Two terrorist attacks committed in Turkish port cities in only three days, one in Mersin (on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey) on August 19 and the second in Izmir (formerly known as Smyrna, on the Aegean Sea) on August 21, have highlighted the difficulty faced by Turkish authorities in their efforts to safeguard their citizens from such incidents (Anatolia, August 19; August 21).
The success of Turkey’s military forces against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey since December 2007 has resulted in a distinct change in tactics on the part of its Kurdish foes in terms of both locations and modus operandi (see Terrorism Focus, April 9). Inevitably, the Kurdish groups have altered the focus of their attacks away from the largely rural southeast to Turkey’s larger cities and shifted, in the cases of the Mersin and Izmir attacks, from their increasingly vulnerable small-unit guerrilla attacks to the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) – car bombs. A corollary is that the latest attacks also illustrate the difficulty in uncovering the responsibility for such incidents because of the use of multiple names by terrorist groups and the near-constant proliferation of factions within some groups.
In Mersin, an individual suspected to have been en route to a location where he intended to carry out a suicide bombing detonated the device in his vehicle while being pursued by police authorities after attempting to avoid a police checkpoint (Today’s Zaman, August 25). When police officers stopped a white car on the Adana-Mersin motorway after a reported tip off, the driver realized he would be caught and set off the explosives, killing himself and wounding twelve police officers (Anatolia, August 19; Reuters, August 24).
In the follow-up attack in Izmir, a car bomb was employed against a minibus carrying approximately 40 police officers and a car belonging to the Turkish military, resulting in injuries to seven policemen, three soldiers, and six civilians (NTV, August 21; Hurriyet, August 23). The Izmir Governor’s Office reported the vacant car, parked on the side of a road in a residential area of the Aegean city, exploded at around 7:45 AM, just as a military car and a police bus approached it. The Governor’s Office stated that the device was believed to contain “plastic explosives” and had been detonated remotely (Anatolia, August 21).
In addition to the personnel injuries, the force of the explosion resulted in damage to almost one hundred buildings as well as many vehicles in the area (NTV, August 21). The likelihood of preoperational surveillance in the latter incident is suggested by the fact that the site of the attack is a road reportedly used primarily by police, gendarmes, and Turkish military forces. Security services have detained eight people in connection with the attack during arrests carried out simultaneously in Izmir and Diyarbakir, including the alleged perpetrators, known so far only as Z.B. and B.S. (Bianet, 26-08-2008).
Assessing blame for the attacks was made difficult in the near term by a pair of competing claims of responsibility issued not long after the incidents. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (Teyrebazen Azadiya Kurdistan – TAK), believed by some authorities to be affiliated with the PKK, posted a statement on its website saying that its members had carried out both attacks (Teyrenkurdistan.com, August 24). Another claim issued by the PKK on August 23 asserted that it had conducted both of the attacks (Hurriyet, August 23).
The TAK claim said the attacks were “acts of revenge” against what it characterized as Ankara’s mistreatment of its Kurdish population and threatened further such attacks; “Every bullet fired against our people will be responded to with these bloody attacks. We warn that every attack against our people will not go without a response.” Identifying the militant who blew up his vehicle near Mersin as Muslum Guneysoglu (code name Kemal), the statement added, “We will continue to claim a heavy price for the attacks against our people and national values” (Kurdish Info, August 24). As recently as last February, the TAK issued threats of such attacks, targeting security forces, tourist centers and economic facilities, in response to Turkish air strikes on hideouts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.
Indications of responsibility other than the groups’ competing claims can be derived from a number of indicators. In terms of the timing of the attacks, the claim by TAK that it carried out the bombings at a time when such attacks would take at least some of the pressure off the PKK seems to belie the publicly professed differences between the TAK and the PKK. Such differences emerged as recently as 2006, when, following the declaration of a ceasefire by senior PKK official Murat Karayilan, the TAK conducted three bombings of Turkish resort facilities, thereby dooming the ceasefire (see Terrorism Focus, October 17, 2006).
Results of the forensic examination of the explosives used in the August 19 attack in Mersin revealed that they were identical to those used in a twin bombing attack in Istanbul on July 27, blamed by Turkish authorities on the PKK (Turkish Daily News, July 29).
Features of the Izmir attack, including the fact that the chosen targets were police and military personnel and that the device was remotely detonated, are reminiscent of the January 3 bombing of a military vehicle carrying almost four dozen personnel in Diyarbikar in Turkey’s southeast, another attack blamed by Turkish authorities on the PKK (Turkish Daily News, January 4).
Assessing blame precisely is important to counterterrorism officials in their pursuit of the perpetrators of such incidents and the prevention of further attacks. It is worthy of note, however, that both the PKK and the TAK continue to praise and follow the guidance of Abdullah (“Apo”) Ocalan, the now-imprisoned titular head of the Kurdish independence movement. If, on the one hand, the TAK is merely the urban arm of the PKK, it portends continued attacks in Turkey’s urban areas, attacks which have already killed and wounded hundreds of citizens this year alone. If, on the other hand, the TAK is an independent group seeking to compete with the PKK for the leadership of the Kurdish independence movement, it may presage an even greater numbers of attacks as each faction strives for leadership. In either case, Turkey is likely facing a period of heightened threat from terrorism.