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Corruption Watch: December 8, 2003

8 December 2003, Volume 3, Number 41
A series of suicide-bomb attacks on targets in Turkey was launched in mid-November, claiming the lives of 55 people and wounding more than 700 others. The attacks were blamed on Al-Qaeda by Western political leaders. One Arab-language newspaper in London, "Al-Quds Al-Arabi," reported on 16 November that it received a communication from Al-Qaeda claiming responsibility for the first attacks -- the bombing of two synagogues in Istanbul on 15 November, in which 25 people, including the bombers, died and 302 were wounded.

On 20 November, a man called the semi-official Anatolia news agency and claimed that the attacks that took place that day on the British consulate and an HSBC bank building was the work of Al-Qaeda and a Turkish Islamist militant group, the Great Eastern Raiders Front (IBDA-C). Turkish authorities, however, have expressed doubts that this group was capable of such a sophisticated attack, the "Chicago Tribune" reported on 20 November. The same group also claimed responsibility for the synagogue attacks. IBDA-C, which has called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Turkey, was founded in 1984 by Salih Izzet Erdis.

Turkish Kaplancilar, which is suspected of having collaborated with Al-Qaeda in the past, was mentioned in a report by a U.S. congressional joint inquiry into the 11 September 2001 attacks ( "In November 1998, the Intelligence Community obtained information that the Turkish Kaplancilar, an Islamic extremist group, had planned a suicide attack to coincide with celebrations marking the death of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. The conspirators, who were arrested, planned to crash an airplane packed with explosives into Ataturk's tomb during a ceremony. The Turkish press said the group had cooperated with [Osama bin Laden], and the FBI's New York office included this incident in a [bin Laden] database."

"The New York Times" also reported that another group, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades and suspected Al-Qaeda member Abu Muhammad al-Ablaj "claimed responsibility for [the 20 November] attacks in a statement e-mailed to a London-based Arab newspaper. The newspaper reported that Mr. Ablaj warned of a 'big operation' in the next few months and cautioned Japan against sending troops to Iraq. Tokyo, the e-mail message reportedly said, 'is the easiest place to destroy.'"

If it was Al-Qaeda, then this was the groups' first attack on a NATO member state since the 11 September attacks on the United States. At the time of the Istanbul attacks on 20 November, in which the British consulate was among the targets, U.S. President George W. Bush was in London to rally continued British support for the war in Iraq. It is likely that the consulate attack was timed to increase the protests planned for that day in London by antiwar activists.

Trading on the Istanbul stock exchange was suspended after the market fell 7.37 percent in the wake of those attacks. Trading in the Turkish currency, the lira, was also suspended that day. On 22 November, a large march took place in Istanbul in which anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli chants were reported.

The attack on a NATO member state raises some important issues in the war on terrorism. First, it shows that Al-Qaeda (or a copycat group) is still capable of carrying out well-planned attacks on targets outside the Arab world, and therefore has a command structure and cadre -- planners, scouts, bomb makers -- funding (presumably these were low-cost operations), and communication facilities needed to carry out such attacks. And despite the arrests on 19 November of six people suspected in the synagogue bombings by Turkish authorities, remaining members of the group were presumably able to carry out well-coordinated attacks soon afterward.

The second issue concerns the significance of the targets. The attack on a British consulate in Turkey demonstrates that the attackers are prepared to take on members of NATO in a terror campaign, and its leadership feels reasonably confident of the success of such a venture. The fingerprints of an Al-Qaeda attack include the planning involved, and it appears the Turkish phase of the war was well planned. This however does not mean that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the Turkish attacks, since another group might conceivably have copied the tactic.

Third, the attacks arguably highlighted complacency by Turkish authorities, who seemingly felt that Turkey stood little chance of becoming a target for terrorism. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan released hundreds of Islamic militants from prison one year ago, including 130 members of a Turkish group called Hezbollah (unrelated to the Lebanon-based and Iranian-backed groups with the same name). That is not to suggest that those released under the Turkish amnesty -- which was opposed by many members of the opposition -- are suspected in these recent blasts; it is, however, an indication that the Turkish government mistook the prevailing peace of that time for security.

