Kurdish rebels deny Istanbul suicide attack as speculation mounts

Kurdish rebels also announced the extension of a cease-fire, but Turkey's array of militant groups present a formidable list of possible culprits.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Police forensic officers inspect the scene of a suspected suicide bombing near police vehicles in central Istanbul's Taksim Square, in Turkey, on Oct. 31.

Kurdish rebels have denied any role in Sunday's suicide blast in the heart of Istanbul, as speculation mounts about who was behind the attack that targeted police and left 32 wounded.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, also declared in a statement today that it is extending a cease-fire for eight months until Turkey's national elections, in a bid for talks with the government.

Despite the denial, Turkish media suggested that the attack was engineered by the PKK – which has fought for greater Kurdish rights since 1984, often with great violence, and is considered a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington, and the European Union – or a more radical Kurdish faction.

“It is not possible for us to organize such an action at a time when we are preparing to take historic steps toward peace and a democratic solution,” the PKK statement read, according to a translation by the Associated Press. “It is not possible for us nor any units attached to us to carry out or plan such an action.”

Complicating the picture for Turkish security forces are divisions within the PKK; a track record of similar attacks against police by militant leftist groups; and Islamist cells linked to Al Qaeda that in 2003 staged large-scale bombings in Istanbul that left 62 dead.

Analysts say the PKK or an offshoot, or leftists, or even a combination thereof, are all possible culprits. Government efforts in recent years to improve the lives of ethnic Kurds in southeast Turkey have foundered, and some political efforts have backfired.

Kurds on trial

More than 150 Kurds – including 12 sitting mayors and other politicians – are currently on trial, accused of working with the PKK.

“The question really is whether this is going to be the beginning of a chain of attacks, [because] there is a lot of frustration in the PKK, and the sense of being cheated,” says Gareth Jenkins, a security specialist in Istanbul with the Silk Road Studies Program of Johns Hopkins University.

“The government has dangled various concessions in front of them, and now in the last few weeks they’ve said there is not going to be anything until after the next elections,” says Mr. Jenkins. “For the PKK…[any attack] is a form of blackmail, because when they stage an attack they are saying, ‘We can do another one’.…I describe it as a ‘war of psychological attrition,’ to use the violence to try to wear down the resistance to negotiations.”

Some sources suggest that the PKK was involved, though perhaps not the mainstream group based in northern Iraq, whose leadership in the days leading up to the Sunday attack stated that they would not target civilians. The actual blast targeted police at one of Istanbul’s busiest squares, though 17 of the 32 wounded were civilians.

“There isn’t one PKK, so it might be a dissident group within the PKK that very much wants to hit targets like this,” says Ihsan Bal, director of the USAK think tank’s Center for Security Studies in Ankara.

The falcons?

A splinter group known as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, has conducted a number of attacks against Turkish security forces, but is disavowed by the larger PKK leadership.

“During [recent] months, a number of bombs carried by the PKK within Turkey have been confiscated by the police,” says Professor Bal, who notes at least three incidents in which PKK explosives and operatives were swept up in three different cities, one as far west as Izmir. Such smuggling routes are far from the PKK’s remote mountainous bases in northeastern Iraq and are so long that Bal says the PKK would have been aware of an effort to move explosives.

“Police were on a very high alert,” says Bal. Explosives “can’t go such a distance without the knowledge of the mainstream PKK.”

But analysts also noted similarities between the Taksim Square attack on Sunday and previous low-casualty, headline-grabbing attacks conducted by leftists. Turkish security forces have engaged in shootouts before, and on Sunday morning – before the suicide bombing – police raids resulted in the arrest of 16 leftists.

“Another possibility is the PKK has occasionally used marginal groups – mainly leftists – as proxies, provided them with training, finance, sometimes explosives [to] carry out an attack that enables the PKK to distance themselves from it,” says Jenkins.

“Whether or not this is leftists acting on their own, or cooperating with the PKK…this serves the purpose of the PKK [by] demonstrating Turkey’s vulnerability to terrorism attacks,” says Jenkins. The first clue will be the identity of the male bomber: leftists tend to be from Istanbul itself, with a track record of militant activism known to police; PKK attackers are often from out of town and brought in just prior to the attack, says Jenkins.

“The other clue is the way the bomb was put together,” Jenkins adds. “There are certain…arrangements of the different materials that crop up with different groups. A group knows how to make a bomb in a certain way – particularly these relatively simple ones.”

PKK denial

The PKK statement said the group – whose bases in northern Iraq have often been targeted by Turkish airstrikes, often with the help of US satellite intelligence – does not want a military solution. Tens of thousands have died in a conflict waged most ferociously between the PKK and the Turkish military in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Our movement has deemed the fact that a peaceful solution is being discussed and that certain circles within the state are warm toward a dialogue, as a positive development,” the PKK statement read. The aim of extending the ceasefire – first declared in mid-August – was to “encourage and give strength to this approach.”

Officials divulged few of the details gleaned by forensic teams from the blast site. On Monday, Istanbul police released a photograph of a balding man said to be the bomber, but did not give his name or other details. Interior Minister Besir Atalay told journalists that he was not yet ready to pin blame on any group: “We have information, however we are being cautious,” he said.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused some European nations – referring especially to Germany, without naming it – of permitting groups “with known ties to the terrorist organization” to “freely operate,” and of thereby giving “indirect support to terrorism.” Germany has a large population of Kurdish immigrants from Turkey.

“Government has become more resilient,” says Bal at USAK. “Each time when the government receives an attack from any terrorist group, [it] learns more and more what these attack are really aiming for, and responds accordingly.”

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