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Suicide Blast in Ankara: Turkey's Terrorism Dilemma

Commentary, 6 February 2013
Europe
A suicide blast outside the US Embassy in Ankara on 1 February will lead to further pressure on the Turkish government to crackdown hard on all terrorist groups, including the PKK whom the government is trying to negotiate with.

A suicide blast outside the US Embassy in Ankara on 1 February will lead to further pressure on the Turkish government to crackdown hard on all terrorist groups, including the PKK whom the government is trying to negotiate with.

 Ankara Bombing Feb 2013 NTV photo
(Photo: NTV)

On 1 February 2013 Ecevit Sanli, a member of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a leftist organisation with a history of terror attacks in Turkey, detonated a suicide vest at a service entrance for the American embassy in Ankara. The initial reports rekindled the memories of the two Al-Qa'ida linked bomb attacks at the British Consulate, the headquarters of HSBC, and two Synagogues in Istanbul in 2003. The speedy investigation, however, revealed that the bomber is tied to Turkey's leftist fringe, rather than a radical Islamist terror group. In a statement released after the attack, the DHKP-C claimed that the bombing was in retaliation for 'American imperialism occupying our [Turkish] land' and accused Turkey of being an American lackey that is blindly implementing the United States' imperialist policies in Syria.

Within hours, Turkish officials had released the attacker's name, claimed to have positively identified the suicide bomber via a fingerprint and a distinguishing mark, and made clear that both Turkey and the US are united in their fight against terror. Sanli was a known member of the DHKP-C and had served time in a Turkish prison. While incarcerated, Sanli participated in a hunger strike (described as a 'death fast' in Turkish), which resulted in his contracting Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

This in turn, prompted former Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer to amnesty Sanli and the other prisoners who had fallen ill while participating in hunger strikes in 2001. After his release, Sanli, while still under probation, slipped over the Syrian border and made his way to Germany, where he soon came under investigation by the Federal Prosecutor's Office. The investigation did not result in an arrest and Sanli was able to enter Turkey via a ferry from the Greek Islands in recent weeks.

In the wake of the attack, Prime Minister Erdogan has used the DHKP-C's presence in Germany to chastise Europe for what he perceives as lenient laws that have allowed terrorist groups to operate with relative impunity on the continent. Thus, Erdogan is drawing a link between the Embassy bombing and Turkey's decades old complaint that Brussels is far too lenient on Kurdish groups tied to the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) based in Europe.

However, he has thus far refrained from making a direct connection, choosing only to use language that emphasises the need to combat terror in all forms. The Prime Minister's rhetoric is a reflection of his domestic political agenda, which has once again begun to focus on resolving Turkey's fight with the PKK. Moreover, he has also made an effort to downplay any links to the AKP's Syria policy, which remains unpopular.

The bombing has, however, allowed the Prime Minster to defend his government's heavy-handed anti-terror policies. Shortly after the attack, Prime Minister Erdogan criticised the media for the portrayal of the recent crackdown on the DHKP-C. The raids were typically wide in scope and included the arresting of some of the group's lawyers, which in turn led to media criticisms of Turkey's human rights and anti-terror laws. The timing of the bombing has led to some speculation that the attack was in retaliation for the police raids. However, given the group's history of violence, as well as its numerous attacks against American targets, it appears unlikely that one event led to the other.

Nevertheless, Washington is likely to take a harder look at Turkey's terror policies, as well as the intelligence and political failures that prompted Sanli's release and his subsequent fleeing of the country.

The United States is likely to quietly seethe about Turkey's failure to monitor his movements once he was released and the lack of precautions taken once the government was made aware of intelligence pointing to a potential attack, but it is unlikely that the event will seriously damage US - Turkish relations. The bomb was relatively small and the fall-out was limited to the immediate entrance. Thus, the official US reaction will likely be limited to testaments about the strength of the US - Turkish alliance and a public show of support and grief for the family of Mustafa Akarsu, the security guard that was killed in the explosion, as well as for Didem Tuncay, the Turkish journalist wounded in the attack.

Domestic Politics: The PKK, the Constitution, and the Suicide Bombing

The bombing took place amid the AKP's efforts to negotiate a truce with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). Thus, while Turkey's relationship with the United States is unlikely to suffer, the internal pressure to crackdown on terrorism could impact the fragile peace process. Moreover, the bombing has led to a wave of speculation about a link to Syrian intelligence.

The Turkish government, therefore, is faced with having to answer questions about its unpopular Syrian policy and its problematic human rights history, while also likely dealing with pushback from within the security establishment to crack down on terrorism. These issues are fraught with political risk for Erodgan and come amid his recent push to change the constitution and his negotiations with the PKK.

