The initial evidence suggests that the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul on July 9 was the work of a small group of homegrown Islamist extremists, who planned and carried out the attack on their own.
Eye witnesses reported that at around 10.30 a.m. local time on July 9, a grey Ford Focus automobile carrying four men pulled up outside the U.S. Consulate General in the Istinye suburb of Istanbul. Three bearded men armed with pistols and a pump-action shotgun got out and as the automobile sped away, opened fire on members of the Turkish National Police (TNP) stationed outside the consulate compound. All three assailants and three members of the TNP died in the subsequent firefight. One policeman and one bystander were also wounded (NTV, CNNTurk, July 9). On July 10 there were unconfirmed reports that the vehicle used in the attack had been located (Vatan website, www.vatanim.com.tr, July 10). There was no news of the location of the driver.
The U.S. Consulate General relocated from central Istanbul to a custom-built, high security compound in the suburb of Istinye in 2003. The compound is set back from neighboring buildings in the center of a large plot of land surrounded by high walls. The only vehicular access is a narrow road running parallel to the entrance to the compound, which has been reinforced to guard against the detonation of a vehicle-delivered improvised explosive device (IED). When the attack began, an alarm triggered an automated lock-down system. None of the assailants penetrated the compound. There were no casualties among those inside.
Although Islamist extremists are known to have conducted surveillance of the consular compound, they have usually been deterred from staging an attack by the low probability of being able to penetrate even its outer perimeter.
The three slain assailants have been identified by the Turkish authorities as Turkish nationals from relatively poor families from the underdeveloped eastern part of the country: Erkan Kargın (26 years old) and Raif Topcil (20 years old) from Bitlis and Bulent Cinar (23 years old) from Igdir (NTV, Dogan Haber Ajansi, July 9). The Turkish media have published reports suggesting that Kargın and Cinar traveled to extremist training camps in Afghanistan (Sabah, July 10), although the veracity of these claims has yet to ratified. There have also been reports that Cinar had once been arrested on suspicion of belonging to the indigenous extremist organization, the Islamic Raiders of the Greater East–Front (IBDA-C).
The Turkish media have seized on the reported links of two of the assailants with foreign extremists as proof that the attack on the U.S. Consulate General was an Al Qaeda operation (Yeni Safak, Zaman, July 10). Such a conclusion appears, however, to be based more on a desire to deflect the ultimate responsibility for the attack onto outside forces than on an objective appraisal of the evidence. Even if two of the assailants had been in contact with Al Qaeda, the lack of either a detailed plan or more sophisticated weaponry strongly suggests that the attack was the exclusive work of the assailants themselves.
Although no convincing evidence has yet emerged, it is possible that the assailants were affiliated with the IBDA-C. The organization’s founder, Salih Izzet Erdis (born 1950), who is currently in jail serving a life sentence, encourages his followers to use what he has described as an “individual dialectic,” in which they form autonomous cells and conduct operations within the strategic parameters outlined by IBDA-C propaganda (see Terrorism Focus, December 7, 2007). IBDA-C publications explicitly encourage their readers to use violence against the United States. The concept of the “individual dialectic” means that they would be expected to plan and organize the violence themselves.
The U.S. Consulate General in Istinye is regarded by most violent Islamists as being virtually impregnable, even to an assault by a large vehicle-delivered IED. Unless they were extraordinarily naïve, it appears likely that the assailants involved in the attack on July 9 were aware that they would be killed without inflicting significant damage to U.S. interests or personnel. As a result, they would appear to have been primarily motivated by a combination of a desire to make a gesture and simple self-interest, namely the belief that by dying in an attack on a U.S. government facility, they would secure their immediate transition to Heaven.
Nevertheless, and despite the Turkish media’s attempts to shift responsibility for the attack outside the country, the assault on the U.S. Consulate General on July 9 has served as a reminder of the continuing threat posed by indigenous Islamist extremists to security in Turkey. The overwhelming majority of pious Muslim Turks are appalled by the violence that is sometimes perpetrated in the name of their religion. As a result, the Turkish authorities have long been reluctant to refer to such acts as “Islamist terrorism,” preferring to include violent Islamist groups in the category of what they describe as ‘Rightist Terrorist Groups.” Ironically, the result is that the same branch of the Anti-Terrorism Department of the TNP is responsible for monitoring both extremist Islamist groups and violent ultranationalist secularist organizations such as Ergenekon (see EDM, July 8). Over the past year, the Interior Ministry has devoted such a large proportion of this branch’s resources to Ergenekon, in the hope of discrediting the Turkish government’s hard-line secularist opponents, that the TNP has been hard-pressed to monitor the many extremist Islamists active in the country.
The amateurish nature of the July 9 attack on the U.S. Consulate General means that it might have slipped under the TNP’s radar even if the TNP had been able to devote sufficient resources to Islamist extremism. It is to be hoped that the attack will serve as a reminder to the Turkish Interior Ministry that, at a time when a disproportionate share of its resources is being diverted to a small, if potentially murderous, organization such as Ergenekon, there are other, more pressing, security concerns.