A friend of mine was at Istanbul Ataturk Airport when the suicide bombers struck on the night of June 28th. He was involved with helping the wounded and described unspeakable carnage. Most of all he raged against the police – they didn’t turn up until 20 minutes after the third explosion, he said, and then the officer who did come was shaking with fear.
“I’m okay,” he texted, “but I’m really angry…Things are going to get worse. Reis (President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) wants us all to die.”
In the aftermath, questions are understandably being asked about intelligence and security. So far, the answers are frightening.
First, we learn that around 20 days before the suicide bombings the security services had warned the government and state institutions about possible attacks. Specific targets were mentioned, including Ataturk airport. There had also been reports of around 25 Iraq-based suicide bombers on the move, possibly in Turkey. Security had supposedly been ramped up, but clearly nobody had figured out what the bombers had, which was that while you have to go through multiple security checks to get into the departures lounge, anyone can saunter into the much more lightly-policed arrivals.
Much airport security relies on private contractors, who witnesses claim were not hugely effective. Yet if they had stationed more police there, who is to say they would have been much better?
Over the past two years the police force has been turned inside out, mostly in the witch hunt against supporters of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen – a group of people that Erdogan says make up a “parallel state”. Hundreds of police officers have been transferred, made redundant, forced to retire or pushed out of the profession. Police training has been curtailed and inexperienced government sympathisers have been promoted. The force is said to be even more politicised these days than in the 1970s, when street fighting between the left and the right tore the country apart.
Turkey’s police had never really coalesced into an especially competent force, but it’s hard to believe that the upheaval made things better, particularly given the political motivation. How can we be surprised then, if the attacks went ahead despite specific warnings, ISIS “chatter” apparently pointing to a strike in Istanbul, and alarm bells triggered at the end of last year by an incident at another Istanbul airport, Sabiha Gokcen, which is being investigated in secret amid rumours of howitzer fire against aircraft?
For some answers, we can go back to the antics of Turkey’s police chief, Celalettin Lekesiz. In April, Turkey’s media got hold of a memo he allegedly sent to provincial security heads, listing what they should do in the first half an hour after an explosion or bombing. Number one was to gather information; number two to inform their superiors; number three ban media reports. Sending an ambulance was down at number six, just after the directive to stop journalists getting to the scene.
A few days later, in another leaked memo, Lekesiz allegedly listed threats to Turkey’s security. The main one was the so-called parallel state, with precious little about suicide bombs, fighting ISIS or even the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
And again, five days before the airport attack, we have Lekesiz giving a speech about how security forces were successfully fighting the PKK, the Gulenists and ISIS – in that order, helped apparently, by village guards – a controversial, ragtag state-armed militia of pro-government Kurds happy to fight against their ethnic kinsmen in return for money, arms and status.
The airport attacks made a mockery of that speech, and the chaos that characterizes the aftermath of each of the increasingly common bombings mocks assertions that police are prepared.
The provocative, and much-banned political weekly Nokta has just published the political “school report” for current Interior Minister Efkan Ala. Crediting Ala for a complete revamp of the security services, Nokta points out that if his aim was greater security, he earned a great fat zero.
From presiding over the bloodiest terror attacks in Turkish Republican history, Ala’s tenure saw appalling security breaches, mindboggling border controls which veered between ineffectual and draconian, and a return to the bad old days of disappearances in custody and “mystery murders”. The latter is usually blamed on the far-right deep state, which the government vowed to dismantle but apparently decided to enlist for its own ends instead. The magazine listed more than 60 incidents over the past few years, ending with the Ataturk Airport attack. Those responsible range from jihadists to far left militants and Kurdish separatists.
So why, when Turkey’s leaders do not shy away from harsh clampdowns of the most anti-democratic kind, can’t they prevent attacks?
One clue comes from some reports suggesting that the Istanbul killers were Chechens. If so, then these are people with whose Islamist campaigns Turkey has in the past sympathised. Similarly with ISIS militants of all nationalities – seen either as unthreatening to Turkey or at least preferred over PKK fighters, their activities and movements were not hindered as they should have been until Turkey reluctantly lent support to the anti-ISIS coalition by opening its air base in Incirlik last year.
The irony is that, while ISIS does not officially claim attacks in Turkey, it has long declared war on what is still, just about, a secular, Muslim democracy.
Back in 2014, Sinan Ogan, currently a contender to lead Turkey’s ruptured Nationalist Action Party (MHP) had warned of ISIS sleeper cells in the country, of butchers or taxi drivers biding their time until “activated”, yet it doesn’t look like much was done to root them out.
From the priorities set out by Lekesiz, it is easy to see why. With Erdogan and his supporters bent on destroying the Gulenists politically, and the PKK militarily, there is little room to also concentrate on fighting ISIS. Any weakening of ISIS in Syria necessarily becomes a triumph by the Kurds – the most effective force against the jihadists. How can this suit Erdogan, who wins votes with anti-PKK crackdowns?
If they give it a moment’s sane thought, even those who agree with Erdogan politically would surely think he has sacrificed too much on behalf of the country in pursuit of his twin obsessions.
Turkey is currently fighting at least two separate, incompatible wars. Unless the government gives all-out war against the Kurds a rest and concentrates on stopping ISIS, it's hard to see how Turks can sleep at night.