ASALA, otherwise known as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, was a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization that existed from 1975 through 1986. ASALA sought to compel the Turkish government to recognize the Armenian Tragedy as genocide, pay reparations to the victims of the Armenian Tragedy, and cede territory for an Armenian homeland based on the never-ratified Treaty of Sevres of 1920. The primary strategic goal of ASALA was to call attention to the Armenian Tragedy, and in this, they more or less succeeded. Before ASALA, the tragedy that the Armenians suffered had been more or less ignored by the world, but after ASALA, the entire educated world knew about the Armenian Tragedy. Nevertheless, ASALA failed to meet the rest of their objectives. To date, Turkey does not recognize the Armenian Tragedy as genocide, reparations have not been paid to the remaining survivors of the Armenian Tragedy and their families, and the internationally-recognized borders of Turkey have remained in tact. Yet still, ASALA did succeed in its primary objective, for the world now knows about the tragedy that befell upon the Armenian nation.

The Armenian Tragedy

Historically, through out most of the 600 years of its existence, the Ottoman Empire was a pretty tolerant place relative to its contemporaries. “Until the beginning of the 19th century, Armenians had not suffered from any systematic oppression” (Lewey 4). However, in the 19th century, with the rise of nationalism, this soon began to change. In the eastern provinces of Anatolia, the Armenians peasants lived in a kind of feudal system under Kurdish chieftains, whom the Armenians provided winter quarters for and paid them part of their crops in return for protection (Lewey 4). When the state of the Ottoman Empire was healthy, this arrangement worked out pretty well, but when the state of the Ottoman Empire started to deteriorate, the status of the Armenian peasants worsened because they could no longer afford to pay such heavy taxes to their Kurdish overlords, so the Armenians were forced to renege on their taxes (Lewey 4). The Kurdish chieftains responded by engaging in savage attacks upon the defenseless Armenian villagers, which led to many deaths, abductions of girls and women, and the thievery of cattle (Lewey 4). This situation went from bad to worse under the leadership of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and led to an increase in nationalist sentiments amongst the Armenians, as well as an increase in European involvement. However, this increase in European involvement under the pretext of protecting Christians in the Ottoman lands did nothing but increase hostilities between Turks and Armenians. According to Lord Bryce:

Before the Treaty of Berlin the Sultan had no special enmity to the Armenians, nor had the Armenian nation any political aspirations. It was the stipulations then made for their protection that first marked them out for suspicion and hatred, and that first roused in them hopes of deliverance whose expression increased the hatred of their rulers (Gunter 10).

The Treaty of Berlin sparked the hopes of Armenian nationalist sentiment, while at the same time not providing any kind of security whatsoever for the Armenian people. The Sultan became angered at the European interference in the Empire’s internal affairs and became more fearful of the Armenians. The Armenians “began to be considered a threatening and potentially dissident factor. But unlike others----Serbians, Bulgarians, Greeks----the Armenians were by this time a minority in their own habitat and this made them an easy target for persecution” (Kurt and Merari 7).

During each Russian invasion in the 19th century, some Ottoman Armenians did side with the enemy, in order to fulfill their nationalist aspirations. As British Ambassador to Porte, A.H. Layard noted:
That the Armenians were determined, now that self-government was about to be given to the Christian communities in Europe, to demand the same privileges for themselves in Asia. If the Congress refused to listen to the just demands of the Armenians, they were resolved to agitate until they could obtain what they required, and if they could not succeed without foreign aid, they would place themselves completely in the hands of Russia, and even prefer annexation to her to remaining under Turkish rule (Gunter 10).

This automatically created conflict with the Turks, who felt that given the fact that all Anatolian provinces had overwhelming Muslim majorities, the idea of granting the Armenians autonomy was a logical absurdity (Gunter 11). “The Hunchaks and the Dashnaks […] began deliberately using terror against the Turks in order to incite Turkish reprisals and massacres, which would then encourage broad Armenian support for revolution and finally great power intervention" (11). As the counter-terrorism analyst Walter Laqueur noted:

Since they could not possibly hope to overthrow the government, their strategy had to be based on provocation. They assumed, in all probability, that their attacks on the Turks would provoke savage retaliation, and as a result the Armenian population would be radicalized; more decisive yet, the Western powers, appalled by the massacres, would intervene on their behalf as they did for the Bulgarians two decades earlier (Gunter 12).

For example, on August 24, 1896, a group of Dashnaks seized the Ottoman Bank building in Istanbul in an unsuccessful attempt to force the Western powers to intervene on the behalf of the Armenian nation. This resulted in the sultan turning the mobs loose on the Armenians of Istanbul, which led to innocent Armenians being massacred by the mobs. Yet despite this massacre, no one came to the aid of the Armenians, so the Dashnaks kind of shot “themselves in the foot” with this bank raid. In fact, all this terrorism succeeded in doing was intensifying a Turkish sense of a potential threat posed by the Armenian population centers in Eastern Anatolia.

