Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 6

Attack at U.S. Embassy in Ankara (Source Daily Record)


Andrew McGregor

In terms of scale alone, the February 1 suicide bombing that killed a Turkish security guard and injured a Turkish journalist outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara was a relatively minor event that did not succeed in causing any significant damage to the embassy itself. Nonetheless, the attack carried out by left-wing militant Ecevit Sanli has created political and diplomatic reverberations throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Though suicide bombings are most commonly associated with Islamist groups, Sanli was a long-term member of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group that adopted the tactic of suicide-bombing in 2001, the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP/C – Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front). After several years of inactivity following the death of founder Dursun Karatas in 2008, the Marxist-Leninist group suddenly renewed activities in September, 2012.

In the embassy attack, Sanli is reported to have used an electric detonator to set off six kilograms of TNT strapped to his body. The suicide bomber had previously been imprisoned for an attack on an Istanbul barracks in 1997. After three years in pre-trial detention, Sanli engaged in hunger strikes with dozens of other prisoners in Istanbul’s Umraniye Prison in 2000 to prevent their transfer to one of Turkey’s feared F-Type prisons, which emphasize social isolation in modern, sterile institutions, an environment that prisoners refer to as “white torture.” 

Mass hunger strikes have been common in Turkey’s high-security F-Type prisons. Scores of prisoners have died in these events, while Sanli and hundreds of others subsequently suffered from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a degenerative brain disease better known as “Wet Brain.” Caused by thiamine deficiency, the syndrome is common in chronic alcoholics and individuals who have engaged in extended hunger strikes. F-Type Prisons are reserved for terrorists, political prisoners and organized crime leaders. The DHKP/C has been prominent in leading prison hunger strikes. Turkish intelligence has suggested that the DHKP/C used militants suffering from terminal illnesses in a number of suicide attacks carried out in the last seven months (Today’s Zaman, February 4).

Released on parole after an eight month hunger strike, Sanli eventually disappeared and was sentenced to death in absentia in June, 2002 (later reduced to life in prison). Sanli next appeared in Germany in September, 2002, where his application for political asylum was denied after his record of terrorist acts came to light. Germany, however, refused to deport him to Turkey for fear he might be tortured. By 2011 he had lost the right to reside in Germany and was ordered not to leave Cologne (Der Spiegel [Hamburg], February 11). German intelligence continued to track Sanli’s whereabouts in Germany but lost sight of him last October. It is believed that Sanli planned the Ankara attack while still in Germany.

Anger is growing in Turkey over the alleged failure of various EU states, particularly Germany, to cooperate with Ankara in bringing an end to the use of European nations as bases for extremist groups carrying out terrorist operations in Turkey (Today’s Zaman, February 5). Germany’s reluctance to extradite suspected Turkish extremists was brought up only days after the bombing in talks between Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Guler and his German counterpart, Hans-Peter Friedrich (Hurriyet Daily News, February 14).

According to the DHKP/C claim of responsibility that followed the embassy attack, “Our warrior [Sanli] carried out an act of self-sacrifice by entering the Ankara embassy of the United States, murderer of the peoples of the world” (Today’s Zaman, February 4). The statement went on to condemn Turkey’s close security relationship with the United States, citing issues such as the installation of Patriot missiles and NATO’s creation of a radar base at Kurecik that Iran claims is intended to defend Israel, not Turkey (Milliyet, February 10).

Shortly after the attack, President Abdullah Gul revealed that Turkey’s security services had information in January that the DHKP/C was planning an attack, but “unfortunately it could not be prevented and the attack against the embassy took place” (Hurriyet Daily News, February 6). Turkish police are searching for two other DHKP/C members who entered Turkey alongside Sanli from a training camp in Greece. There are fears the two may be planning further suicide attacks (Zaman Online, February 17). A statement issued earlier this month by the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT – Turkey’s national intelligence organization) warned Istanbul policemen that the DHKP/C was using internet search engines, Facebook and Twitter to obtain the photographs and addresses of police officers (Milliyet, March 4).

The Police Intelligence Department revealed at a recent parliamentary hearing that a 2008 DHKP/C plot to attack the home of Prime Minister Erdogan and a 2009 plan to assassinate former justice minister Hikmet Sami Turk had been foiled by electronic surveillance. The information was given during a hearing in which the police defended their use of wiretaps by claiming 284 terrorist attacks had been stopped and 138 “bombers” arrested in the last three years (Hurriyet Daily News, February 24). Many Turks are puzzled by the persistence of what one local columnist called “rogue groups with absolutely no foundation in society,” and tend to see the hand of Turkey’s “deep state” structure behind the resiliency of Turkey’s terrorist groups, including movements that appear to be still fighting the Cold War, such as the DHKP/C (Today’s Zaman, February 4).

