The recent deadly bombings in the Moscow metro, followed by subsequent attacks in the North Caucasus, have had reverberations in Turkey. These developments sparked a debate on the troubled relationship between suicide bombings and Islam, while at the same time highlighting the unique position Turkey holds in the region.
Turkey, a country that has consistently renounced any form of terrorism, immediately condemned the attacks. Turkish leaders issued statements and sent messages to their Russian counterparts, extending their condolences. The statement by the foreign ministry noted that the Turkish government believed sincerely in international cooperation against terrorism and would remain in solidarity with Russia against this insidious attack (www.mfa.gov.tr, March 29).
However, the coverage of the attacks in the Turkish media, especially the debate on the root causes of the bombings, led to some irritation on the part of Russian officials. The Turkish media focused largely on Russia’s heavy-handed crackdown on the insurgency in the North Caucasus, as the main cause of the attacks. Some analysts speculated that the bombings could be retaliatory actions in response to the recent operations by Russian security forces in the region, which left scores of insurgents dead, including some jihadists fighting alongside the separatist militants (www.turksam.org, March 29).
Turkish TV networks, internet forums, and printed media, discussed the alleged “Black Widow” units (www.cnnturk.com, Vatan, March 30). They highlighted how Moscow’s victimization of Muslims in the North Caucasus has left many traumatized, who, in turn, became willing to sacrifice their lives. Particularly, the 17-year-old Jennet Abdurahmanova, who is claimed to be one of the perpetrators of the Moscow bombings, was widely commented upon. Jennet’s husband, Umalatov Magomedov, was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan in late 2009, which arguably led her to join the suicide squads (www.kanalturk.com, April 2).
These stories prompted the Russian embassy in Ankara to issue a written statement. After expressing appreciation for the messages of condolence from the Turkish government and citizens, the statement reiterated Moscow’s belief in the need to form a common international platform against terrorism. It criticized the Turkish media’s coverage in strong language. “The bloody acts of terrorists are attributed directly to the actions of the Russian administration… Hiding behind the cloak of searching for the motivations of terrorists, [some in the Turkish media] are seeking to justify the terrorists’ cruel acts,” the statement read (www.turkrus.com, April 1).
In the midst of these discussions, the Russian newspaper, Kommersant, speculated that nearly thirty suicide bombers received training in a Madrasah in Turkey, and later returned to the Caucasus. After arguing that some of these bombers had already carried out attacks, the paper implied that they might also be behind the Moscow bombings (Cihan, March 30).
Asked about a possible Turkish connection to the bombings, the spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry, Buzak Ozugergin, ruled out any link: “There is no such connection. There cannot be,” he added (ANKA, April 1).
Subsequent reports in the Turkish media expressed concern that the atmosphere in the wake of the bombings could trigger a wave of anger against Russian Muslims (Today’s Zaman, April 4). Perhaps, in order to address such concerns Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, called for closer cooperation with Muslim leaders. Speaking in Dagestan, Medvedev emphasized the importance of strengthening religious and spiritual values as one of the components of the anti-terrorism struggle (Cihan, April 1).
Nonetheless, Turkish religious leaders denounced any attempts to use religion to condone terrorism. A prominent Turkish Islamic leader, Fethullah Gulen, issued a statement condemning the attacks. Stating clearly that religion cannot be used to justify terrorism, Gulen maintained “A Muslim, who is a representative of peace and serenity, can never be a terrorist, and a terrorist cannot be a Muslim. No matter who perpetrated the … attacks … and with whatever aim, I denounce the attacks” (Today’s Zaman, April 1).
Coincidentally, an international group of Muslim scholars gathered in Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin. The conference was organized to reconsider a controversial fourteenth century fatwa issued by Ibn Taymiyyah in Mardin against the town’s Mongol rulers, which is arguably being used by radical Islamic movements to justify their resort to violent means. The final declaration of the conference renounced terrorism and indiscriminate killings in the name of Islam and maintained that the original “Mardin fatwa” could not be used to justify the activities of the extremist groups such as al Qaeda (www.mardin-fatwa.com).
The reaction by Russian sources to the Turkish response to these developments, reflects their sensitivity over Turkey’s position in the Caucasus. Given the presence of a large number of Caucasian diaspora in Turkey, it has been a constant concern for Moscow to forestall the involvement of both the Turkish state and society in the North Caucasus. During the first Chechen insurgency in the 1990’s, Ankara did not restrict the activities of the diaspora while they mobilized the Turkish society for material and manpower assistance, which occasionally became a source of tension in Turkish-Russian relations. During the second Chechen war, the Turkish authorities curbed such groups, which served as a major factor to facilitate the rapid rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara. Nonetheless, many Turkish volunteers are still believed to be fighting in the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus, and due, either to religious or ethnic reasons, the insurgents manage to mobilize support from Turkey (Terrorism Monitor, May 5, 2005; see the jihadist website www.cihaderi.net).
Some analysts have stressed that the recent bombings in Moscow and across the North Caucasus are part of a larger wave of attacks by militants who are not only growing in numbers, but also in strength. The same analysis also takes this as an indication that the insurgency is far from over and “Moscow’s rhetoric about a pacified North Caucasus is nothing more than political demagogy” (EDM, April 6). If this assessment is true, Russia’s sensitivity to how the Turkish media debated the suicide bombings and its emphasis on “international solidarity” against terrorism can be better understood. They seem to reflect Moscow’s desire to preempt any support that the insurgency might receive from Turkey.