One week after foiling a massive bomb attack in the center of Ankara, the Turkish police appear no closer to identifying either the perpetrators or the bomb’s intended target.
On September 11, police sniffer dogs found a 580 kilogram improvised explosive device (IED) in a Mercedes panel van in a multistory parking lot in the Kurtulus neighborhood of Ankara (see EDM, September 12). After it had been defused, the police issued a statement saying that the IED was primarily composed of TNT, chemical fertilizers, and 20 small LPG bottles. Three cell phones were also found in the van. The police said that the IED was ready to be connected to the cell phones, suggesting that the perpetrators planned to detonate the device remotely.
When fingerprints found in the van were run through the police database they failed to come up with any matches. However, police sources said that one of the cell phones had been used to call a satellite phone belonging to one of the commanders of the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is currently engaged in an insurgency in southeast Turkey. They also claimed that the design of the detonating device was similar to those used by the PKK.
Based on the other numbers found in the cell phone’s memory, over the days that followed the Turkish security forces detained a number of people in the southeastern city of Van. However, by September 18, all but seven had been released; and even they were continuing to be questioned not on suspicion of active involvement in the attempted Ankara bombing but because of their alleged links to the PKK. Only one person had been formally arrested, again on charges of being a member of the PKK rather than suspicion of involvement in the attempted bombing in Ankara (Hurriyet, Milliyet, CNNTurk, NTV, Radikal, September 18).
The lack of evidence has inevitably raised questions about whether it was the PKK that was responsible; not least because the IED was discovered on the sixth anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
The PKK has no record of using such a large, vehicle-borne IED. Although it has launched bombing campaigns in western Turkey, they have mostly involved relatively small devices primarily consisting of A4 and C4 explosives (see EDM, September 7). The only exceptions have been a handful of much smaller IEDs used in southeast Turkey, either against military outposts or in assassination attempts against state officials.
Nor does the PKK have a tradition of mass casualty attacks, not least because the organization has always been keen to court liberal Western opinion and has lobbied against its inclusion in the EU and U.S. State Department’s lists of proscribed terrorist organizations. As a result, the assumption is that, if the Ankara IED was the work of the PKK, it was being prepared for an attempted assassination, probably targeting a senior military or government official.
However, the evidence to date is far from conclusive. No details have yet been released about the design of the detonating device. However, although it was similar to those used by the organization for smaller IEDs in southeast Turkey, it is unlikely to be exclusive to the PKK. To date, the only evidence directly linking the Ankara IED to the organization appears to be that one of the cell phones was once used by a PKK sympathizer.
The van itself also raises a number of questions. When the police ran its chassis number through the database of stolen vehicles, they found that it had been reported as missing in Istanbul on March 29, 2006; almost 18 months before it was found in the Ankara parking lot. Furthermore, the number plates on it at the time of its discovery had been stolen the day before, namely September 10, 2007.
Istanbul is over 800 miles from Van, where the police have been concentrating their investigations. Although it has numerous sympathizers and recruiters in western Turkey, the PKK’s armed wing is not believed to have an active cell network outside southeast Turkey. The militants involved in the organization’s bombings in western Turkey have usually been dispatched directly from the PKK’s camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq; their supplies of explosives are usually sent in separately by courier.
The van’s whereabouts in the 18 months between it being stolen in Istanbul and being found in Ankara are simply unknown. It seems unlikely that it would have been stolen in Istanbul, taken to southeast Turkey and loaded with the IED either before or after being driven to Ankara. If the PKK were responsible, the IED found in Ankara would appear to represent not only an escalation in its bombing campaign but an organizational restructuring of its operational wing. However, it is probably still too early in the investigation to sure that it was the PKK and not an Islamist group that was responsible for what would have been the largest bombing in Ankara’s history.