Awful News Out of Ankara
Back when I lived in Ankara, I went into this building plenty of times — I begin today in shock.
Turkish police say a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at an entrance to the U.S. Embassy in the Turkish capital Ankara on Friday, killing two people, according to the Associated Press.
A U.S. State Department official confirmed to CBS News that at least one guard had been killed at the embassy, but the victim’s nationality was not given. U.S. Embassies are usually guarded by a combination of local security personnel and American diplomatic security forces.
An AP journalist reported seeing a body in the street in front of an embassy side entrance. It was not clear whether the victims of the blast were U.S. nationals, but they were identified as embassy security guards by the French news agency AFP.
The bomb appeared to have exploded inside a security checkpoint at an entrance to the embassy.
CNN’s Turkish service said witnesses had seen the bomber approach the building and enter a gate to the fortified compound. It wasn’t clear whether the bomber entered the building before detonating their explosives.
I lived in Ankara from 2005 to 2007. People used to ask me if it was dangerous, and I answered it was probably the safest city in the region — the national, political, and military capital of a NATO ally, with cops and special national police and troops of every kind all around. There was a modest U.S. military presence as well, although most of it was working at the embassy, with Turkish troops at nearby bases, or working with moving non-combat supplies through Incirlik Air Base (pronounced In-jer-lick) to Iraq.
The only attempted terror attack that I recall in the city during my time there was a suicide bomber who tried to get into the Justice Ministry. But when you saw a terror attack in Turkey, chances are it was the PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party), which was fighting for a separate Kurdish state. The PKK liked to put bombs in trash cans, etc., but they mostly targeted Istanbul and the coastal beach resorts, trying to scare away the tourists. The PKK certainly wasn’t pro-American, but Americans weren’t generally the targets of their wrath — the Turks and their government were.
There was an al-Qaeda presence in the country while I was there, and periodically folks who worked at the embassy would tell me they suspected the bad guys were “probing” their defenses and attempting to conduct surveillance, looking for weaknesses, etc. But Turks made up a very small portion of al-Qaeda’s ranks; at the time, out of the several hundred al-Qaeda sitting in Guantanamo Bay, six were Turkish citizens.
Of course, al-Qaeda hit the British consulate in Istanbul with a truck bomb back in 2003, along with the HSBC bank. In 2008, there was an attack with guns on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul; three gunmen were killed and three Turkish police were killed.
(It’s worth noting that Istanbul is the cultural and economic capital of the country while Ankara is the political capital, somewhat analogous to New York and Washington. I suspect maintaining security in the sprawling, crowded, narrow-streeted megalopolis of Istanbul is considerably tougher than in Ankara, a government town that was a relatively sleepy town until Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, made it the new capital.)
Every interaction I had with embassy security guards, Turkish police, and related folks during my time reassured me with their dedication and expertise. I’ve commented that I would completely trust Turkish airport security with the see-through-clothes x-ray scanners more than I would trust TSA; they consistently demonstrated a culture of absolute professionalism — at least to Western outsiders.
The sense I got back then was that the U.S. and Turkey were proving to be thoroughly effective partners in counter-terrorism efforts; two fairly big fish in Al-Qaeda were caught in Turkey during those years, Louai Sakra and Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.
The U.S. consulate in Turkey had moved far from the city center and built like a fortress with extensive security, a development that Tom Friedman lamented back in 2003. The U.S. embassy in Ankara is located downtown, not far from several other embassies and just down the road from the Turkish national assembly (the legislature). I know there had been talk about moving the embassy outside the city center — partially out of security concerns, partially because the embassy itself was a very dated structure (we used to joke about it as a classic example of Early American Cinder Block Architecture). Diplomats had very mixed feelings about a potential move, feeling that their job of interacting with the Turkish government would be more difficult if they were working in some outer suburb.
Keep in mind, I haven’t followed Turkish news or politics nearly as closely since I returned in 2007, and my observations about life in Ankara may be outdated.
Steven Cook: “Most obvious suspects in Ankara embassy bombing are PKK, Syria, and some al Qaida wannabes. Could even be Turkish nationalists.”