In 1908, the Young Turks came to power, who believed that all of the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire should be united, regardless of their national or religious affiliation. At first, the Dashnaks were supporting this new group and as a gesture of goodwill, called a halt to Armenian guerrilla activities in Eastern Anatolia (Kurtz and Merari 9). But Armenian hopes and aspirations were soon disappointed. At a time when nationalism was on the rise and the Empire was on the verge of decline, principles of equality were not a top priority of the Muslim population of Turkey, while revolutionary reforms failed to obtain the support of Sultan Abdulhamid II (9). In 1909, the Sultan initiated a counter-coup to eliminate the Young Turks, which resulted in the destruction of all ties between the Young Turks and the Dashnaks, due to the belief by the Young Turks that the Armenians were collaborating with the sultan against them (9). Thus, the Young Turks changed their focus from equality for all of the empires citizens to consolidating their regime based on nationalism (9).

On November 2, 1914, Turkey joined WWI on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The Armenians of Eastern Turkey were heavily suspected of supporting the Russian enemy during wartime. This belief was reinforced by the refusal of the Ottoman Armenian leaders to help the government initiate an Armenian uprising in Russian Transcaucasia and the fact that the Russian Armenians were publicly advocating the liberation of Turkish Armenia (Kurtz and Merari 10). As a result of such activities, the Turks grew quite worried about the danger that the Armenians could pose to their war effort. So they decided to relocate the entire Armenian population of Eastern Turkey to another part of their empire. As a result of this decision, approximately 600,000, or 40 percent, of the Ottoman Armenians perished due to starvation, disease, and outright murder (Gunter 19). Today, due to this decision, the once vibrant Armenian community in Eastern Turkey does not exist. The Armenian nation, as well as many genocide and holocaust scholars such as Yehuda Bauer and Israel Charny, consider this to be the first genocide of the 20th century, but the verdict is still far from out on this, since the Turkish nation, as well as many Ottoman scholars including big names like Stanford Shaw and Bernard Lewis don’t believe this to be genocide. Nevertheless, there is one fact that we can all agree upon, the Armenian nation did suffer a terrible tragedy due to this relocation order, which has resulted in there being virtually no Armenians living in Eastern Turkey today.


Right after the Armenian Tragedy occurred, the Armenians sought revenge against the Turks for the events of 1915. “Agents of the Dashnak Party tracked, located, and surveilled several high ranking members of the Ottoman government who had fled Turkey after WWI” (Hyland 21). The group that performed the revenge operations was known as Nemesis, which was a reference to the Greek goddess of retributive justice or vengeance (21). Shahan Natali, otherwise known as Hagop Der Hagopian, was in charge of the Nemesis operations.

The first target of Nemesis was former Ottoman Minister of Interior, Talaat Pasha, who was the author of the infamous cable which called for the deportation of the Armenians from Eastern Turkey and was living in Berlin under the name Ali Sayi Bey (21). Soghomon Tehlirian, a survivor of the 1915 massacres, had Talaat Pasha under surveillance for two weeks before assassinating him and was acquitted by the Berlin Court in June 1921, which served as a precedent in the eyes of many Armenians in regards to the righteousness of their cause (21). After the trial, Tehlirian immigrated to America, where he would live out the rest of his life as an Armenian national hero (Hyland 22). After targeting Talaat Pasha, Nemesis would proceed to assassinate the Azerbaijani leader, Khan Jihanshir, former Ottoman Minister Said Halim Pasha in Rome, Behaeddin Shakir and his bodyguard Djemal Azmi in Berlin, former Ottoman Minister Cemal Pasha in Tiflis, Georgia, and Ottoman General Enver Pasha in the mountains near Afghanistan. The operations performed by Nemesis served as a precedent for later Armenian terrorist movements.

The Emergence of Armenian Terrorism in the 1970’s

In the 1970’s, two Armenian terrorist organizations known as ASALA and JCAG-1 ushered in a new era in the Armenian nationalist struggle. This age of terrorism was initiated due to “the succession of disappoints within the Armenian community with the lack of results from political action; the flourishing of international terror as a political weapon; and the inspiration provided by the Palestinian nationalist movement and its armed struggle” (Kurtz and Merari 16).

