Turkey was shaken once again in the first hours of 2017, as one of Istanbul’s jet set nightclubs was raided by a gunman who killed 39 and wounded 65 people, four of whom are in a critical condition.
The terrorist arrived at Reina nightclub on the coast of the Bosphorus at 01.15 a.m. local time in a taxi, according to eyewitness accounts. He took a bag from the trunk, removed an automatic rifle from the bag, shot the policemen waiting in front of the club as he was crossing the street, and then stormed his way inside, spraying bullets on the nearly 800 people (including employees) who were celebrating the new year. He then removed his overcoat and cap and disappeared in a different outfit. Security experts speaking on Turkish TV say the attacker behaved in a “professional, trained and cold-blooded” manner and had likely previously explored the site to gather intelligence.
As of midday on Jan. 1 no one had claimed responsibility. But sources in Ankara
say the investigation focused on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DEASH in Arabic initials, which has been carrying out many terrorist attacks other than suicide bombings, as in the recent example in Berlin, Germany.
President Tayyip Erdoğan said the Turkish people should keep their calm and unity, thus showing they would not let “dirty games be played” with them. Erdoğan also said such attacks were not “independent from developments in the region,” meaning the Middle East and particularly Syria and Iraq.
It is not difficult to see that terrorist attacks on Turkey, whether from ISIL or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), are rising as Turkish military moves inside Syria pressure both of them. In the case against ISIL, that pressure comes with the consent of both the U.S. and Russia. Only a few hours before the attack on Dec. 31 – though this does not mean they were related - the U.N. Security Council endorsed the ceasefire in Syria that has been in effect since midnight on Dec. 30, under the guarantee of Russia
and Turkey. That ceasefire is reportedly still largely holding, with only minor and sporadic violations. Turkey has changed its Syria policy gradually over the past year towards more cooperation with the international community, and militant groups active in the Syria theater may be showing their reaction by awakening the sleepers they recruited in Turkey back when they could move around more freely inside the country (before Ankara’s Syria policy changed).
Many governments of both East and West, as well as international institutions, responded quickly to side with Turkey after this latest terrorist attack (four condemnations came from the U.S. alone, including one from President Barack Obama). There have thus been no accusations from the Turkish government that the West is indifferent to terrorist attacks here because it wants a weaker Turkey.
There are two other dimensions of the Istanbul New Year attack.
The first one is about the attack itself and possible intelligence failures. There have recently been a number of warnings sent to provincial governors that major terrorist attacks are expected in big cities, especially in Istanbul and Ankara, focused on crowded places like shopping malls, restaurants and nightclubs frequented by foreign nationals and tourists. If there is a failure, the precautions side of security should now be debated. For many years, Turkey’s security and judicial agencies were effectively sub-contracted to sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher living in the U.S., who used to cooperate closely with Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) governments. Now Gülen and his network are accused of being behind the thwarted July 15 coup attempt, and their sympathizers are being cleansed from the state apparatus in their thousands. This has led to questions over how the gap is being filled.
Some of those replacing purged Gülenists are novices (the policemen killed in front of the nightclub was a 21-year-old in his 10th month on duty), sleepers in disguise (as suspected for the police officer who murdered the Russian
ambassador to Ankara
on Dec. 19), or remaining members of the notorious “deeper state” before it was handed over to the Gülenists under AK Parti rule. There may therefore be serious coordination problems within the police force, as well as the court system.
Another question surrounds the political atmosphere in Turkey, which is getting more poisonous every day with rising nationalist and religious chauvinism. Religious Affairs Directorate head Mehmet Görmez was quick to make a statement after the attack, saying there was “no difference” between terror attacks targeting places of worship and attacks targeting entertainment sites, and they should be equally condemned. That statement followed cheering after the attack among certain social media users who believe that celebrating the New Year is un-Islamic and something to be despised.
Görmez’s statement was welcome. But just two days before, the Friday sermon prepared by Görmez’s Diyanet and read in more than 80,000 mosques across Turkey harshly criticized New Year celebrations as illegitimate and having no place in Islam or Turkey’s cultural traditions. Only a few days ago, members of an ultranationalist group made headlines by performing street theater in the Western province of Aydın by pointing a pistol at the forehead of another militant dressed in a Santa Claus costume. Unlike the cases frequently opened against critical media in Turkey, the police and the courts took no action against them for “praising crime” or “stirring hatred among the people.”