Terror Attack in Turkey
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TERENCE SMITH: For more on the Istanbul bombings, we’re joined by Henri Barkey, who served on the State Department’s policy planning staff during the Clinton administration. He was born in Turkey, and has written widely about it. He now teaches at Lehigh University – and by Bruce Hoffman, editor-in- chief of the journal “Studies in Conflict and Terrorism,” and director of the Washington office of RAND, a research organization.
Welcome to you both.
Bruce Hoffman, why Turkey and why now?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: What we’ve seen in the pattern of al-Qaida operations since Sept. 11, 2001, has been something more akin to opportunism than intention, in other words, where they’ve identified a gap in our defenses in the West, they’ve then relentlessly exploited it. So I think it’s in part because they found that gap in Turkey and were confident they could carry out a successful attack.
TERENCE SMITH: Henri Barkey, why Turkey, what’s the message in Turkey as a target, now twice in one week?
HENRI BARKEY: Well, I don’t think there’s a specific message. If you look at the synagogue bombings, that was part of a pattern. Al-Qaida hit a synagogue in Tunisia earlier. It also attacked Spanish and Jewish targets in Casablanca, Morocco, so that was part of a pattern. I think Bruce Hoffman is right, Turkey was a convenient target of opportunism. Turkey has one unique characteristic at the moment, and that is that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees from different parts of the Arab world, from Pakistan, from the Middle East, from Africa, who are trying to get to Europe, trying to make their way to European Union, and therefore they tend to be easily manipulated by al-Qaida. So they may have been used by al-Qaida to do these kinds of activities.
TERENCE SMITH: Bruce Hoffman, Mr. Barkey is talking about al-Qaida as the perpetrating group, and indeed a caller today called the Anatolia News Agency and claimed responsibility on behalf of al-Qaida and a local militant Islamic group. Is that a credible claim of responsibility, in your view?
HENRI BARKEY: I think it is a credible claim. This group, the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front is, has been involved– involved in terrorism for some years, but really terrorism of very different order than we’ve seen today or on Saturday — individual assassinations, very small, I mean consequential but not massive terrorism like this. They would have needed the infusion of professional assistance, professional guidance, precisely as we saw which were the hallmarks of al-Qaida, large vehicular car and truck bombs on suicide missions.
TERENCE SMITH: I mean I understand, Bruce Hoffman, the notion that there was an opportunity there and a soft target, if you like. But I’m still looking for the message and the purpose. What’s accomplished from al-Qaida’s point of view by this sort of attack?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: First and foremost, I think, this is a reflection ironically of our success in the war against terrorism, is that we’ve deprived al-Qaida of striking at precisely the heart of heart. It’s the lucrative targets in the United States or in the United Kingdom they might wish to strike at. So for them this is a demonstration of their ability to act. Al-Qaida cannot afford to remain on the sidelines. It’s long portrayed itself as the true defenders of the Muslim faith everywhere. With the upheaval and violence in Iraq it can’t afford to be silent. So for them, this was an attempt to rejuvenate their campaign, to show that they’re relevant and to attract new supporters and followers.
TERENCE SMITH: Henri Barkey, do you agree with that? And do you see a connection between the Sunday bombings… rather, the weekend bombings of the two synagogues in Istanbul and this as a pattern?
HENRI BARKEY: Oh, I definitely agree. Al-Qaida wants to prove that it is still in existence, that it has a worldwide reach and it can attack at will whenever it wants. I don’t think there’s a specific message there because these bombings were probably planned months and months in advance. Some people have speculated that this had to do with Turkey’s position on Iraq, that the Turkish decision ultimately to send troops to Iraq may have influenced al-Qaida. I don’t think that’s the case. I think al-Qaida planned this very methodically over a long period of time, and it just turned out that Istanbul was a very convenient location.
And in fact, the British Consulate itself is a convenient location, compared to, for instance, the American Consulate who used to be not far from the British Consulate, but has been moved to a much more fortified position and is much more difficult to reach. And therefore, the British Consulate itself in that sense was a target of convenience.
