The worst terrorist attack in modern Turkey’s history left almost 100 dead and more than 200 injured after a pair of what appeared to be suicide bombers blew themselves up at a peace rally near the central train station in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Saturday.
What wasn’t clear in the immediate aftermath of the devastating bombing was who carried it out, or why. For a deeply polarized Turkey, which has been hit by deadly civil strife all summer and which lies next door to the terror-wracked Syrian civil war, there are plenty of possible culprits: the Islamic State or a related group; the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist outfit that has battled the Turkish government for decades; or, some allege, the increasingly authoritarian Turkish government itself.
“Turkey today is reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Casablanca’ — all the usual suspects with any range of motives,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, told Foreign Policy. “At a moment when the region has been immersed in greater turmoil and instability as a result of Russia’s moves, this introduces another singularly unsettling element into an already toxic and unstable mixture.”
Uncertainty over who carried out the attack makes it hard to say exactly what the fallout will be. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the attack could be the work of Islamists, Kurdish terrorists, or far-left militants. He said there were clues suggesting it was carried out by suicide bombers, which had once been the exclusive preserve of Islamist groups and isolated fanatics, but have been used on occasion by the PKK. The ubiquity of the tactic, Hoffman notes, now makes it hard to zero in on a culprit.
If the Islamic State were responsible, it would likely put more pressure on the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step up what has until now been a halting campaign against the terrorist group marked more by bellicose rhetoric than by any substantial military action. Turkey didn’t allow the U.S. to fly combat missions out of the Incirlik Air Base until July; Ankara’s own warplanes didn’t start bombing Islamic State targets until the end of that month.
If Kurdish militants, or a rogue faction of the PKK, broke their own self-declared ceasefire ahead of parliamentary elections next month, that could signal a deadly intensification of the battle between Ankara and the country’s long-oppressed Kurdish population. And if, as Kurdish opposition parties believe, government security services were either complicit in or directly behind the attacks, it would cleave an already deeply divided Turkish electorate.
Turkey is split after 13 years of rule by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which received a sharp setback in the summer elections; fresh elections are needed in November to produce a majority government. The caretaker Turkish government, still led by the AKP, has in the meantime cracked down on freedom of expression, and has put as much effort into attacking Kurdish militants in its own country as it has into attacking Islamic State fighters just across the border. That boiling domestic scene was further agitated this week, when Russia began using military forces dispatched to Syria to attack rebel forces backed by Turkey, the United States, and other members of an international anti-terror coalition. Russian jets also violated Turkish airspace, souring relations between the two countries.
Shock and horror at the attacks on Saturday turned quickly to public anger at the Turkish government. Police reportedly blocked ambulances from reaching some of the wounded by the Ankara train station, which led to clashes between protesters and police. Hours after the bombings, thousands took to the streets in protest, and some carried signs blaming the Turkish government for the killings. Some members of the main Kurdish opposition party, who burst into national prominence with a surprising electoral victory this summer and who had organized the peace rally, were quick to blame the government. Twitter and Facebook users in Turkey complained that the government curtailed social media access after the attacks.
The world rushed to condemn the deadly bombings, which Erdogan described as a “heinous attack targeting our unity, solidarity, and the peace of our country.” White House spokesman Ned Price condemned “in the strongest terms today’s horrific terrorist attack,” and said the United States “will continue to stand side-by-side with the Turkish government and people as together we take on the scourge of terrorism.”
European Union officials called for Turks to “stand united” against terrorist attacks that seek to “disrupt and destabilize.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the “horrendous attack” and said “All NATO allies stand united in the fight against the scourge of terrorism.”
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in the past week has mobilized his military to support the murderous regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, added to the chorus, calling the bombings an “attempt to destabilize the situation in Turkey,” and calling for united efforts to fight terrorism.
Keith JOHNSON, Foreign Policy