Istanbul bombing was no surprise, Turks agree, but they differ on why

Most of those killed Tuesday by a Saudi-born suicide bomber were German tourists. Was Turkey targeted because of its role battling terrorism or its policy on Syria?

Yagiz Karahan/Reuters
The Sultanahmet mosque, known as the Blue mosque, is seen at night in Sultanahmet square in Istanbul, Turkey January 12, 2016. A suicide bomber thought to have crossed recently from Syria killed at least 10 people, most of them German tourists, at Sultanahmet square in Istanbul's historic heart on Tuesday, in an attack Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed on Islamic State.

A suicide bombing in the shadow of Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque, the heart of Turkey’s tourism industry, killed 10 people Tuesday and wounded 15 others. Most of the dead were German tourists.

Turkish officials blamed the Islamic State (IS) for the bombing in Sultanahmet Square, the third high-casualty terrorist attack to strike the country since July. They said the bomber was Saudi-born Nail Fadli, who had come from Syria.

Officials and Istanbul residents alike said the attack should have come as no surprise, though for different reasons.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose ruling party recently won reelection with a promise to deliver security to the country, said in an address Tuesday to Turkish ambassadors that Turkey is the “primary target” of terrorists because it is fighting terrorism with “full determination.”

But for many here it is Turkey’s own intervention in Syria against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – including its past facilitation of anti-Assad Islamist fighters – and its renewed battle against Kurdish militants that made Tuesday’s blast a long-expected event that will further damage the country’s $34 billion tourism trade. Some residents said they have already adjusted their daily routines to avoid being caught in an attack.

“This Sultanahmet bombing showed us that these terrorist organizations can hit Turkey very powerfully,” says Behlül Özkan, a political scientist at Marmara University who visits the area often. He owns property 500 yards from the blast, he says, and has not noticed any recent increase in security.

“Any rational person could have predicted it, and state officials should have predicted it – that’s the real problem,” Mr. Özkan says.

“These terrorist groups showed to the Turkish government and the whole world that they can attack any tourist center in Turkey, and there are lots of them,” he says. “They are attacking foreigners because they want to show that Turkey is vulnerable ­– they want to kill the Turkish economy.”

Turkish media quoted officials as saying a Saudi Arabian man linked to Syria was the bomber. They also announced the arrest of 16 IS militants in the capital, Ankara, among them one Turkish national, who they said were planning major attacks.

Numerous IS cells are believed to be in Turkey, which for years served as a rear staging post for rebels of all stripes fighting to topple Mr. Assad.

As a result, many Turks say they have already been on tenterhooks – avoiding central squares and subway trains – since a double suicide attack killed more than 100 people at a peace rally in the capital, Ankara, in October, the worst mass killing in Turkey’s modern history.

Others began changing their habits last July, when Kurdish activists were targeted by IS in the town of Suruc near Turkey’s border with Syria. For many, it is all spillover from the Syrian war, which has brought more than 2 million refugees to Turkey during nearly five years of fighting.

Tourism in decline

“I was expecting this, and have been avoiding Taksim Square and not using the metro for a month,” says Cem, the owner of a new coffee shop within earshot of Tuesday’s blast. Business has dropped for months because of the myriad conflicts.

“Have you heard the reports of IS along the border wearing police uniforms?” he asks. “I think they are living all around us…. We feel lucky to be alive every day.”

Turkey’s tourism has been in decline for more than a year, after welcoming some 40 million tourists in 2014. Concern about the Syrian war has been capped by the renewed Kurdish conflict and Turkey shooting down a Russian jet fighter near the Syrian border in November – prompting Moscow to cancel package deals that supplied the bulk of 4.4 million Russians who came here each year.

Mr. Erdoğan repeated his theme that there is no difference between IS and the militants of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – whom government forces resumed fighting a 30-year war against in July.

“For us there is no difference between PKK, the [leftist] DHKP-C, the so-called Islamic State … regardless of what their abbreviation may be,” he said. All were “terrorists.”

State news media reported Tuesday that 578 Kurdish militants had been killed since mid-December in southeast Turkey – and “thousands” since July in both Turkey and Iraq – while more than 200 Turkish security forces had been killed since the summer.

'Government is trying to scare people'

Security was a key issue in elections last June that saw Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose its majority for the first time in 13 years. After the Suruc and Ankara blasts, Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned Turks that such insecurity was a result of not fully backing the AKP.

The party regained its majority in a snap election on Nov. 1.

“I think the government is trying to scare people, so we will become more attached to them, so we will beg them to protect us,” says Asli, an architect who watched the plume of smoke Tuesday from her apartment. She has avoided Istanbul’s underground metro for five months, fearing attacks there.

“They want to make you feel afraid, to make you weak,” she says. Her usually busiest time with foreign clients was flat last summer, she says, and her parents – involved in real estate on Turkey’s southern coast – have watched legions of Russian tourists go.

“What was left were the Germans, and now they will go,” says Asli. “It’s not going to be a nice summer.”

'Pick a side'

In his speech to the ambassadors, Erdoğan called on them to make the country’s case as a strident fighter against terrorism. He accused intellectuals and critics of misreading the fight and said the government was “not stepping on the rights of its citizens” but that it was Kurdish militants who were doing so.

“Pick a side,” he said. “You are either on the side of the Turkish government, or you’re on the side of the terrorists.”  

Erdoğan spent much of his speech discussing the Kurdish issue, but devoted only a few sentences to IS.

“This attack is real different because its aim is different… We know that IS killed the Egyptian and Tunisian tourism industries,” says Özkan, the political scientist.

“You should be really naïve not to expect such an attack in Turkey,” he says. “Turkey was very hesitant to be part of the anti-IS coalition, but this is an inescapable war.… We are going to see really tough months [ahead], if not years.”

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