Russian ambassador’s killer ‘always in need of help’
Turkish policeman Mevlut Altintas was ‘respectful and calm’, those who knew him say
Mevlut Altintas: The one-time “introverted and silent” boy is pictured just after murdering the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on December 19th. Photograph: AP/Burhan Ozbilici
Those in the small Turkish town of Soke who knew Mevlut Altintas, the smartly dressed young man who shot dead Russia’s ambassador last week, recall a lonely, taciturn boy twice rejected by university before leaving home and joining the police.
Altintas (22) shot Andrei Karlov in the back at an Ankara art gallery before being gunned down by police. Few in Soke would have recognised the figure in black suit and tie who stood over the diplomat’s body screaming jihadi slogans.
For his family, as for Karlov’s, it was a tragedy.
“I have always admired their son,” said a next-door neighbour, who spoke from behind her closed door and from time to time broke down in tears. “He was respectful and calm, a very nice young man.
“When the police arrived at the door, we assumed he had been killed on duty and they were here to tell the family of his martyrdom,” the neighbour said. “The mother was devastated when she heard.”
For many, the December 20th assassination illustrated the turmoil in a country that has been transformed under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey must contend with conflicts across the border in Syria and Iraq, and Kurdish insurrection and attacks by Islamic State at home.
The police force Altintas served as a member of the riot squad is also in some tumult, its command and rank and file purged of what Erdogan calls traitors and terrorists after a failed July coup. The Turkish police has long had secret networks and allegiances in its ranks, both Islamist and nationalist.
Although constitutionally secular, the Turkish state has long relied on the “twin pillars” of Sunni Islam and nationalism, said Halil Karaveli, managing editor of the Turkey Analyst, a policy journal.
“The religious element was always very important in the recruitment and the formation of the cadres of the Turkish state, especially in the security services – not in the army – but in the police,” he said.
According to Erdogan, the assassin was a follower of exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally, who had built a wide network in the police. Gulen denies this.
Soke is a lower middle-class town of 117,000, overshadowed by the upscale resorts that dot the Aegean coast. It is in one of the most secular regions of the country. Celtikci, the neighbourhood where the Altintas family live, is filled with run-down buildings. The paint is peeling and the walls are scarred by graffiti, often nationalist or religious.
“Islam is the only way,” reads one. “God should be bestowed upon Turks,” says another.
Altintas’s family lives on the fourth floor. Laundry could still be seen hanging out on the balcony, two days after police detained the family for questioning. Media reports said they were later released.
His father, Israfil Altintas, said he had spoken to his son by phone on the day of the attack. The young man’s behaviour began changing after he became friends at the police academy with a man identified as Sercan B.
“As far as I know, he was not a member of any terrorist organisation, religious network or group,” Israfil Altintas told police, according to Turkish broadcaster Haberturk. “However, he started becoming focused on his prayers, more introverted and silent after he became a policeman.”
Israfil said his son had ignored his suggestion that he should remain in Izmir and had gone with Sercan B to Ankara, where they lived in the same house.
Give your blessing
His mother, Hamidiye Altintas, described her son as an “introverted and silent boy’. She said she had also called him on the day of the attack.
“He asked, ‘What are you doing, Mom?’, and I told him I was on a visit and would call him when I was available. He then hung up, saying ‘Alright Mom, be in God’s care, give me your blessing’.”
Former acquaintances recall a distant figure who spent much of his time with his stepsister and grandmother. No one seemed to know of any open allegiance to Gulen in young adulthood.
“He was always in need of help,” said Bahri Gokciyel, who was from the same neighbourhood and now works at a teahouse in Soke. “He was a silent kid who had no friends all through school.”
Gokciyel said that Altintas twice failed to get a place at university.
Whatever his academic shortcomings, Altintas planned the killing meticulously, scouting out the gallery in advance, calling in sick on the day of the attack, and using his police ID to bypass security checks and get into the venue with a gun.
While the slogans Altintas shouted suggest he was sympathetic to radical Islamist ideology, Gulen preaches interfaith dialogue.
Whatever the motive, the killing capped a violent year for Turkey that includes a string of deadly bombings blamed on both Kurdish militants and Islamic State.