Killing of Turkish Judge May Inspire Further Attacks by Religious Radicals

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 20

Turkish authorities continue to search for clues to last week’s deadly shooting attack by Alparslan Arslan that claimed the life of Turkish Council of State Judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin and seriously wounded five of his colleagues in Turkey’s highest administrative court. Arslan, who himself is a lawyer, allegedly acted on his own in response to the Court’s recent positions confirming Turkey’s ban on the hijab—the headscarf worn by many Muslim women as a sign of piety—in public institutions such as government buildings and universities (Hurriyet, May 21).

The attack highlights simmering tensions between Turkey’s entrenched secular establishment and growing religious and Islamist sentiments among a sizeable segment of Turkey’s population opposed to the ban on the hijab in public institutions. Significantly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party is intent on overturning the longstanding ban (al-Jazeera, May 18).

Arslan claims to have targeted the judges to punish them for a recent move by the state to transfer an elementary school teacher who was reported to be wearing what has been described as a “turban” walking to and from her work in an effort to circumvent the state’s ban on the hijab (Hurriyet, May 21).

Witnesses say that Arslan entered the Court and judge’s facility using his lawyer’s identification card. According to one source, Arslan entered the building the day prior to the attacks but was reportedly scared off by the security detail guarding the judges. He finally entered the judge’s quarters the next day firing his pistol and yelling “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great) and claiming to be a “soldier of God.” Police on the scene quickly apprehended Arslan after the attack. In a statement made following his arrest, Arslan claimed that he acted alone in response to the government’s decision to transfer the elementary school teacher (Hurriyet, May 21).

Some observers have hinted at a possible link between Arslan and local radical Islamist organizations intent on destabilizing Turkey. Others believe that the attack stems from growing popular opposition by indigenous radical groups to the staunch secularism of the Turkish state and Ankara’s close ties with the United States and Israel (Zaman, May 21).

After examining Arslan’s cell phone records, Turkish authorities announced the arrest of a number of suspected associates (Anatolia News Agency, May 18). In an interesting twist of events, security officials arrested Muzaffer Tekin, a retired military officer, for his alleged role in the attacks. According to one source, Tekin was found bleeding from a self-inflicted knife wound (Hurriyet, May 21). Turkey’s military establishment has traditionally represented the vanguard of the state’s secular tradition. Any potential role by current or former military officers in the attack against the judge would raise serious concerns about the spread of radicalism in the armed forces. Still, the evidence suggests that Arslan acted alone.

In many respects, Arslan’s bold attack resembles the April attacks against Egyptian Coptic Christians perpetrated by Mahmoud Abdul Razik Salah Eddin Hussein, a radical who is also believed to have acted alone. The attacks happened amidst a steady rise in sectarian tension and violence between Copts and Muslims in Alexandria in recent months (al-Jazeera, April 15). Egyptian authorities downplayed the sectarian nature of the attack by claiming that Hussein is mentally disturbed and was disoriented at the time of the incident—in a likely effort to ease Egyptian and international concerns—but no further evidence has surfaced supporting these claims.

If Arslan did in fact act alone in what amounts to be a targeted assassination, his success may inspire other would-be radicals to emulate his efforts against high profile targets in their home countries.