Fourth, the attackers are presumably watching the response to these attacks from Brussels. According to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, "an armed attack against one or more of [the parties to the North Atlantic Treaty] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." It could galvanize the alliance into assuming a greater security role in Europe. On the other hand, it might again raise the question of NATO member states' support for the U.S.-led action in Iraq, which could lead to new divisions in the alliance. RK

After the attacks in Turkey, a number of "senior counterterrorist" officials offered their views on the state of Al-Qaeda in "The New York Times" of 22 November. "The recent surge in terrorist strikes on 'soft targets' like consulates, banks and synagogues in places like Turkey and Saudi Arabia is worrying, but paradoxically reflects progress by the United States and Europe in disrupting Al-Qaeda, especially its leadership structure, American and European intelligence officials said [on 21 November]."

This somewhat unorthodox and upbeat view was questioned by analysts who saw a more dangerous trend emerging after the attacks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. "'Al-Qaeda is not my main headache,' a senior official said. 'The spontaneous groups that are sprouting up from the northern African community based in Europe, and going down the path of jihad, are what I'm most worried about. They are inspired by bin Laden, but this is not Al-Qaeda. They are not there yet -- they are not necessarily even ready to launch attacks -- but these groups are raising the next generation of terrorists.'"

Appearing on PBS's "Online NewsHour" on 20 November, RAND Corporation's terrorism and security specialist Bruce Hoffman was asked 'Why Turkey and why now?' He responded: "What we've seen in the pattern of Al-Qaeda operations since 11 September [2001] has been something more akin to opportunism than intention,... where they've identified a gap in our defenses in the West, they've then relentlessly exploited it." RK

With a $25 million price tag on his head (plus an additional $2 million reward offered by the Association of Airline Pilots), Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly the most hunted man on the planet. His likeness, seemingly familiar to every schoolchild and police officer in the world, has been on websites, wall posters, newspapers, television, matchbox covers, and books for over two years. Yet he has not been found and seemingly is able to direct at least some operational activities for the terrorist group he founded, Al-Qaeda. In a Reuters report from Washington on 18 November, the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said more help is needed from Afghan citizens living in the border regions of Pakistan in the hunt for the elusive bin Laden: "'We're going to redouble our efforts,' Khalilzad told a group of reporters. With new funding for Afghanistan approved by Congress, the United States plans to 'take the fight to the Taliban extremists and to go after the Al-Qaeda leadership,' he said.

"'We're going to try to engage and involve more Afghans in different parts of the country, to participate in this effort with information, with other kinds of help that they can provide,' he said."

The most recent effort to seek out bin Laden's hiding place and neutralize him appears to be based on two assumptions. The first is that he is still in Afghanistan, or at least in close proximity to that country.

The second assumption concerns the reason for the hunt. Putting aside the question of vengeance stemming from his apparent role in the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, the more pragmatic reason is leadership interdiction -- meant to prevent such an attack, or worse, from occurring in the future. The thinking being that if bin Laden is captured or killed, Al-Qaeda will be crippled and leaderless, and thus unable to mount major operations in the future.

The operational aspects of flying passenger airliners into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and an unknown target, also presumably in Washington, were being planned for more than two years. According to the conclusions of a House and Senate Joint Committee report on the inquiry into the 11 September attacks: "In addition to Afghani-based [Al-Qaeda] roots of the 11 September attacks, the FBI reports that '[t]he operational planning for the 11 September attacks took place in overseas locations, most notably Germany, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

"Two principal hijackers in the 11 September attacks, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, entered the United States on a flight from Bangkok on 15 January 2000, a week after leaving a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Three other principals, Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah, entered the United States in May and June 2000 from or through Europe. Atta, al-Shehhi, and Jarrah had lived in Hamburg, Germany, where they associated with each other in various ways. A sixth principal, Hani Hanjour, had been in the United States off and on since October 1991."

Every detail was carefully examined and weighed before the attacks took place; so it might safely be assumed that prior to the attack, bin Laden also planned for what would become of him after the attack. He must have known that the United States would unleash a massive hunt for him in Afghanistan and would invade that country to destroy his camps and prevent him forever from using it as a base for operations and training.

Would bin Laden, then, have planned on remaining in Afghanistan? The chances appear slim. It would have been a foolish gamble to think that the Taliban, which was providing him with shelter, might remain in power for long after 11 September. He stood a much better chance of fleeing prior to the attacks than after, and it is reasonable to surmise that he would have done so.

