Politics & Policy

Terrorized Turkey

Pointing fingers at al Qaeda.

Over the last week, the uniquely Eurasian city of Istanbul has been hit by a series of shocking terrorist attacks committed by anti-Western fanatics. On November 17, twin “martyrdom” bombers, each carrying 850 pounds of explosives, detonated themselves outside two separate synagogues in Istanbul, killing 23 and wounding over 300. Less than a week later, a third and fourth team of suicide bombers targeted the British consulate and HSBC bank headquarters, murdering 27 more, including the U.K.’s consul-general, Roger Short. Though this new campaign of violence has its roots in Turkey’s domestic Islamic extremist movement, there are clear indications that it is also being inspired, sponsored, and coordinated by foreign elements of al Qaeda.

Turkish authorities have already been able to identify the two men responsible for the first set of synagogue attacks: Mesut Cabuk, 29, and Gokhan Elaltuntas, 22, both from the city of Bingol, approximately 500 miles southeast of Istanbul. At least one of the suicide bombers that struck British interests on Thursday–Azad Ekinci–was also known to be from Bingol. Not surprisingly, the predominantly Kurdish Bingol has served as a major center of local Islamic militancy, including for the Sunni extremist group known as Turkish Hezbollah (“Party of God”).

Turkish Hezbollah (not to be confused with the unrelated Shiite Hezbollah militia in nearby Lebanon) is somewhat akin to fellow Kurdish armed Islamic organizations on the other side of the Iraqi border, such as notorious al Qaeda ally Ansar Al-Islam. Over the past decade, Turkish Hezbollah has committed numerous small-scale shootings and suicide bombings in Turkey. In 1998, Turkish authorities initiated a severe crackdown on Hezbollah’s domestic activities, detaining 79 alleged members from both the “armed” and the “scientific” wings of the group. Guns seized during the raids were later matched with four unsolved murders that had occurred between 1993 and 1996 across the southeastern province of Diyarbakir. Other papers and documentation discovered by Turkish security officials enabled them to identify approximately 1,000 additional party supporters and activists.

However, despite what was touted as “the biggest [anti-]Hezbollah operation in the Republic’s history,” the tide of militant Islam among Turkey’s Kurds did not recede. In April 1999, a suicide bomber struck the local governor’s office in Bingol, killing a 16-year-old girl and injuring twelve others. Eighteen months later, Hezbollah operatives killed three police officers during a shootout in Istanbul. Then in February 2001, a 20-man Hezbollah assassination squad ambushed the motorcade of Diyarbakir police chief Gaffar Okkan, murdering him and five Turkish policemen. The crime scene was littered with spent ammunition casings. Local media noted that this incident revealed “a greater sophistication than the group had shown in previous attacks.” The U.S. State Department, in its 2001 annual report on international terrorism, lauded Turkey’s “effective campaign” against Hezbollah, but also warned that the militant group “still remain[s] capable of lethal attacks.”

The evidence is thus almost undeniable that local radical Islamic elements within Turkey were independently capable of mounting small-scale (but nonetheless effective) suicide terror strikes prior to September 11. Still, the latest campaign of violence in Istanbul bears the marks of a much more organized and purposeful strategy than Hezbollah has ever employed in the past. Never before have domestic religious fanatics based in Turkey been able to mount successive, simultaneous bombings. Such complex operations require a certain sophistication that is lacking among the more distant affiliates of the Sunni Islamic revolution. Moreover, until 2001, Hezbollah seems to have mostly focused its energies on destabilizing the Turkish secular regime and security apparatus–not causing the deaths of foreign diplomats and businessmen. Other possible locally based conspirators in the most recent twin terror attacks, such as the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front, have historically limited their scope to the occasional harassment of bars, nightclubs, and churches.

Instead, the tactics implemented in Istanbul over the past week are remarkably reminiscent of international al Qaeda terror attacks in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and North Africa. The particular selection of Jewish targets in Turkey echoes the parallel suicide bombings of a Tunisian synagogue in April 2002 and a Hebrew cemetery in Casablanca last May by terrorists loyal to Osama bin Laden. This phenomenon reflects bin Laden’s vain interest in linking himself to the larger struggle to liberate Palestine–and his intense desire to prove his commitment to the Palestinian cause. Al Qaeda has also always prided itself on leaving its characteristic calling card: multiple, nearly simultaneous suicidal operations that are palpably beyond the capabilities of mere “lone wolf” crackpots. This curious but unmistakable pattern is manifest in some of al Qaeda’s most notorious acts of violence, including the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, the September 11 airline hijackings, the Bali nightclub attacks, and the ongoing suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia.

Investigators have already divulged compelling evidence that seems to confirm al Qaeda’s role in last week’s attacks in Istanbul. Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul addressed the subject and concluded that, at a minimum, “These people seemed to have the same mindset of al Qaeda, they have the same concept, they are from the same school.” Turkish police suspect that the synagogue terror cell was comprised of members of an elite Islamic militant group known as Bayyiat al-Imam (“Allegiance to the Leader”), allegedly founded at Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan. Several conspirators held in connection with the terror attacks have also been identified as veterans of the al Qaeda-linked foreign mujahedeen brigade in Chechnya who received additional advanced explosives instruction while living in Pakistan. Moreover, there has been at least one unconfirmed claim of responsibility supposedly issued by al Qaeda (under the auspices of the “Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigade,” named for bin Laden’s late senior military commander).

There are additional circumstantial facts lending credence to the suggestion of al Qaeda’s direct involvement in the attacks in Turkey. Last April, the Turkish General Security Directorate reportedly warned that a 35-man, specially trained al Qaeda terrorist unit was intent on crossing over from northern Iraq to target foreign business and diplomatic centers in Turkey with a series of suicide bombings. The alert came directly on the heels of threats made by the Afghan-trained guerrilla leader of Ansar Al-Islam, Abu Abdullah Al-Shafei, to “make this land another graveyard for the Crusaders and their debased agents [with] . . . 300 martyrdom projects.” It is too much of a coincidence that, at almost the same time as Thursday’s terror attacks in Istanbul, the office of a U.S.-backed Kurdish political group in Kirkuk was leveled by a third truck bomb, killing five and injuring more than 40–an attack that has been blamed on Ansar Al-Islam.

One thing is certain: The Turkish security apparatus does not take the threat of militant Islam lightly. When a relatively moderate Islamic regime came to power in Ankara a year ago, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, Turkey’s military commander, reassured the public that his army possessed “the will and determination” to crush any “fundamentalist” insurgency. Already, the Turks have identified the dead bombers and have arrested scores of other possible co-conspirators. Still, even after these stern measures, there remains some expectation both in Ankara and Washington that the terror campaign in Turkey may not yet be complete. The aggressive pursuit of these merciless criminals–no matter where they hide–will be essential in restoring the sense of safety and stability to the traumatized citizens of Istanbul.

Evan Kohlmann is a senior terrorism consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Investigative Project and author of the upcoming book, Al Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghano-Bosniak Network, to be released by Berg Publishers in June 2004.

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