A bomb exploded on the famous Istiklal Avenue, near Taksim Square, in Istanbul, Turkey, on 13 November. Six people were murdered, including a little girl named Ecrin Meydan and her father Yusuf, and more than fifty people were wounded. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described the incident as a “terrorist” attack and Turkish authorities are pointing squarely at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging war on the Turkish state since the 1980s. The available evidence so far is, however, rather murky.
Turkish police have arrested forty-six people in the aftermath of the attack, most prominently a Syrian woman, whose detention was broadcast on state television. At the woman’s home, it is claimed that cash, gold, and a gun were found. The woman is said to have entered Turkey from Afrin, an area in northern Syria that was held by the PKK until a Turkish military operation took it over in 2018.
The detained Syrian woman has been named as Ahlam Albashir and Turkish media reports:
In her police interrogation, the suspect said she was trained as a special intelligence officer by the PKK/PYD/YPG terrorist group and she entered Turkey illegally through Syria’s Afrin.
The terrorist admitted that she had carried out the bomb attack at around 4.20 p.m. (1320GMT) on Sunday, taking the action order from the headquarters of the PKK/PYD/YPG terrorist organization in Kobani, Syria.
“PYD” refers to the “Democratic Union Party” that controls north-east Syria, and “YPG” refers to the “People’s Protection Units”, the militia of the PYD. The Turkish government quite correctly sees the PYD and YPG as fronts for the PKK. The fact that the PKK is a designated terrorist organisation, dedicated to the destruction of the Turkish state and guilty of causing a war that has killed 30,000 or more Turks, and yet the U.S.-led coalition still worked with the PYD/YPG in the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), has infuriated Ankara since 2015.
The PKK has denied involvement in the Istanbul attack, which is to be expected: the organisation has been engaged in a years-long charm offensive to get itself taken off Western terrorism blacklists, and an atrocity this heinous in an area filled with tourists, many of them Western citizens, would scupper any chance of success on that front. The attack is undeniably strange, though, if it is the PKK. The PKK has launched attacks in Turkish cities in the west of the country, usually through another front group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), but those attacks are often suicide bombings or kamikaze-style rampages, and they often nominally target the police or the military. This attack is being reported by Ankara as a package left on a bench, and it is a brazen attack on civilians.
Again, not impossible it is the PKK, a grisly terrorist group that has deliberately murdered thousands of civilians, including its own members, did this. In April, PKK leader Duran Kalkan publicly said: “We will attack everywhere in Turkey. Not only military targets and military positions, but large cities. Areas they don’t expect will become war zones.” It is difficult to perceive the PKK motive for doing this now, but, at the same time, the PKK has never needed a reason to murder civilians: as a terrorist organisation, that is its central purpose. It just requires more evidence than has currently been provided to be sure that this attack is them.
The other obvious candidate for responsibility in this attack is ISIS. It is certainly notable that ISIS has not claimed the attack, as it usually does, quickly, but that might be explained by the fact that the perpetrator has been captured. If ISIS jihadists who carry out attacks are arrested, ISIS traditionally does not claim the attack. That said, if the attack really was a deposited package, rather than a suicide attack, then ISIS is almost certainly not the perpetrator.
Adding to the murkiness in terms of the perpetrator, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu released a cryptic statement that centred the accusation that the PKK was responsible, but said Ankara could not be sure the attack did not have ISIS “ties”. Clearly ISIS does not work with the PKK, so if ISIS is found to be involved, it would mean it was an ISIS operation alone.
What might be going on with the Soylu statement is an attempt at strategic messaging: the Turkish government has sometimes tried to tie the PKK and ISIS together in order to impress on Western audiences that they are indistinguishable terrorist groups that should be treated the same. And this, of course, brings us back to the problem that for information about this attack, we are so far reliant on the Turkish government, and it has its own political agendas to push in terms of how it frames and reports this.
On this theme, Turkish authorities are now reporting that police have discovered that a telephone registered to an official from the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) made several calls to the woman suspected of planting the bomb in Istanbul.
There is a third possibility when it comes to the perpetrator: Iran. Some analysis of the bombing suggests that the attacker(s) timed it to target a crowd of Israeli tourists, several of whom were injured. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has targeted Israelis and Jews all over the world, from Argentina to Germany to India. The IRGC has also been active specifically in Istanbul lately. An IRGC cell preparing a terrorist attack against Israelis in Istanbul was rolled up in June, for example. At a moment when the Islamic Republic is being challenged by street protests, and its Islamist leadership believes in antisemitic conspiracy theories that blame the Jews for everything, it is possible an attack of this kind would be seen as a form of “revenge”.
A few days after a terrorist attack, it is natural that there is a lot that is unknown. In the case of the Istanbul attack, this is further complicated by the fact that the Turkish government is pushing out a lot of information that observers have no real way of assessing for reliability. It is to be hoped that some more solid evidence is brought forth in due course. In the meantime, all we can do is express sympathy for the victims and renew our determination to root out and destroy all forms of terrorism.