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Asala terror attack at Ankara airport in 1982
ASALA terror attack on 7 August 1982 at Ankara Esenboga Airport; 9 people were killed.
Photo: Anadolu Ajansi

The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) was founded by several diaspora Armenians in 1975. Through targeted assassinations of Turkish diplomats ASALA sought to secure the international community's recognition of the Armenian genocide and to demand the return of 'Western Armenia' from Turkey.

ASALA's inspiration was Gourgen Yanikian. Yanikian's family, originally from Erzurum, managed to escape the Hamidian massacres of 1895 and moved to Kars. Nine years later, however, Yanikian's mother with her two sons in tow decided to visit her former home to retrieve the jewels and valuables she had left behind. There Gourgen's brother was killed in front of Gourgen's eyes by Turkish bandits. Yanikian later argued,

"The lessons of life showed me that it is only through blood that I can raise alarm and attract humanity's attention. … Who butchered my nation, who trampled on every sanctity, every justice, and every right? I did not need much time to analyze this question to get an answer. It was the Turkish barbaric government. This is against whom I should declare war in order to get our just rights. I will come forth and act as an individual Armenian who is tired of waiting, who has been cheated of various promises."[15]

On 27 January 1973, the 78-year old Armenian immigrant met with two Los Angeles-based Turkish diplomats, Mehmet Baydar and Bahadir Demir, for what the pair were told would a friendly lunch. Upon arrival, Yanikian shot both of them. Yanikian was sentenced to life but freed on parole after eleven years.

Yanikian's attack and his writings had a great impact on those diaspora Armenians bent on using radical methods to secure worldwide recognition of the Armenian genocide. When ASALA was founded on 20 January 1975 it was initially called the "Hero Gourgen Yanikian Group".

The founder of ASALA was Hagop Hagopian (1951-1988) from Mosul, Iraq, the son of a man whose large family was attacked and killed by Turkish forces in 1915. In 1968, Hagopian became active in the Palestinian liberation movement. Inspired by the Palestinians, Hagopian and a number of likeminded diaspora Armenians sought the backing of Armenian parties in Lebanon for an Armenian 'liberation struggle'. Yanikian's killing of the Turkish diplomats, Hagopian was later to acknowledge, was a watershed moment.

"I think would it not be Gourgen Yanikian's courageous act which he implemented by his own planning and individual initiation, we would not be able to make a clear decision (in forming ASALA) in 1974." [16]

Throughout 1975-84 ASALA assassinated 41 Turkish diplomats or officials, both in Turkey and abroad. Many of its members were captured and imprisoned in countries where they had committed terrorist acts; of these, several were sentenced to death. Many died as a result of clashes with police forces or of targeted assassinations by intelligence services. 26 ASALA members were killed during 1978-85.

ASALA's leaders justified their terrorism by arguing that the use of force against Turkish targets was the only remaining means of fighting for recognition and territorial compensation. Many in the Armenian diaspora had reservations regarding both ASALA's methods and its Marxist tilt, however. Several Armenian groups, in fact, suspected ASALA of links with the KGB.[17]

On 15 July 1983, ASALA carried out a bloody attack at Paris' Orly airport, killing 8 and injuring 50 people most of them civilians by detonating a suitcase bomb at the Turkish Airlines check-in counter. ASALA member Varoujan Garabedian noted that he had actually wanted to detonate the bomb aboard the plane, which would have caused many more deaths. The group defended the attack by claiming that its targets were Turkish intelligence officers. However, the Orly attack had grave repercussions for the group. French intelligence arrested 50 of its members citizens of France, Syria, Iran and Brazil.[18] Intense crackdowns by Western and Turkish intelligence agencies followed. Garabedian himself was to serve 17 years in a French prison. (After his release he travelled to Armenia, where he was received by the then Prime Minister Andranik Margarian.)[19]

A split emerged within ASALA, with some members disassociating themselves from the group. ASALA did not carry out a single terrorist attack against Turkish targets between 1984 and 1991. After Armenia's independence, ASALA became even less visible: the collapse of the USSR had brought forward new approaches to the Armenian question; and the attitude towards terrorism had changed completely, particularly in the United States. A few members, based in Western countries and in Armenia, fought in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Some organized revenge assassinations of former members, "traitors" to the cause.

On 19 December 1991, ASALA failed in an assassination attempt against the Turkish ambassador to Hungary. On 21 June 1997 an ASALA faction planted a bomb in the Turkish Embassy in Brussels. It was the group's last organized attack on record. After 1997, Armenian historian Stepan Poghosian asserts, ASALA ceased to exist as an organization. This is not to say that ASALA members have given up on reminding Armenians of their existence. In 20 January 2000, on the 25th anniversary of its founding, ASALA released a statement in which it claimed:

"ASALA is entering the 25th anniversary of its foundation full of determination, unswerving political will and with uncompromising commitment toward the fulfilment of its programmatic aims […]. We must prove by action and words that we are the inheritor of the Armenian cause and the claimant of our timeless rights. […] Victory is ours!"[20]

Recently, an outfit called the "Society of ASALA fighters (of Karabakh) and former political prisoners" issued a warning to an Australian-Armenian academic who responding to the Turkish intellectuals' apology campaign of 2008 apologized to the Turks for ASALA's terrorist attacks.


[15] Vladimir Petrosyan, Armenia, Let us not forget…(the Western Armenian national-liberation struggle in the second half of the 20th century), Yerevan 2006 (in Armenian), pp. 168-170

[16] Vladimir Petrosyan, Armenia, Let us not forget…(the Western Armenian national-liberation struggle in the second half of the 20th century), Yerevan 2006 (in Armenian), p. 201

[17] In October 11, 1998 issue of "Turkuye" Gegham Manukyan, a member of the ARF Supreme Council condemned ASALA and labeled it as "an organization collaborating with Russia and the Armenian Secret Service. In Stepan Poghosyan, History of the Armenian Question and Armenian Genocide: Goals of Eternity, Yerevan 2005, p. 267

[18] Vladimir Petrosyan, Armenia, Let us not forget…(the Western Armenian national-liberation struggle in the second half of the 20th century), Yerevan 2006 (in Armenian), p. 257

[19] Armenian Premier Meets with Released ASALA member, Radio Liberty News-line, May 7, 2001

[20] Araks Monthly, Iran, 1/84, January, 2000, pp. 6-8, in Vladimir Petrosyan, Armenia, Let us not forget…(the Western Armenian national-liberation struggle in the second half of the 20th century), Yerevan 2006 (in Armenian), p. 803

August 2009

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