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Turkey: Can Al-Qaeda's Alleged Links To Recent Terror Bombings Be Proven?

  • Andrew Tully

U.S., British, and Turkish leaders have been quick to pin tentative blame on Al-Qaeda for the recent bombings in Istanbul that killed more than 50 people and wounded hundreds at two synagogues, the British Consulate, and a branch of a London-based bank. RFE/RL speaks with several analysts who believe that while such conclusions are not far-fetched, they are also merely educated guesses.

Washington, 24 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Just hours after the deadly 20 November bombings in Istanbul, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking in London, made it clear who he believes was the likely culprit.

"At this stage, we cannot say for certain who has been responsible for this appalling act of terrorism in Istanbul, which comes on top of the savage outrage against Jewish and Muslim people in Istanbul last Saturday [15 November]. But I'm afraid to say it has all the hallmarks of international terrorism practiced by Al-Qaeda and the associated organizations," Straw said.

A caller to Turkey's Anatolia news agency said the attacks, and similar bombings at two Istanbul synagogues five days earlier, had been carried out jointly by Al-Qaeda and a Turkish group, the Islamic Front of the Raiders of the Great Orient. That call has been given some credibility, but it is still not conclusive.

Many analysts say it is reasonable to see Al-Qaeda's hand in these attacks. They point out that many of the targets had links with the West, which for more than two years has been waging a war on Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda in particular, and Islamic terrorism in general. And they cite the timing: U.S. President George W. Bush was on a state visit to Britain when the bombings occurred.

Christopher Prebble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington. Prebble acknowledges that he has no evidence of Al-Qaeda's involvement, but he says his experience studying international affairs makes such a conclusion inevitable until there is evidence to the contrary.

However, Prebble told RFE/RL that the incidents may not be directly attributable to bin Laden, but to his allies. "What we're more likely to see is what we've seen in the last two years, much more loosely affiliated groups who draw some level of support and certainly moral or ideological or philosophical support from Al-Qaeda, but not direction from Osama bin Laden and the others," he said.

Mark Burgess says we have to be more careful in drawing our conclusions. Burgess, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a private policy center in Washington, says anyone can fill a car or a truck with explosives and blow it up near a politically sensitive building. Just because Al-Qaeda has done that in the past does not mean that all such bombings are the work of Al-Qaeda.

Still, Burgess told RFE/RL that it makes sense to him that the attacks in Istanbul were carried out by Al-Qaeda or one of its allied groups. "The danger arises that everything that happens is ascribed to Al-Qaeda. After a while, it doesn't matter," he said. "Al-Qaeda's active, [but] did they actually do anything? But that's kind of how they operate. And it seems that if this wasn't actually Al-Qaeda, it makes sense that it was some sort of affiliate."

Marina Ottaway is similarly strict about reading the meager evidence of Al-Qaeda's role in such attacks. Ottaway is a senior associate at the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another policy center in Washington.

Ottaway told RFE/RL that before anyone attributes blame, one must first understand the loose structure of Al-Qaeda. She says Al-Qaeda is not a well-structured, hierarchical organization. By all accounts, she says, Al-Qaeda has a single chief and a secondary leadership, but its cells are part of a network with varying degrees of affiliation, responsibility and accountability.

"Does that mean a group has to clear its operations with some center on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? Probably not. Does it mean that they exchange some information? Well, some of the [news] stories that come out that clearly come from intelligence sources say there is an exchange of information, an exchange of technique," she said.

Ottaway says one of the classic ways to determine who may be responsible for a bombing, for instance, is to find a specific technology that is known to have been used previously by a given group. Like Burgess, she says the mere use of truck bombs or car bombs does not serve as a unique Al-Qaeda signature, and so Straw may be jumping to conclusions when he said the bombings in Istanbul bear "all the hallmarks" of Al-Qaeda.

In fact, Ottaway says, as far as she knows, there really is no "hallmark" of an Al-Qaeda attack. She says no study that she has seen mentions a telltale Al-Qaeda modus operandi. What these reports do cite, according to Ottaway, is the network's cleverness in varying its targets and its methods of attack to keep investigators guessing.

Then there is the question of bin Laden's involvement in individual operations conducted by Al-Qaeda cells and affiliates. Ottaway says she believes he personally helped plan the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. Since then, however, she says his involvement probably has been more remote. "Should we assume that Osama bin Laden directed the [Istanbul] operation? I think no, there is absolutely no evidence of that. He may have, but there is certainly nothing that allows us to jump to that conclusion," she said. "Is it reasonable to say whichever group has done it is probably a group which is part of a broader network? The answer to that is probably yes, because probably all these terrorist organizations are in some ways part of a broader network."

Because of the looseness of the Al-Qaeda network, Ottaway says, it becomes increasingly more difficult to crush the organization by capturing or killing its leaders. "I think, very frankly, the capturing of Osama at this point would not make much difference," she said. "These movements go well beyond one person."

Even the reliance of affiliated groups on bin Laden and Al-Qaeda for financial support may be declining, according to Ottaway. She cites recent reports that bin Laden and his immediate subordinates are having trouble raising money as their leadership becomes more dispersed.

Less money in Al-Qaeda's treasury may mean fewer attacks as spectacular as those mounted against the United States two years ago, Ottaway says. But she points to the frequent use of car bombs and truck bombs since then, and notes that they are inexpensive to carry out.