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Turkey: Analysts Say Terrorists Strike Istanbul Over Israel, Liberalism

  • Andrew Tully

Suddenly Turkey has become a target of terrorist bombings. First there were the 15 November attacks on two synagogues in Istanbul that killed 23 people. And yesterday (20 November), suicide bombers struck the British Consulate and a British bank in the same city, killing 27 people and wounding hundreds. RFE/RL spoke with international affairs analysts about the reasons terrorists are now setting their sights on Turkey.

Washington, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey, quite simply, is not Muslim enough for Al-Qaeda and like-minded militant groups. And it has military and economic relations with Israel. This, many say, is already enough to make Turkey a target for terrorist bombings.

Speaking today at a press conference in Istanbul, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul offered an additional explanation: "We are upgrading our democracy. We are trying to prove that a Muslim country can be a democracy, can be transparent, can improve the best human rights standards in the country. We are trying to prove that a Muslim country can be compatible with the modern world. So this may disturb some people, maybe."

Western analysts agree. Being a predominantly Muslim country does not make Turkey immune from attacks by Islamic militants, according to Anthony Cordesman. He is a former intelligence analyst with both the U.S. State and Defense departments. He now specializes in international affairs issues with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research center in Washington.

And Cordesman told RFE/RL that Turkey's decision last spring not to let the United States use its territory to open a northern war front against Iraq and its decision last month not to contribute peacekeeping forces in Iraq was not enough to ingratiate the country with Al-Qaeda.

In fact, Cordesman says, the attacks in Turkey -- which follow similar bombings in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Indonesia -- demonstrate that the Muslim world is experiencing something like a civil war, declared by Al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden and related groups that oppose liberalization and Westernization in their lands.

"What this illustrates is the reality that we are not talking about a clash between civilizations but really a clash within [a] civilization, where you have some small, violent minority elements that in many ways see the mainstream of Islam as failing to meet their goals and standards, as they do the secular West," Cordesman said.

Further, Cordesman says, militant Muslims view Turkey's ties with Israel as a betrayal of the Arab world. This opinion has roots going back to the old Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the Middle East until it collapsed eight decades ago.

Leon Fuerth agrees. Fuerth once served as national security adviser to U.S. Vice President Al Gore during the 1990s. He told RFE/RL that Turkey's ties with Israel alone would be motivation enough to attract terrorists' attention. "There is a close Turkish relationship with Israel, so that, all by itself, could make them a target for terrorists," he said. "I'm seeing reports that at least one of the groups being mentioned [in connection with Saturday's synagogue bombings] has a Hizballah link, so that could be one of the connections."

Turkish police say the two suicide bombers involved in the 15 November synagogue attacks are linked both to Al-Qaeda and to Hizballah, a terrorist group that operates in Lebanon and has a long history of conflict with Israel.

Al-Qaeda's original complaint with the West was not directly with the United States but with the Saudi royal family for permitting U.S. military personnel to be stationed in Saudi Arabia during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Therefore, even though its most spectacular attacks have been directed against U.S. targets, it has still shown no reluctance to bomb sites in the Arab and Muslim world.

Cordesman says that, given the attacks in Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey, there is reason to believe that terrorists will someday expand their reach to even more Muslim countries that they see as being insufficiently true to Islam and too open to Western ideas. "These extreme Islamist movements have acted out in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but they exist in countries that are normally quite peaceful, like Bahrain and Qatar, and you can have outbursts of this kind of violence from these Islamist movements anywhere in the Middle East," he said. "And we need to understand that, because otherwise we're going to look at each one of these new incidents in a new country as somehow a major shift. They aren't."

In fact, Cordesman says U.S. President George W. Bush and his senior aides have warned against just such a spread of terrorist attacks throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. And yet, he says, the public evidently has not grasped the significance of what Bush has been saying. "No matter how often the [U.S.] president and the secretary of defense and others warn that we're talking not about one or two countries, but movements which affect 60 to 80 countries, we tend to be surprised when things happen," he said. "They're going to happen, and they're going to keep happening for a long time."

Fuerth says he, too, fears such a spread. "It certainly looks as if terrorists have decided that merely being a Muslim is not a defense, and if you happen to be Muslim and an innocent bystander [near a terror attack], that's too bad -- in fact, that's what terrorism is all about," he said. "So, yeah, I'm afraid you will see more of this in the Arab world. And I hope it doesn't happen in a place like Qatar, which is otherwise peacefully minding its business."

And, Fuerth notes, Qatar is also moving, albeit carefully, in the direction of establishing a liberal system of government. He says countries like Qatar and Bahrain probably already are alert to threats of terrorism and are prepared to fight them.

Dealing with such a determined enemy is difficult, Fuerth says, because they take an absolutist approach to their goals. Because their goals are religious, he says, they are not like a conventional invading army which might be appeased by some -- but not all -- of the land it seeks. And they cannot be defeated in pitched battles, because they operate solely by stealth. "You might want to say, 'Well, what is it they want, and can we give them half of it and [be] done with it?' I'm not sure that you can get away with that," he said. "They want their total agenda and nothing else. At the core, you have people for whom this is a way of life and a cause, and they're of course extremely dangerous."

As a result, Fuerth says, the only way to achieve peace when faced with such an enemy is to defeat every last member of the terrorist groups. Until then, he says, governments should never let the threat of terror lead them to restrict the freedoms of their own people. Otherwise, he says, the terrorists will have won.
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