The prior knowledge of an impending DHKP/C attack mentioned by President Gul may have been the reason why Turkish security forces cracked down on the group in the weeks before the bombing, arresting over 80 suspects. After the attack, the crackdown intensified. 167 people were detained in country-wide raids on suspected DHKP/C members on February 18. Many of the detainees were identified as professionals or public servants belonging to the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK), whose offices were also raided. The raids uncovered documents containing the license numbers and identity information of Ankara judges and prosecutors who have worked on DHKP/C-related cases (Hurriyet Daily News, February 19, February 20; Today’s Zaman, March 11).

A March 14 raid in the Okmeydani neighborhood of Istanbul was resisted by the occupants of a fortified DHKP/C safe-house, who endured tear gas while trying to burn documents. Twelve people were detained, six of whom were reported to be under 18. The occupants of the safe-house were said to have illegally tapped into electricity, water and natural gas supplies. A gathering of socialists protested the arrest later that day and were dispersed by Istanbul police using pepper spray (Today’s Zaman, March 14, March 15).

Greece, which has usually refused to extradite suspects to Turkey, appears to have re-examined its approach in the wake of a March 4 meeting between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After the meeting, Samaras was reported to have ordered the closing of two DHKP/C training camps in the Lavrion and Oropo regions. The movement is now said to have moved its headquarters to an apartment in Thessaloniki (Daily Star [Beirut], March 9; Hurriyet Daily News, March 9). Greece has also promised to extradite the elusive Zeki Gurbuz, leader of the Marksist Leninist Komunist Parti Turkiye (MLKP) and a DHKP/C member identified only as “S.E.” (Today’s Zaman, March 15).

Various theories have been advanced to explain the motivation behind the attack on the U.S. embassy, some based on the belief that the DHKP/C is a “deep-state” legacy working as a subcontractor for other extremist groups or intelligence agencies in order to raise funds for their own operations. If this is the case, there are three possible clients for the embassy attack:

·         Syria, as a covert effort to harm the United States, but with a message attached for Ankara regarding its pro-rebel position on Syria. Turkish security analyst and Jamestown contributor Nihat Ali Ozcan pointed to a possible connection between the bombing and the development of a proxy war between Turkey and Syria: “It is no secret that during the Cold War, Syria hosted Marxist-Leninist movements. When Turkey changed its stance against Iran and Syria, everybody started to look at the old files to see ‘what kind of networks we had’” (Hurriyet Daily News, February 18).

·         Iran, as part of a larger proxy war against American interests. The attack would also convey Tehran’s dissatisfaction with Turkish policies in Syria.

·         Kurdish rebel commanders belonging to the Parti Karkerani Kurdistan (PKK), as a message to Ankara that they will continue operations even as the government enters talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The DHKP/C is rooted in Turkey’s Alevi community, a sectarian affiliation including Turks, Kurds and Arabs and comprising approximately 10 percent of Turkey’s population of 75 million people. Alevism is a syncretic faith that, like Alawism, combines elements of Shi’ism, Christianity and pre-Islamic rites and beliefs. Alevis, who are generally strong supporters of Turkish secularism, have been under pressure from the AKP government for several years to conform to Sunni orthodoxy (EDM, October 12, 2007).

Analyst Nihat Ali Ozcan has suggested that the DHKP/C’s Marxist allegiance is of less importance than its “ethnic-sectarian identity”; “There are some homegrown organizations in which most members share a common allegiance to the Alevi faith beneath the cloak of Marxism… Accordingly, with the end of the Cold War, the true colors of the DHKP/C were derived not from Marxism, but from this kind of sectarian identity” (Hurriyet Daily News, February 7). 





Andrew McGregor 

The largely desert nation of Mauritania has been engaged in an often deadly struggle against al-Qaeda terrorists and local Salafist militants for several years now. Many local Salafists now populate the prison in the capital of Nouakchott, though even this does not seem to have deterred some of them from carrying out various activities.  

Abu Ayyub al-Mahdi (a.k.a. Ahmad Salim bin al-Hassan), an imprisoned Mauritanian Salafist, announced the creation of a new militant group, Ansar al-Shari’a in the Shanqiti [Mauritanian] Country, on February 12, the latest in a series of autonomous but ideologically sympathetic Ansar al-Shari’a groups to spring up across North Africa and the Middle East.

