Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 143

On the evening of July 27, two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were detonated in Menderes Caddesi, a street in the Istanbul working class neighborhood of Gungoren. By midday local time on July 28 the death toll stood at 17, all of them civilians. Another 154 people were being treated for injuries. Seven were reported to be in serious condition, raising the possibility that the death toll could increase (NTV, CNNTurk, July 28).

No organization has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. Nor is there yet any conclusive evidence to link it to any known radical group. But what is clear is that, whether it was carried out by an established organization or a hitherto unknown one, the nature of the bombing is unprecedented in recent Turkish history.

By day, Menderes Caddesi is a busy shopping thoroughfare. The heat and humidity of the Istanbul summer mean that, in the evening, Menderes Caddesi is still crowded with people strolling and meeting with friends. Eye witnesses said that the first explosion occurred at around 9:45 PM local time (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, July 28). There are conflicting reports about the number of casualties in the first blast. But eye witnesses were unanimous that most of the deaths and injuries occurred as a result of a second, much larger blast, about 50 yards (meters) from the first at around 9:55.

The initial evidence suggests that the first blast was the result of a “come hither” IED, designed to draw in and concentrate people into a small area so as to maximize casualties when the second, larger IED was detonated. It is a method which has been used in other countries to target first responders, whether the security and medical services or members of a specific ethnic group (for example, in Iraq). But the method has never been used in Turkey before. Although there are neighborhoods in Istanbul which are known to contain a high concentration of members of a specific ethnic or religious minority, Gungoren is not one of them. The perpetrators would have been aware that the first responders to the first explosion—and thus the majority of casualties in the second—would have been ordinary people from the neighborhood.

Despite the long, and under-reported, history of Islamist violence in Turkey, radical Islamist groups in the country have no record of indiscriminately killing civilians. Although they have often been prepared to accept “collateral casualties” amongst bystanders, radical Islamists have always had a specific target—usually one associated with Western interests or non-Muslim minorities. There is no such target in Gungoren.

Elements in both the Turkish and international media have attributed the bombings in Gungoren to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with the BBC suggesting that the attack bore “all the hallmarks of the PKK” (BBC, July 28). This is misleading.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s in particularly, the PKK sometimes massacred Kurdish villagers—including women and children—in southeast Turkey an attempt to intimidate the local people into supporting the organization. Since returning to violence in June 2004, the PKK has pursued a two front strategy: Combining a rural insurgency in southeast Turkey with an urban bombing campaign in the west of the country. The bombing campaign has been conducted by militants trained in the PKK’s main camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq and dispatched to western Turkey with a list of categories of acceptable targets (see EDM, September 7, 2007). The list includes the tourism sector, with the result that PKK militants have killed foreign tourists and Turkish bystanders by detonating IEDs in Istanbul and resorts along Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. The PKK’s primary aim is to exert political pressure on the Turkish authorities by damaging the country’s economy. Gungoren is some distance from the main tourist areas in Istanbul. However, it is possible that someone may have calculated that international news reports of bombings in Istanbul would be sufficient to deter foreigners from visiting Turkey.

PKK militants have sometimes detonated small IEDs in urban areas in western Turkey, although the limited quantity of explosives used suggests that the main aim is to create panic rather than inflict mass casualties. In recent years, civilians have been killed in PKK bomb attacks, although mainly as a result of the organization’s willingness to inflict “collateral casualties” rather than because they were the primary target. For example, on May 22, 2007, six civilians were killed by a PKK bomb in Ankara in what appears to have been a botched assassination attempt against leading members of the Turkish military. On January 4, 2008, five civilians were killed by a PKK car bomb in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir during an attack against a bus carrying military personnel.

Nevertheless, there have been concerns that—given the PKK’s inability to escalate its rural insurgency to the levels of the early 1990s and with the organization’s camps and bases in northern Iraq now under regular attack from the Turkish military—the PKK might attempt to counter the perception that it is a dying force by staging a large, mass casualty attack in western Turkey (see Terrorism Focus, January 8).

There will inevitably also be speculation in the pro-government media in Turkey that the Gungoren bombings were the work of a Turkish ultranationalist group seeking to avenge the recent waves of arrests of hard-line opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) (see EDM, July 24). There is evidence to suggest that in recent years ultranationalist groups have detonated IEDs in western Turkey. However, all have been relatively small devices designed to create noise rather than cause casualties.

Although the identity of the perpetrators of the July 27 bombings in Gungoren currently remains unclear, there is no doubt that they are unprecedented. None of the many terrorist attacks in Turkey in recent years has seen the use of two explosions coordinated to maximize civilian casualties. Whether they were the result of a new strategy adopted by the PKK or were conducted by a hitherto unknown group, the bombings in Gungoren are a worrying development.