In the eyes of the younger generation of Armenians, the Armenian political establishments peaceful work to get their tragedy recognized by the world and pay attention to Armenian nationalist aspirations had not worked over the last sixty years. A prime example of the inefficiency of the peaceful activities of the Armenian political establishment would be the “deletion of paragraph 30 from a report of the United Nations in 1973-74. This paragraph specifically mentions the Armenian massacres in 1915 as "the first case of genocide in the 20th century," and was included in a progress report to a study entitled "Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." When Turkey objected during the UN Commission on Human Rights, however, paragraph 30 was deleted and the Armenians were frustrated" (Gunter 31).

As Gerard J. Libaridian, director of Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and editor of the Armenian Review, noted, “"The unwillingness of the Turkish state and major world powers to recognize Armenian aspirations after 60 years of peaceful efforts has resulted in a decade of terrorism" (31). This sentiment was reinforced by Hagop Hagopian, the founder of ASALA, who stated, “The new wave of Armenian violence was the result of the general discovery as to the failure of the policy of the traditional Armenian parties." In the eyes of many Armenians at the time, terrorism was the only way that the world was going to recognize their tragedy and pay attention to their nationalist aspirations. As the political scientist Michael Gunter noted, “Terrorism is a phenomenon that usually stems from the failure of its perpetrators to develop sufficient political and military strength to present their case in a more conventional manner" (30).

Nevertheless, it was not only the Armenian frustration with the lack of progress from the established political organizations alone that ushered in this decade of terror, for in the 1970’s, the hole climate in the Middle East was ripe for terrorism. It is important to keep in mind that this was an era where organizations such as Black September and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were at their peek. In fact, the successes of the Palestinian terrorist movements were a major source of inspiration for ASALA. As Michael Gunter noted:

As a result of the upheavals of World War I, Lebanon had come to serve as the host for the largest group of displaced Armenians in the Middle East, and they soon numbered some 200,000 souls, or approximately 6 percent of that country's population. [….] Since 1934 the Armenians have been represented in the Lebanese Parliament, which was organized along confessional lines. Despite many positive achievements in their adopted country, the Lebanese Armenians gradually fell into the internecine power struggles that were to turn Lebanon into a country where violence was a way of life. Under these circumstances, the Dashnaks formed close alliances with the right-wing Christian Phalangists of Pierre Gemayel and the National Liberals of Camille Chamoun. Left-leaning Armenians such as the Hunchaks, on the other hand, drew close to Kemal Jumblatt's leftist Progressive Socialist Party and various factions of the PLO, which had become a state within a state by the early 1970's. Given the Palestinian successes achieved through terrorist activities, it was not surprising that these leftist Armenians began to form, with the aid of their Palestinian allies, such terrorist groups as ASALA (33-34).

In fact, it is claimed that Black September chief Abu Iyad personally helped Hagop Hagopian to create ASALA and that relations between ASALA and the Palestinians were so close that Hagopian had even participated in the Black September massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich (Gunter 34-35). According to Michael Gunter:

The ASALA terrorists who seized the Turkish consulate in Paris in September 1981 told the police that they were trained in Palestinian camps. Evidence exists that extremists Palestinian factions collaborated with ASALA in its bloody attack on the Ankara airport in August, 1982. After its forces overran the PLO strongholds in Lebanon during the summer of 1982, Israel reported that captured PLO documents confirmed the ASALA-PLO connection. […..] A high ranking Turkish officer, who had access to the testimony of some 43,000 Turks who had been detained after the Turkish military came to power in September 1980, told Claire Sterling in early 1982, "The Palestinians gave training, aid, ammunition, and arms to leftists, rightists, Kurdish separatists, and Armenians (93).

Indeed, the ties between the Palestinians and ASALA were much deeper than both the Armenians and Palestinians would ever admit to. “Behind the lawlessness rampant in Lebanon, ASALA was able to draw physical and spiritual succor from a Palestinian ideological ally with whom it shared such common attributes as a lost homeland and a large Diaspora" (92).

The Strategic Goals of ASALA

Contrary to its public image, ASALA was an organizational hybrid (Hyland 26). Publicly, ASALA proclaimed itself to be part of the leftist revolutionary movement, to be fighting against oppression, and to be a democratic organization (26). The groups and states which ASALA aligned itself with all fell on the leftist portion of the political spectrum. As a result, ASALA drew a clear distinction between Turkey and its allies, and the Soviet Union, which ASALA declared to be liberated territory, despite the fact that the Soviet Armenians in reality were no freer to form an independent state than the Turkish Armenians were (27).