One of the greatest promoters of the Ansar al-Shari’a phenomenon is a Mauritanian ideologue, Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti, the author of an influential 2012 article entitled “We are Ansar al-Shari’a.” [1] Al-Shanqiti proposed gathering the disparate Salafist-Jihadist movement behind a unified objective – the rejection of democracy and the establishment of Shari’a as the leading principle in the Muslim world. As part of this process, al-Shanqiti maintains the movement must be brought out into the open from its present underground existence (al-Hayat, January 3). This may be a difficult task however; many of the Salafists detained in the Nouakchott prison have denied any association with the new branch of Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Monitor, February 19).

Though President Muhammad Ould Abd al-Aziz kept Mauritanian forces out of the current ECOWAS-based African intervention force operating in Mali on the grounds that Mauritania was not an ECOWAS country and that the French-led intervention was launched without prior notice, he has indicated that Mauritania would be ready to provide troops to a UN-backed mission in Mali. The president added that Mauritania is aware of two problems driving the insecurity in Mali, these being Bamako’s tolerance of terrorist groups in northern Mali over the last 12 years and the “sometimes legitimate” demands of the people of northern Mali for “basic infrastructure, health and education” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], March 4).

Mauritanian military intervention in Mali is opposed not only by the Salafist community, but also by mainstream, secular politicians such as Ahmad Ould Daddah, the main opposition leader and secretary general of the Regroupement des Forces Démocratiques (RFD – Rally of Democratic Forces):

I am afraid we will participate in a war that we have no interest in – a war that poses danger to us and the region in general. What our region and the Sahel region need are building and development efforts to improve conditions; not the destruction of an already worn-out infrastructure… We do not want or accept that our region becomes the Afghanistan of the African Sahel. To remove any confusion, we affirm that we are against terrorists and terrorism. However, each war has two fronts; a fighting front and an internal front, which is more important than the fighting front in my opinion. When the national public opinion is not convinced of the reasons and pretexts of a war, it means that it does not serve the country. This affects the performance of the soldiers and makes them question the sanctity of their mission (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 11).

Ould Dadah initially supported Ould Abd al-Aziz, but now observes the president backing away from democracy to adopt a more military-style of rule and notes the adverse effects on military performance created by involving the military in politics, effects that could hamper the military’s ability to mount a campaign in Mali or even effectively guard its 2,237 kilometer border with that country: 

We have become certain that he adheres to the mentality of a military rule, which is not proper in for a country that claims to be democratic. The practices of the regime encourage the army to become involved in politics, abandon its noble military mission, and to indulge in luxuries that destroy its combat ability. In my opinion, the army is the first to be harmed by the military regime. It is also dangerous when the army becomes involved in politics, because in this case politics are practiced through guns and weapons, not through reason, thinking, and logic. This is the logic of the military rule that is running the country (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 11).

In Mauritania, 3.5 million people live in a land of well over 1 million square kilometers. Mauritania’s security services lack the men and resources to properly patrol and monitor the nation’s borders, most of which cross lifeless deserts. This has left Mauritania open to attack by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) several times in the past, despite efforts to set up joint counter-terrorist patrols with the similarly under-equipped Malian army (see Terrorism Monitor July 7, 2011; November 11, 2010). On March 17, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the capture of five “Islamist terrorists” from northern Mali who were caught trying to infiltrate the border (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, March 18).

In early February, Mauritania launched a new initiative with its southern neighbor, Senegal, to coordinate military activity along the border with groups of villagers along the Senegal River who will act as the eyes and ears of the security services in identifying suspicious individuals or groups active in the border region (al-Monitor, February 6). Senegalese troops recently arrested a Mauritanian al-Qaeda member who had slipped into the country across the border (PANA Online {Dakar], February 15). Mauritania is now hosting more than 150,000 refugees from northern Mali and claims to have intercepted several al-Qaeda militants posing as part of that number.

There are extensive historical and communal ties between the two countries – many of the Arab tribes of northern Mali have relatives across the border in Mauritania, while a significant number of Mauritanians have settled in northern Mali over the years. There have been repeated demonstrations in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott by Malian Arab refugees protesting human rights abuses by Malian troops following the French intervention force into northern Mali (RFI, March 12; AFP, March 11).

Mauritania hosted this year’s Operation Flintlock, an annual training exercise for North African and West African militaries sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) (for Operation Flintlock, see Terrorism Monitor, June 3, 2010). The exercises, which ended on March 9, saw troops from the United States and various NATO allies provide training in counterterrorist operations and field-craft. Last year’s exercises, which were to be held in Mali, were cancelled due to the Islamist occupation of Mali’s northern districts. Some of the African troops trained in this year’s event could wind up taking part in a possible UN peacekeeping operation in northern Mali.