TERENCE SMITH: But Mr. Barkey, do you see a British target on a day when the American president is in London on a state visit, is that coincidence, or is that purpose?
HENRI BARKEY: That’s more difficult to answer. My sense is that it is a coincidence in that I don’t think the terrorists knew well in advance that there was going to be a meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair on this particular day. If they found out let’s say a couple of weeks ago, they may have adjusted their plans accordingly, it’s possible. But I don’t think we should give much credence to it.
The British were targeted in large measure because they are part of the coalition, they are after all, the other country that went into Iraq. They have been the most steadfast ally of the United States in the war against al-Qaida. So the British in that sense are a natural target for al-Qaida. And al-Qaida has many times threatened British and other interests in addition to the United States and Israel. So in that sense, we should not be surprised.
In a way, what I think is the most extraordinary event today was the fact that both of these bombs could be detonated so close to each other in a city which is known for its who horrendous traffic. To have two trucks achieve their targets so close to each other, I think is actually… is astonishing. But in that sense, though, I think they were lucky.
TERENCE SMITH: And so Bruce Hoffman, that suggests a high level of sophistication and coordination.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Yes, I think Professor Barkey’s analysis is entirely correct, that these people were infiltrated, the professionals, into Turkey to enlist locals, which has long been an al-Qaida pattern, to provide not just logistical assistance but to be the cannon fodder, in fact the bombers. And I think that they had a long period of preparation I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if they did take advantage of the publicity surrounding the president’s visit to the United Kingdom, to use that as a hook, in essence, or as a means to steal some of the limelight for themselves and to demonstrate very profoundly that al-Qaida still is a force to be reckoned with. And also I think it’s tied to the ferment in Iraq, that Turkey’s border with Iraq may have been designed… may have made Turkey a target as part of an al-Qaida design to demonstrate that the violence and instability will not be confined to Iraq only and will spill over into the borders of other countries nearby.
TERENCE SMITH: Henri Barkey, the president made a point of saying that Muslims were the majority of the victims in the weekend bombings and of course appears to be the case again today, particularly among those injured. Is there any possibility, in your mind, of a backlash that might occur vis-à-vis al-Qaida taking so many… causing so many casualties among Muslims?
HENRI BARKEY: Well, the Turkish government responded very correctly after the synagogue bombings by saying that, “we should not make a distinction between Muslims and Jews in Turkey, that everybody who died on Saturday were actually Turkish citizens and they were all buried with Turkish flags.” So the government in that sense, made a very important point by not distinguishing between Jews and Muslims. But there is no question that this is going to create a backlash. And if al-Qaida thinks that Turkey is going to change its course because of these bombings, it’s very, very wrong.
Turkey, on the contrary, now will become the front line of the war on terrorism, in part because of all those people that that are already in Turkey, you will find much greater cooperation between Turkish security officials and the rest of the… its allies, NATO allies and others, and in fact today, the NATO general counsel has decided to meet just like it decided to meet after the Sept. 11 bombings in New York and Washington. So it will actually bring Turkey much closer towards the United States and Europe and as a result, I think al-Qaida has defeated itself in the process.
TERENCE SMITH: Your view.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, I hope it does create such a backlash. But I don’t think we can be confident that will happen organically. I think al-Qaida’s propaganda has long attempted to rally those Muslims that support al-Qaida’s view but has taken a very hard line against those who don’t. Indeed, this is… it’s nothing new that al-Qaida’s killed Muslims going back to its first operation in 1995 in Saudi Arabia. It’s been very content to kill Muslims as well as “infidels.”
TERENCE SMITH: Is it the notion, do you think, Bruce Hoffman, to persuade the Turkish government to change its policies, which are pro western, allied with the U.S. in many respects, and also, quite good relations with Israel? Are Turkey’s policies at the heart of this?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: I think that figures into the mix. But first and foremost, I think it’s just the opportunism of the attack and the fact that al-Qaida could identify a gap in defenses that it could exploit. This is icing on the cake and helps, but we’ve seen al-Qaida attacks for instance in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, in the Yemen and a variety of countries. It’s really wherever they see an opening.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Henri Barkey and Bruce Hoffman, thank you both very much.