Unanswered questions and irregularities about the Istanbul bombing leave room for interpretation – used by Turkish government to set the agenda.
On Tuesday, Jan. 12 a big explosion took place in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist district of Sultanahmet. The explosion was caused by a suicide bomber who blew himself up next to a group of mainly German tourists, instantly killing ten and injuring 15 others. Soon, the bomber was identified as a Saudi born Syrian man who had recently entered Turkey and had registered himself as a refugee only days prior to his suicide mission.
According to the Turkish authorities the man was linked to the Islamic State group (IS, or ISIS/ISIL), making this the terrorist group’s fourth deadly suicide bombing in Turkey in one year. Previous attacks that have been ascribed to – but haven’t been claimed by – IS occurred in Diyarbakir in June, Suruc in July and Ankara in October, with a total death toll of around 140.
What set this latest attack apart from the others, however, is the explicit targeting of foreign nationals holidaying in Turkey. Previous attacks were all directed against Kurdish groups and their supporters, indicating a spillover from the wars in Syria and Iraq where Kurdish forces are seen as some of the most effective and reliable opponents of IS.
The Kurdish groups and organizations targeted by the Islamic State group were at the same time actively opposing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This sparked rumors of the terror group being in cahoots with the Turkish government. Accusations ranged from the two parties actively cooperating with each other to the government’s willful neglect of the safety of its Kurdish citizens.
That the Turkish government considers the Kurds at home and abroad as a bigger threat to the national security than IS has never been a secret. Moreover, the fact that IS is fighting against two of Turkey’s key enemies in Syria – the Assad government and local Kurdish forces – means that Turkey has always been hesitant about seriously and directly confronting the jihadists.
Questions and irregularities
It is in this context that the attack in Istanbul seems out of place. Why would the Islamic State group risk antagonizing one of the few parties in the region with which it has at least a some shared goals? What is there to be gained from dealing a blow to Turkey’s already hampering tourist industry and force the country’s hand in taking a firm stance against the terrorist group?
There are a number of questions and irregularities that come up when looking at the facts that have thus far come out.
The first matter is the timing of the attack. If the aim of the attack is to hit Turkey by targeting its US$30 billion tourist industry, the bomber couldn’t possibly have chosen a worse time than a cold Tuesday morning in mid-January. The site of the attack is the exact location where during the holiday season thousands of tourists line up everyday to visit the Blue Mosque. The number of victims would undoubtedly have been many times higher if the attack would have taken place a few months later, with an absolutely devastating effect on Turkey’s tourist industry.
Then there is the matter of the bomber’s identity. Mere hours after the attack the identity of the man who blew himself to pieces was already known and released. Nabil Fadli was a 28-year-old, Saudi-born Syrian man who had joined IS’ ranks after the terror group had occupied his hometown of Manbij, north of Aleppo.
According to unnamed Turkish officials Fadli had been part of a plot to attack the New Year’s celebrations in Ankara, but this mission had to be aborted after two of his collaborators were exposed and arrested. Fadli moved to Istanbul where he registered himself as a refugee, in the process giving away his fingerprints that would eventually lead to his identification as the bomber one week later.
The curious thing is, why would a member of the Islamic State group who has come to Turkey with the intention of committing a suicide bomb attack make himself known to the authorities – especially after two of his companions have just been arrested? Why have your picture and fingerprints taken and give away the address where you’re staying – which he did, according to the official reports – instead of laying low for a few days before executing the plan for the attack?
Finally, there is the curious issue of IS never actually having claimed responsibility for the attack. Nor for any of the other attacks mentioned above, which all have been attributed to the terrorist group by the Turkish government. The past year has seen a sting of terror attacks committed by the Islamic State group outside of the territories that are under its control – from Jakarta to Paris, Tunis to Beirut – and each and everyone of them has been claimed by the terror group.Oddly enough, not a single attack in Turkey that has been ascribed to IShas actually been claimed by them.
Raising these questions and irregularities is not done for the purpose of pointing fingers at one party or another. They simply serve as a mental exercise to remind one that, especially when entering the realm of terror and counterterrorism, the reality is rarely how it is presented to the public.
Shifting the blame
The day after the attack, the Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested that “certain powers could be using Daesh,” while referring to the Islamic State group by its Arab acronym. Which“certain powers” he had in mind became clear when anonymous government sources told Reuters that Fadli might have been “coerced by the PYD or by Syrian intelligence into the Istanbul bombing.”
These baseless allegations serve no other purpose but to frame the party of the Syrian Kurds, the Democratic Unions Party, or PYD, as the terrorist organization Turkish authorities claim it to be. Immediately after the Ankara bombings in October, similar attempts at spreading false propaganda were made. Prime minister Davutoglu coined the term “cocktail terrorism” and claimed on national television that the attack was the work of a coalition between the PYD, the Islamic State group, Syrian secret services and the PKK.
The Istanbul attack, regardless of who did it, will be used as propaganda by all the parties involved. For Turkey, which had come under increasing international pressure for failing to step up against IS, the attack firmly places them once again at the heart of the anti-terror coalition dominated by the US and Europe. Reports about retaliation attacks against IS in which supposedly 200 terrorists were killed in cross border artillery fire – an incredible (literally) high number – are meant to erase all doubts that Turkey is now seriously confronting IS.
The attack has also provided Turkey with the necessary pretext to launch attacks further into Syria, at the town of Manbij – the bomber’s hometown – to be precise. This is a highly strategic target because it’s location in the heart of the proposed “security zone” Turkey has wanted to establish for a long time. Coincidentally, Manbij is also the next stop for a coalition of Kurdish forces and their allies who have been gaining significant ground at the cost of the Islamic State group after a recent string of important victories.
Judging from the news, the Istanbul attack has certainly led to renewed efforts by the Turkish government to confront and attack IS. Targets in Syria have been hit, and dozens of alleged IS members have been arrested in the country. However, the fact that part of the blame is tried to be put on the Syrian Kurds shows that, besides a deeply tragic event, the suicide attack is at the same time a good opportunity to frame the public perception and pursue a very specific political agenda.