News & Politics

Istanbul Rocked by Terror Attack, At Least Ten Dead

Turkish security members stand near the city's landmark Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque after an explosion at Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet district, (IHA via AP)

A terror attack in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul this morning has killed at least ten people. The attack was carried out near the obelisk of Theodosius on Sultanahmet Square, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Turkish city. The explosion occurred at 10:20 a.m. local time, which is 03:20 a.m. ET. After the attack — Turkish media believe it a likely suicide bombing — ambulances raced to the scene where they tried to help as many wounded (tourists) as possible. At the same time, police tried to cordon off the streets in order to carry out an investigation.

Witness Erdem Koroglu explains that the explosion was extremely loud and that he could see many people lying on the ground:

It was difficult to say who was alive or dead. Buildings rattled from the force of the explosion.

Journalists at the scene add that while at least ten people were killed, at least 15 others were wounded. It’s not clear how serious their injuries are.

If it was a suicide bomber — and Turkish media report it was — the main question is: who’s behind it? Turks will almost automatically blame the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist Kurdish terrorist organization that has stepped up its attacks in recent months. The radical Kurds aren’t the only possible suspects, however:

  1. The DHKP-C: a Marxist-Leninist party that has been known to carry out terrorist attacks inside Turkey, including suicide missions. This group was created in 1978 and has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
  2.  ISIS: the radical-Islamic organization occupying large swathes of Syria and Iraq. This group is by far the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world today — and probably the richest — and is believed to have many members living in Turkey.

Considering the timing, it’s most likely that the PKK or ISIS is behind this horrific attack. There is a “but”: the attack was, according to Turkish media, aimed at tourists. The PKK is certainly a terrorist organization but usually goes after Turkish authorities — soldiers and police officers — not after foreign civilians. This leads me to believe that ISIS is probably behind it.

This image from video shows medics and security members with injured people lying on the ground after an explosion at Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet district, which is popular with tourists, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. The cause of the explosion, which could be heard from several neighborhoods, was not immediately known but TRT said the blast was likely caused by a suicide bomber. (IHA via AP) TURKEY OUT

This image from video shows medics and security members with injured people lying on the ground after an explosion at Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, which is popular with tourists, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. The cause of the explosion, which could be heard from several neighborhoods, was not immediately known but TRT said the blast was likely caused by a suicide bomber. (IHA via AP) TURKEY OUT

If true, this could create serious trouble for president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been accused of playing a double game with ISIS for months. Some even believe ISIS couldn’t have existed without Turkey’s support. As Turkish commentator Burak Bekdil wrote for the Middle East Forum in the summer of 2015:

Turkey’s Islamist government has had rational reasons to support discreetly its own Frankenstein monster: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The jihadists who have conquered large swathes of Syria and Iraq since the summer of 2014 may have the habit of beheading every infidel they catch, Muslim or non-Muslim. But they are merely the excessively savage next of kin to Turkish Islamists, who pursue similar political goals in Western-style suits and neckties instead of Arab gowns imitating the Prophet Muhammad’s attire.   Their kinship diverges over methodology rather than objectives. But there is also a pragmatic attachment built on a shared obsession with common enemies. The Shiites whom ISIS militants love to slaughter are privately viewed by Turkey’s Sunni supremacists as heretics (therefore, infidels). Likewise, Ankara views Syria’s Kurds as a major security threat. The Turkish government believed that investing in ISIS (and its brothers in arms such as Ahrar ash-Sham and an-Nusra Front) would facilitate the downfall of Syrian president Bashar Assad, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s friend-turned-nemesis. They miscalculated, and thus began Turkey’s own Frankenstein story.

For instance, in January 2014 a Turkish truck was stopped at the border with Syria. The reason? The truck was delivering weapons. Many (Bekdil among them) believe that these weapons were meant to go to Al Nusra (Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) and ISIS.

But what was the destination of the cargo in Syria? The answer, once again, is an open secret. Two months after the seizure of the cargo, an audio recording was leaked to the social media by unknown sources. It contained full minutes of a top-secret meeting at the Turkish foreign ministry’s premises of some of Turkey’s most important men: then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (now prime minister); his undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu; chief intelligence officer Hakan Fidan; and deputy chief of the general staff, Gen. Yaşar Güler. The recording offered a realistic reading of Ankara’s Syria policy. For instance, the Turkish bigwigs were heard saying that “an attack on Syria ‘must be seen as an opportunity for us [Turks].'” The spymaster is heard saying that a false flag operation would be very easy, and he could “send a few men to Syria to attack Turkey.” Fidan is also heard saying that “he had successfully sent two thousands trucks into Syria before.” That solved the mystery of the trucks with the curious cargo two months earlier.

And that’s not all. In 2015 a Turkish jihadist openly said that the Turkish government “had delivered stocks of weapons and military hardware to the group’s fighters in Syria.”

Mehmet Askar, now being tried in a high criminal court in Turkey along with eleven other suspected ISIS fighters, revealed that a 2011 plan to transfer arms to ISIS and to an-Nusra Front, as well as to the more moderate Free Syrian Army, was hampered by the Syrian army’s capture of a key border town. Askar’s accomplice, Haisam Toubalijeh, who was involved in a weapons transfer thwarted in 2013 by Turkish forces, reassured him that contacts inside the Turkish state would help facilitate the movement of the cache, which included some one hundred NATO rifles.

That’s bad, but what’s even worse is that Turkey has let ISIS terrorists travel freely between Syria and Turkey for years. As a result, many ISIS fanboys are currently in Turkey, where they not only try to help ISIS, but even carry out assassinations. If Turkey were a real democracy, these connections between Ankara and ISIS would cost Erdoğan his head — at least figuratively.

Sadly, however, the Islamist-ruled government has cracked down on all dissent and has virtually abolished the freedom of the press, which means that most of these facts are never mentioned in Turkish media. Voters in secular cities like Izmir (where I reside) are aware of what’s going on, but they are not the ones who decide elections: that honor goes to the millions and millions of Turks living in the Turkish heartland of Anatolia. And these people are kept blind; the only information they read or hear is approved by Erdoğan. And guess what? According to geopolitical and security analyst Michael Horowitz, the Turkish government has already published a gag order on media coverage on the attack:

If the PKK was behind it, no such gag order would be given. This means that the Turkish government, too, assumes it’s yet another terrorist attack carried out by ISIS.

If true, criticism of the president will certainly increase in the few remaining secular parts of Turkey where Erdoğan’s AK Parti is not yet in full control. In the rest of the country, though, the president is close to being untouchable, which means that ISIS’ probable involvement may not even be mentioned to Turks living there. And that will allow Erdoğan to get off scot-free once again. While that will undoubtedly will make him happy, it’s terribly sad to see that innocent Turks and even foreign tourists will have to pay the price for it.

UPDATE:

Turkey’s Dogan news agency says at least six Germans, one Norwegian and one Peruvian are among the injured in an explosion in an area of Istanbul popular with tourists. A spokeswoman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo said the office is working with the embassy in Turkey to check media reports of Norwegian citizens among the wounded. Seoul’s Foreign Ministry also told reporters via text message that one South Korean had a slight finger injury after the blast.

Germany has warned its citizens to avoid crowds outside tourist attractions in Istanbul. The warning follows a deadly explosion Tuesday in a historic district of the Turkish city that is popular with tourists. Germany’s Foreign Ministry warned on its website that further violent clashes and “terrorist attacks” are expected across Turkey. It also urged travelers to stay away from demonstrations and gatherings, particularly in large cities.

SECOND UPDATE: