Was Alleged al-Qaeda Attack a Failed Attempt to Occupy the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 27

The July 9 attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul refocused international attention on al-Qaeda’s Turkish branch. Three attackers and three police officers died in the ensuing gun battle. Unlike al-Qaeda’s trademark bomb attacks, this assault took the form of a gun battle. If it was indeed carried out by al-Qaeda, it would have been a rare instance of the organization engaging in a gun battle outside of the “jihad zones” of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Investigators identified the assailants as Erkan Kargin, Bulent Cinar and Raif Topcil. Cinar has a criminal record for theft and Kargin for swindling. It has been determined that Kargin traveled from a border province, Agri, to Iran in September 2006 and then re-entered Turkey through Ataturk International Airport in May 2007. Police confirmed that Kargin hitchhiked his way to Afghanistan during his absence and received training there in Salafist ideology and terrorism methods (Milliyet, July 10; Today’s Zaman, July 12).

As part of its strategic thinking, al-Qaeda has formed various coalitions in the Muslim world to organize its bases and carry out attacks in a range of countries. The Turkish press, on various occasions, has reported that al-Qaeda’s Turkish branch formed institutional ties with the radical Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front (Islami Buyukdogu Akincilar Cephesi – IBDA-C) and recruits former or active militants from the Turkish Hizbullah (for IBDA-C ties with al-Qaeda see Terrorism Focus, December 5, 2007; for the Turkish Hizbullah, see Terrorism Monitor, January 24). For instance, in its devastating synagogue bombing in 2003, one of the al-Qaeda attackers was a former Hizbullah member (Hurriyet, December 1, 2003). Following the bombing, the Turkish press reported that an anonymous person made a phone call to the state-owned news agency, Anadolu Ajansi, and claimed that the attack was a joint operation of IBDA-C and al-Qaeda (Radikal, November 20, 2003).

Police believe that the attack on the U.S. consulate is a joint effort of IBDA-C and al-Qaeda (Radikal, July 9; see also Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 10). Al-Qaeda documents were reportedly found in the assailants’ residences in Istanbul (Hurriyet, July 10). In an interview with the weekly magazine Aktuel, Saadetin Ustaosmanoglu, editor of the IBDA-C Furkan magazine, said: “People should be surprised if a Muslim who lives in a remote corner of the world and Muslims who live here do not cooperate. When it comes to IBDA-C—al-Qaeda relations, I neither accept nor deny it” (Aktuel [Istanbul], July 17).

If the U.S. consulate attack was indeed a joint project of IBDA-C and al-Qaeda, what was the reason behind the attack? Why was the attack carried out as a gun battle, not as a suicide bombing?

Turkish dailies reported that the reason behind the attack could be “revenge” for the death of a friend of attack leader Erkan Kargin. Kargin’s friend, Abdul Fettah, a Turkish al-Qaeda member, was killed by U.S. troops while fighting in Afghanistan five days before the consulate attack (Hurriyet, July 10). The liberal daily Taraf also claimed that the attack was planned to take revenge for a January operation by the Turkish police against al-Qaeda in Antep province (Taraf, July 10). The police operation in Antep ended with a gun battle in which a police officer lost his life and five others were wounded, while two al-Qaeda members were killed and 18 others detained (Hurriyet, January 24). Baran magazine, an IBDA-C publication, claimed that the operation against al-Qaeda in Antep was planned by the United States and carried out by the Turkish police (Baran, January 31).

The Turkish media’s claim that revenge was a motive in the assault appears to contradict the nature of carefully planned al-Qaeda attacks. A friend of Erkan Kargin told the police that Kargin was forming a group in a mosque outside state control and asked him to join. One day Kargin said that he was planning to attack the U.S. consulate and take some hostages there. In addition Kargin said that he had examined the place where the consulate is located and made a plan to occupy the building (Radikal, July 14). Two hand-drawn sketches of the consulate were found by police in one of the attackers’ home (Ihlas Haber Ajansi, July 11).

Interior Minister Besir Atalay announced that the assault was a suicide attack, but some local terrorism analysts argued that the attack was intended to be a “hit and run” operation, arguing that assailants did not calculate the presence of traffic police officers who were in the area at the time and joined the gun battle when they saw terrorists attacking their colleagues guarding the U.S. consulate (Milliyet, July 11; Taraf, July 14; Star [Istanbul], July 14).

When the attack is analyzed closely, however, it seems that neither the interior minister nor the terrorism experts are right in their claims. If it was a suicide attack, one might have expected the use of explosives. If it was a hit and run attack, the attackers appear to have exposed themselves needlessly in a futile assault. The site of the gun battle is located at the bottom of a valley with many buildings. If they had considered a hit and run attack, the assailants could have easily hidden in one of those buildings, firing on the consulate and escaping from there.

The plan, however, appears to have been to occupy the consulate, taking several hostages on behalf of al-Qaeda. Although it escaped the notice of much of the Turkish press, a terrorism expert of the Turkish police mentioned that the police “are working on the possibility of whether the attack was planned to occupy the consulate… The terrorists preferred to attack against the busiest entrance of the consulate where civilians enter for visa applications. The terrorists could plan to create panic by killing the police officer at the door and sneak into the consulate during the panic. However when the traffic police joined the gun battle they could not carry out what they planned to do” (Milliyet, July 11).

The materials found on the dead terrorists, such as a Koran and what police described as “Arabic scripted fabrics,” suggest that Kargin’s group was planning to occupy the consulate (Vatan, July 10). During the occupation, the terrorists may have wanted to use these materials as propaganda tools. It is not common for al-Qaeda militants to carry such materials in their possession on their way to an attack because it could endanger the entire operation if one of the attackers is stopped by a random police search on the street and such materials are discovered. Although no further details on the “fabrics” are available at the moment, it is possible the attackers had planned to display these materials in the windows of an occupied consulate.

The Turkish interior minister’s hasty press release declaring the incident a suicide attack suggests that the authorities may be aware of the aim of the attack. It might indeed have been an attempt to occupy the consulate to take hostages, but authorities probably did not reveal these aspects because it might have inspired other terrorists around the world to plan similar attacks. If it was not an attempt to occupy the consulate, it needs to be explained why an individual trained in terrorist methods in Afghanistan would lead such a high-risk but ultimately ineffectual operation.

Assuming that it was an attempt to occupy the strongly defended U.S. consulate, the attack would have been a grave embarrassment for U.S. and Turkish security institutions if successful. A Turkish counter-terrorism expert specializing in al-Qaeda suggests that “as long as there is an American consulate it is a target to al-Qaeda.” Since there is no way to drive a truck loaded with explosives into the consulate, it seems likely that the leader of the cell, Erkan Kargin, planned to occupy the consulate in order to humiliate the United States and Turkey. Thanks to random police officers who happened to be at the scene and had the courage to join the gun battle, the attackers failed to carry out their assault. Although it failed, the attack at least has the potential to inspire al-Qaeda operatives or home grown terrorists to attempt the occupation of foreign embassies and consulates around the world.