In October 1983, ASALA provided the Cypriot newspaper Al Nashara with a clear outline of their strategic goals and objectives:
• ASALA is a political organization whose purpose is to mobilize the Armenian people for the struggle to liberate the Armenian territories from the colonialist oppression of the Turks and their imperialist and international reactionary henchmen by every means of struggle
• The Army is guided by the theory of world revolution
• The Army represents the ambitions of the Armenian people in its opposition to the national and class servitude imposed upon it by the ruling clique in Turkey
• The Army believes in revolutionary violence as a fundamental principle, and as a proper weapon for fighting exploitation and oppression, and eliminating Turkish colonialism-----even though the organization does not rule out other methods of conducting its struggle
• The Army forms a part of the world-revolutionary movement, for which reason it makes every effort to strengthen its ties with the revolutionary movement, in the belief that world-wide unity of all revolutionaries is one of the requirements for overcoming the problem of the oppressed and persecuted peoples and classes
• The liberation of the Armenian territories from the Turkish domination will result in their unification with the adjoining parts of Armenia and the establishment of a single democratic revolutionary organization
• The Army will conduct its struggle everywhere in the world where the Armenian people live and where the Turkish enemy maintains its interests and legations
• ASALA’s goal is convincing the Soviet Union and other socialist countries to support the Armenian cause and assist the Armenian people in Soviet Armenia, in order to create a revolutionary spearhead for a long-term peoples war, aimed at the destruction of Turkish colonialism (Hyland 28)

The strategic framework illustrated here indicates that ASALA yearned for far more than mere revenge against Turkey, for they had clear political objectives that they sought to achieve. ASALA sought to achieve these goals in stages. In the first stage, ASALA targeted mainly Turkish targets in order to mobilize the Armenian youth, while in the second stage ASALA began to target other targets due to their success in mobilizing the Armenian youth behind their organization (Kurt and Merari 21).

The Effect that terrorism had on the discourse related to the Armenian Tragedy

One of the main goals of ASALA was “to introduce the Armenian cause to world public opinion and make the world feel that here are a desolate people without a homeland or identity […], claimed the military commander of an ASALA base in Lebanon. Terrorism and the publicity it has offered has rallied the Armenian community in France, regarded up to 1975 as dormant and well on its way to complete assimilation within French society, according to Edward K. Boghosian, the editor of The Armenian Reporter" (Gunter 36-37). Indeed, it is a fact that people have paid more attention to the plight of the Armenians after ASALA than before. As Michael Gunter noted, “in one short decade they have managed to accomplish what peaceful and legitimate Armenian organizations have failed to do in the past seven decades------bring the Armenian case to the attention of the international system" (147). Not a single country recognized the Armenian Tragedy as genocide before ASALA, but after ASALA, twenty-two countries have recognized the Armenian Tragedy as genocide (“Armenian”). On top of that, 40 out of the 50 American states have recognized the Armenian Tragedy as genocide (“Genocide Recognition”). This exact same issue has also complicated immensely Turkey’s entrance talks with the European Union, due to the international awareness on the Armenian Tragedy that was awakened thanks to ASALA. Thus, one can not help but conclude that ASALA has proven itself successful in its primary strategic objective, of bringing the Armenian Tragedy to the attention of the entire world.


ASALA has successfully brought awareness to the fact that the Armenians suffered a great tragedy. However, they have failed in the rest of their objectives. The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 is now engrained into international law. No one is ever going to go back to the unratified Treaty of Sevres of 1920. ASALA sought to undermine two fundamental principles of international law---- the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples, and failed miserably in this regards (Gunter 147). The present borders of Turkey are here to stay for good, despite the terror that ASALA inflicted. On top of that, ASALA’s terrorist campaign has made Turkey even more determined to not recognize the Armenian Tragedy as genocide and most likely, the families of the Armenian survivors will never receive one penny from Turkey for the suffering that they endured. ASALA had done nothing to encourage Armenian-Turkish reconciliation and in the long run, the terrorism that ASALA inflicted was unbeneficial for the Armenian people themselves. In the end, with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, ASALA lost its base of support and soon after, would disappear from the political scene (Gunter 93). ASALA’s founder, Hagop Hagopian, would be assassinated in Athens, Greece on April 28, 1988, by former ASALA members (“A?ca”).

“A?ca basit bir kukla de?il", Cumhuriyet, January 2006.

“Armenian Genocide Must Be Recognized.” The Daily Campus. 16 Oct., 2007.

“Genocide Recognition by US States.” Armenian National Committee of America. 31
Dec., 2007.

Gunter, Michael. Pursuing the just cause of their people: A study of contemporary
Armenian terrorism. Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.: 1986.

Kurt, Anat and Ariel Merari. ASALA: Irrational Terror or Political Tool. Jaffee Center
for Strategic Studies, Jerusalem, Israel: 1985.

Lewey, Gunter. The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide.
University of Utah Press: 2005.

Hyland, Francis. Armenian Terrorism: The Past, the Present, the Prospects. Westview
Press, Boulder, Colorado: 1991.