The May 22 suicide bomb attack in Ankara contains elements that are potentially worrisome for the Turkish government, its people and tourists visiting Turkey. If bombings of the same modus operandi continue, a strong, dependable U.S. local ally in the Iraq theater of operations as well as in the wider global response to terrorism could see an intensification of a campaign not yet witnessed to this degree. Turkish authorities first directed suspicions at Kurdish separatists. Initial reports from Ankara police sources, quoted by the Turkish private NTV television channel, stated that the explosion was caused by A-4 plastic explosives, commonly used by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in their long-running effort to establish a Kurdish state. However, Kemal Onal, the governor of Ankara, said the following day that a male suicide bomber carried out the attack, leaving six people dead and 102 others injured. The suicide bomber was identified as Guven Akkus, born in the town of Zara in the province of Sivas in 1979 (Xinhua, May 23). Sivas province, Turkey’s second largest province, is in the eastern part of the Central Anatolian region. Turkish authorities reported that Akkus, at least in the past, was apparently a member of the illegal Turkish Revolutionary Communists Union (TIKB), with a history of sometimes violent political activities, criminal activity and imprisonment (Today’s Zaman, May 25).
Long a staple in the Palestinian battle against Israel, Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) secreted in packages, belts, vests or backpacks are among the most difficult to detect and even more difficult to stop when employed by determined adversaries. Through face-to-face contact among jihadis in training camps and through instructions available globally on the internet, the technique is now commonly employed in more locales—notably Iraq and more recently in Afghanistan. Man-portable IEDs in large cities in Turkey would be ahead of Turkey’s defensive capabilities for quite some time.
The selection of Ankara’s historic Ulus District, long a magnet for foreign tourists, just as the summer season is getting underway, is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the attack from the standpoint of the Turkish economy. The explosion hit a bus stop outside the seven-story Anafartalar Shopping Mall at approximately 6:45 pm local time, just as the streets were filling with evening commuters heading home (Journal of Turkish Weekly, May 22). Just as Egypt’s tourism industry suffered heavy losses in past years because of terrorist attacks—to the tune of some two to three billion dollars annually—Turkey could see its tourist dollars decline markedly if the Ankara attack is the first in a planned series. Unlike the oil-producing Muslim countries, Turkey is heavily dependent on the hard currency brought in and left by foreign tourists every year. The tourism sector of the economy, for example, contributed $8.5 billion dollars in 2002 (Distripress, 2003).
In the absence of a claim of responsibility or progress in the post-blast investigation, it is certainly too early to determine whether the attack resulted from a direct connection to al-Qaeda. It is worthwhile to note, however, that al-Qaeda’s history of involvement in Turkey was amply demonstrated in the November 2003 attacks on British targets in Istanbul. However, in the current climate, in which the inspirational jihadi philosophy is so easily spread via media outlets, the ability of local jihadis to mount an attack in a city such as Ankara—as was seen in Madrid—is a foregone conclusion. The group that emerges eventually as the author of the attack, however, is secondary to the economic outcome that attacks such as this produce. In the early 1980s, the heyday of revolutionary groups, when the Turkish military finally stepped in and took control, violence in Turkey was widespread and growing. The Ulus District style of attack, though, if continued, will likely be a much more focused and more harmful campaign, resulting in painful damage to the Turkish economy.