press report claimed
at least one woman was armed and threatened to use her pistol to commit
 In May 1999, Stavrakakis,
Tzovaras—identified as a senior counterterrorism official—and three other Greek
security officials were “sentenced” to death by a Kurdish “popular court” for
their roles in Ocalan’s capture. Kalenteridis was acquitted.
 The Turks videotaped the
capture aboard the plane and broadcast it soon after Ocalan was on Turkish
 Indeed, in 2002 a Turkish
commentator accused Kalenteridis of involvement in separatist-related activity
in his ancestral region, activity the writer also linked to PKK propaganda.
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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an article’s factual statements and interpretations.