Erdogan’s clampdown fuelling Turkey’s year of terror

Istanbul attack motivated by launch of constitution, say members of president’s party


Late on Saturday evening, after the football fans had streamed away from the Colosseum-like Vodafone Arena in the heart of Istanbul, riot police milled around the outskirts of the stadium and traffic had just returned to normal.

Then, at about 10.30pm, there was an explosion so loud it boomed around the city of 18 million, shattering nearby windows and scattering police helmets all the way down the road. For another half-hour, gunshots rang out, ambulance sirens wailed and, at Acibadem Hospital in Taksim, a mother screamed as she recognised her son on a gurney.

Within hours, the awful toll: 38 killed, 30 of them police officers, and 166 wounded. At least a dozen suspects were arrested. By Sunday morning, the roads had been washed and debris carted away. Forensic experts estimated nearly 400kg of explosives were used.

For Turkey, it was only the latest in a lethal year for terrorist attacks. The targets have spanned the breadth of Turkish life: a Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep, the arrivals hall at Ataturk International Airport, air force officers leaving work, police officers arriving for work, German tourists in Sultanahmet, Israeli tourists on Istiklal Avenue, funerals, a courthouse in Diyarbakir, a governor’s office in Adana. Hundreds have been killed and more than 1,000 injured as the bloodshed has circled in on Turkey’s largest cities.

“Sooner or later, we will have our vengeance. This blood will not be left on the ground, no matter what the price, what the cost,” Suleyman Soylu, interior minister, vowed at a funeral for five of the policemen, attended by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who did not speak. “Remember this, the blade of the state stretches far and wide.”

Politically motivated

On Sunday, an offshoot of the PKK, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons – which was also blamed for an attack in February in Ankara near the air force headquarters that killed 47 – claimed responsibility for the attack.

Some members of Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party said the attack was politically motivated by the unveiling of a draft constitution that will reshape Turkey’s charter to concentrate power in the office of the presidency, abandoning nearly a century of parliamentary democracy. Mr Erdogan must now campaign for this new charter against the backdrop of unceasing terrorist actions, a slowing economy and a wilting currency.

“No one should have any doubt about our fight against terrorism,” Mr Erdogan told reporters outside a hospital. “We are the owners of this country, and will not leave it to this scum if they aim to scare us with such attacks.”

Turkey also faces a threat from Islamic State. Security analysts and government officials warned that Ankara’s military excursion has heightened the battlefield rivalry between Turkey, Kurdish militants who had controlled the territory Turkish troops are now active in, and Islamic State. Less than a week ago, Isis urged its supporters to target Turkey’s “security, military, economic and media establishment”.

“It doesn’t matter who you are fighting in Syria – the PKK, Daesh, al-Qaeda – they will hit back in Istanbul and Ankara,” said a security official at the site of Saturday’s bombing. Last week 40,000 police officers had been recruited in a massive operation to arrest or detain people with ties to the PKK, said the official who declined to be named. “It seemed like a successful operation, but now it’s not clear.”

Syrian war

Under the emergency powers assumed by Mr Erdogan after a failed coup in mid-July, the Turkish state has wide ability to investigate, detain and otherwise beef up security. But the country’s entanglements in Syria have complicated those efforts, forcing it to face a rejuvenated Kurdish militancy at the same time as it battles militants from Islamic State, also known as Isis.

A foreign ministry official estimated at least 1,200 Islamic State-related militants were at large in Turkey this year, while recruitment at the PKK has peaked to several thousand fighters, according to two other Turkish officials. Turkey’s jailing of several hundred Kurdish politicians, including 10 members of parliament, has further fuelled the Kurdish insurgency.

“Turkey is fighting to take and hold territory, while the PKK, or Isis, only have to bleed the Turkish state and security apparatus,” said Aaron Stein at the Atlantic Council. “The PKK or Isis have the means and the capabilities to carry these attacks out indefinitely, placing a considerable burden on Turkish officials committed to protecting the population.” – Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2016