At the outset of the AKP's rule, the leadership sought to adopt a policy more in line with the more liberal definition of Kurdish citizenship advocated for by the late Prime Minister and President Turgut Ozal. However, more recently, the AKP's political alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP) led to a widespread crackdown on Union of Communities on Kurdistan (Koma Civaken Kurdistan, or KCK) and increased military operations in Northern Iraq. As the AKP and MHP's relationship began to fray amid Erdogan's efforts to re-write the constitution, the AKP has once again sought to tackle the Kurdish issue.

While never stated outright, it is widely believed that the efforts to remove the concept of ethnic 'Turkishness' from the constitution would be well received in the Kurdish majority areas of Turkey. The AKP does not have enough seats in the 550 member Parliament to pass the constitution and send it to the people for a referendum.

The party has 326 seats, which leaves it four votes shy of the 330 needed to pass the constitution and to hold a public referendum. It is assumed that once the references to ethnicity are removed, the AKP will attempt to partner with the Kurdish majority Peace and Democracy Party (Barýþ ve Demokrasi Partisi, or BDP) to pass the constitution in Parliament. Once passed, Erdogan could likely count on overwhelming Kurdish support for the new constitution, which would in turn allow for him to win an overwhelming majority at the referendum. Erdogan needs to a strong show of support because his recent efforts to enhance the power of the presidency have faced resistance from the opposition parties (including BDP) and some segments of the AKP's base.

A strong show of support at a public referendum, assuming that the constitution includes a provision that strengthens the presidency, would help Erdogan maintain his democratic legitimacy and beat back the anti-democratic criticism that he has faced at home and abroad.

These efforts, however, could be complicated in the wake of the suicide attack. There is a large minority within the Turkish security apparatus that advocates for the total defeat of terrorist groups. Hence, the negotiations with the PKK, as well as any efforts to liberalise Turkey's anti-terror laws, are seen as defeatist. Erdogan, who has won many supporters from the more nationalist security circle for his aggressive attacks on the PKK, is faced with a political dilemma. The DHKP-C's bombing of such a high-value target is likely to lead to calls within the government to toughen the country's anti-terror operations.

However, any efforts to widen the country's current anti-terror efforts would likely include calls to continue to crack down on the PKK, which would in turn draw further scorn from the BDP. Erdogan is unlikely to pursue this option, owing to his political ambitions. He has invested a tremendous amount of political capital in resolving the Kurdish issue and is working hard to secure political support from Turkey's Kurds. Thus, he cannot, and probably will not, resort to a widespread crackdown. It is far more likely that the government will make an effort to separate the need to crack down on terror, from the on going negotiations with the PKK. These efforts, however, will be complicated by the two groups' history of limited co-operation. While these ties have long been severed, Turkish ultra-nationalists, which compromise an important part of the AKP's base, will likely continue to advocate for a tough and illiberal anti-terror policy.

Despite Erdogan's likely preference for continuing the talks with the PKK, these competing approaches could result in a slow down in reforms being debated within the Turkish parliament. Critically, this includes the passage of the fourth Judiciary Package, which is expected to address Turkish human rights and anti-terror policies. The package is considered to be a vital step towards current efforts to negotiate an agreement with the PKK, as well as necessary to help build trust with Turkey's Kurds. Thus, the Turkish government has a very strong incentive to wrap the case up quickly and move on to more pressing domestic issues. A quick resolution would help appease the United States, while also refocusing the current debates within Turkey about the motives for the attack on to issues more favourable to the ruling party. The longer the case remains open, the more vulnerable the Turkish security services, and by extension Prime Minister Erdogan, are to political attack.

Thus, the speed with which the Turkish investigation is proceeding is likely to continue. Moreover, the Turkish government, under the guise of the need to crack down on the DHKP-C will likely continue to chastise Europe for allowing the group to operate from its territory. Moreover, the violence will likely allow the Prime Minister more leeway in his justifications for the wide-sweeping raids that have taken place in recent years. However, Erdogan is likely to be very specific when commenting on terrorism and the DHKP-C, in order to prevent the widening of the scope of retaliation to include groups tied to the PKK. Thus, he is likely to use language that alludes to terror in the abstract, which allows him to avoid directly raising Turkey's history of PKK violence.

Aaron Stein is an Istanbul based PhD candidate at King's College, London and a researcher specialising in nonproliferation at the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). You can follow him on twitter @aaronstein1. He blogs at turkeywonk.wordpress.com

Author

Aaron Stein
Associate Fellow

Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at RUSI. He is also the nonproliferation program manager at the Center for Economics and Foreign... read more

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