After the bombings: Turkey's 'war on terror'

Submitted by Anon on 9 January, 2004 - 4:56

Turkey is a nation not unused to living with the day to day spectre of terrorism.

A campaign of Armenian guerrilla attacks on Turkey's interests abroad in the 1980s, and more recent Kurdish and leftist bombing campaigns inside Turkey, mean that residents, particularly of the country's major cities, Istanbul and Ankara, are aware of the risks.

But the public reaction to finding themselves enduring attacks soon described by the local media as "our 9/11" was as much one of shock and bemusement as it was grief and outrage.
In November 62 people were killed and more than 700 injured in a series of suicide bombings targeting Jewish and British interests in Istanbul.

On 15 November two car bombs went off within minutes of each other at synagogues in the Beyoglu and Sisli districts. Six Jewish worshippers were killed in the attacks, which were timed to coincide with the Sabbath services when the synagogues would be packed. But most of those killed in the attacks were Muslim Turks who lived or worked nearby, or were passing by the synagogues at the time of the explosions.

On 20 November a van packed with explosives blew up outside the branch of the British HSBC bank in Levent. Minutes later a second van crashed through the gates of the British consulate and exploded. Among the dead was British consul general Roger Short.

As the funerals for those killed in the second wave of bombings began, ordinary people showed their grief and disgust at the atrocities, with large demonstrations held in several Turkish cities organised by trade unionists and non-governmental groups.

A cross section of people, including trade unionists, Kurds and left-wingers demonstrated near the UK consulate, some carrying white flowers for peace.

But the grief was tempered with anger at the policies which many blame for the attacks, with several speeches made condemning US and British policy in Iraq.

After the initial grief and horror at the tragedies the characteristic response - both from politicians and the media - was that a crackdown would be needed to round up those who had caused so much damage.

Within days 18 suspects had been arrested, and since then the number has risen considerably, with more than 30 people charged in connection with the suicide attacks so far and investigations ongoing.

In the first frantic hours following the bombings, fringe Islamist groups including Turkish Hezbollah, IBDA-C (an illegal Turkish militant group) and the Abu Hafz al-Masri Brigades claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Since then it has been widely reported in the Turkish press that one of the suspects arrested, Fevzi Yitiz, admitted under interrogation that Osama bin Laden personally approved the action but wanted the bombers to target US military interests rather than civilian areas.

The Islamist AK (Justice and Development) Party government were quick to publicly distance themselves from the aims of the bombers, publicly condemning the actions and coaching the crackdown in the language of the war on terrorism.

The international responses following the bombings were seen by many in Turkey to be all style and no substance. While the condemnations were quick in coming, surprisingly little was actually done following the attacks, prompting angry comments from foreign minister Abdullah Gul. He made his frustration at poor intelligence sharing clear to the Turkish media, telling TV reporters that Europe had "failed the solidarity test in the fight against terrorism".

Mr Gul said both he and the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were going to give the message to the relevant governments that "European countries should not distinguish between your terrorist and my terrorist" after strong public reaction in Turkey at what was interpreted as attempts to isolate the country - including moving two Champion's League matches from Istanbul for "safety reasons".

Britain was also criticised for not sharing intelligence on future attacks, when the British government warned its citizens they were "imminent".

Meanwhile, Israeli aid following the synagogue blasts, which included sending investigators, brought about conspiracy theories from some Turkish quarters.

A columnist in the Islamic fundamentalist daily Vakit said al-Qaeda would never stage attacks that promoted US and Israeli interests, and instead laid blame for the attacks with CIA and the Israeli intelligence service Mossad.

Meanwhile, Milli Gazete speculated that "evil powers" were working to vindicate US occupation campaigns.

The media were, initially at least, divided on motives behind the suicide attacks. Theories ranged from the attacks being a punishment for the Turkish government's close relationship with the US and its policy in Iraq to an attempt to destroy Turkey's secular model of government, which has been a key characteristic of the state since its foundation in 1923, despite the country's 99% Muslim population.

Following the attacks there was also condemnation of America and Britain for using the bombings to further their own political aims.

Commenting in the Milliyet newspaper, Melih Asik was scathing about the comments of Bush and Blair following the attacks on British interests: "The British premier Tony Blair, who has been stuck in a corner over the past weeks because of Iraq, tried to use the attacks in Istanbul for his own benefit. Welcoming Bush at a press conference, he tried to say: Let the whole world see what big trouble all this terrorism is. And President Bush talked in the same vein. I wonder if this terror is the terror that the US and the UK are fighting against, or the terror that they have produced?"

The Turkish stock market took a dive following the attacks, with trading suspended following the second wave to try and halt the economic slide.

As it awaits the next stage of the lengthy plans to get it into the European Union, Turkey is in a very unusual position on the international stage.

Factor in a real economic need to get into the EU, significant debts to the IMF and the World Bank, and a major interest in the future of Iraq (and more specifically the Iraqi Kurds at Turkey's south eastern border, where war has battled between the Turkish army and guerrilla groups for more than a decade) - and the country is in a position where it cannot afford to antagonise the west.

But Turkish politicians know the USA needs them, too. Turkey is one of very few solid Muslim allies the USA has following the so-called war on terrorism. The USA has several air bases in Turkey. One, Incirlik, played a major part in the air strikes against Afghanistan, although it was not used during the war in Iraq.

Either way, the aftermath of the attacks has shown that the political and social fallout from the Istanbul bombings has long-term ramifications for the people of Turkey.


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