Thursday, 1 March 2012

Speculating on the Istanbul bombing

Istanbul was hit by an explosion this morning in which sixteen people, almost all of them police officers on a passing bus, were wounded (none of them seriously. Reports suggest that a remote-controlled bomb went off as the bus passed. The attack took place in Sütlüce, near the district office of the ruling AKP and the headquarters of one of Turkey’s largest business associations.

It’s still very early, but nobody has yet claimed responsibility. This being Turkey, there are a wide variety of potential suspects ranging from the feasible to the conspiratorial which it is worth running through.

- The PKK
The Kurdish separatists are the prime suspects. Attacks on security forces, particularly ‘soft’ targets such as police on buses, are a fairly common tactic. Remote-controlled bombings are also a hallmark of the group and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), which focus on urban operations. Both the PKK and the Falcons have been fairly quiet of late, forced onto the back foot by relentless military pressure in the southeast of Turkey and sweeping arrests of Kurdish activists.

There has been no claim of responsibility yet: the TAK tends to claim its attacks whilst the PKK – which has an ambivalent and opaque relationship with the TAK – has a more mixed record on declaring responsibility.

 Kurdish Hizbullah
The Islamist counterpart to the Marxist PKK, Kurdish Hizbullah remains a shadowy force in Turkey. Allegedly funded by the state during the 1990s until it bit the hand that feeds it, it was largely crushed but has recently seen something of a resurgence. It is often mentioned in the same breath as Al-Qaeda, with which it shares an ideology. There have been a number of recent arrests of alleged Al Qaeda and Hizbullah members, suggesting that both remain active.

However neither Hizbullah nor Al Qaeda remnants in Turkey have shown much appetite or ability to launch bomb attacks recently. Their modus operandi is also usually different to today’s attack, focusing on suicide bombings against civilian targets which involve maximum carnage.

 Iran’s Quds Force
This is where things get conspiratorial. Turkish intelligence recently warned that Iran’s Quds Force, the overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards, had cells in Turkey that were planning attacks. This would be an extension of the proxy war between Iran and the West that has hit Azerbaijan hard recently (among others). It would also be revenge for Turkey’s decision to host a NATO radar base as part of the alliance’s missile defence network, and comes at a time of heightened tension between the two neighbours.

Iranian involvement has been suspected in Istanbul attacks before. Last May a bomb injured eight civilians and was initially blamed on the PKK. However subsequent reports suggested that Iranian-linked cells were responsible, and that the attack was actually a failed assassination attempt against an Israeli diplomat.

So Iranian terror attacks in Turkey aren’t impossible. But hitting police officers makes no strategic sense for Tehran, so it would seem a waste of resources by the Quds force (although given the amateurish nature of recent attacks, it’s not impossible).

- Ergenekon / Gulenists
With the shadowy military conspiracy still under sustained attack from the AKP and allegedly its Gulenist backers, maybe the attack was a last-ditch attempt to sow chaos by the Ergenkon network? Or maybe it was a false flag operation by the Gulen movement to discredit the military further? Or an attempt by either the military or the Gulenists to damage the AKP, which has seen its alliance with the Gulen movement fracturing recently?

None of these is really plausible, of course, but the recent shifts in Turkish politics, which have led to new alignments and new balances of power, make anything fair game for the country’s rumour mill.

The most likely suspect remains one of the country’s Kurdish groups. If so, the bombing joins Turkey’s long, bleak tradition of random terror attacks. It will change nothing either way in the country’s struggle with its Kurdish problem: the only consolation is that nobody died.


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