Bin Laden certainly had the advantage of knowing when the attacks would take place, and he had plenty of time in the months before the attacks to arrange for leaving Afghanistan, identifying a safe haven in which to live following the attacks, and establishing alternate lines of communication with his field commanders throughout the world.

It is therefore quite feasible that bin Laden left Afghanistan weeks, if not months, prior to the 11 September attacks -- the Al-Jazeera interview suggesting his continued presence there notwithstanding. Where he might have fled is another matter.

As for his leadership being so critical to the continued functioning of Al-Qaeda, this too is unproven. The likelihood is that if he were captured or killed, other trained cadre would take over the organization and continue to pursue similar goals in similar fashion. It is also likely that contingency plans were prepared long ago by Al-Qaeda.

Moreover, Al-Qaeda is not the only act in town. There are many indications that copycat terrorist groups have emerged -- emulating Al-Qaeda's tactics (simultaneous attacks) and doing so with a high rate of success. RK


By Bora Yagiz

The mid-November bombings in Istanbul shattered -- among other things -- encouraging signs of a Turkish economic recovery. The ISE National-100 index plunged by a hefty 7.4 percent amid a loss of investor confidence, particularly among foreign investors. More important, the attacks revealed the fragility of the internal sociopolitical balance that Turkey has been striving to maintain since the country began its rapid westernization with the inception of the republic eight decades ago. Today, this careful balance looks about to be tipped.

Geographically straddling two continents, Turkey has been able to mold a synthesis of western and eastern values and to maintain a fine balance under the reforms launched by its modern founding father, Ataturk. Until recently, it was considered to be a relatively successful model for some Islamic countries aspiring to modernize. This synthesis was not without its internal tensions, however, created mostly by the latent rivalry between secularist guardians of Ataturk's reforms and reactionary Islamists devoted to cleansing the country of any modernist creed or symbol associated with Ataturk's legacy. Such tension gradually mounted, and eventually manifested itself in 1997 with the governing Welfare Party introducing religious tunes to the political scene -- and being quickly brushed aside by a silent postmodern coup in return. Since then, and until the conservative Islamists returned to power in 2002, the balance was kept delicately intact.

Today, with the country headed by a single-party government based on the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (JDP), the internal fragmentations that have been blurring the country's very identity are increasingly difficult to ignore. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's JDP has been cautious since its landslide victory in 2002 to avoid an open clash with the secularist/modernist military establishment over traditionally controversial and politically sensitive issues such as the wearing of headscarves at public venues in defiance of modernism. The JDP has, however, been pushing issues that are further from popular attention but arguably more critical -- such as tampering ominously with the solidly secular secondary-school curriculum, or bolstering the headcount of organizations fit to serve the Islamist agenda. Indeed, Erdogan's government has already managed to push through a decree to expand the staffing of the Religious Affairs Directorate from 1,500 to 15,000. Another blow to the secularist establishment was the curtailment of the powers of the National Security Council, a joint supreme committee of the political and military leadership chaired by the president of the republic and advising the government on sensitive political and security concerns. From now on, the council will meet less frequently, and its secretariat will be headed by a civilian instead of a high-ranking military officer. Moreover, military expenses will be brought under closer parliamentary scrutiny. The government has also introduced a scheme into the education system offering 'private' schooling to gifted children in Turkey, a move that will inevitably allow state funds to flow into private schools, a majority of which are controlled by Islamic foundations. Surprisingly, these developments, which would have awed the media just a few years ago, have received little attention since the JDP came to power.

Since the "war on terror" was proclaimed, Turkey has come under substantial strain in reconciling the inordinate differences between its two sociopolitical camps. In such an environment, the country is becoming an increasingly fertile ground in which the seeds of terrorism can blossom and proliferate. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that all four of November's presumed suicide bombers were Turkish nationals who are linked to a domestic radical-Muslim organization, IBDA-C, which reportedly has ties to Al-Qaeda. Turkey's Interior Ministry declared that there are about 1,000 foreign-trained Turkish Islamic radicals in the country, alluding to possible future strikes. It was, therefore, only natural that U.S. President George W. Bush has qualified the country as a new frontline in the war against terrorism.

Under the JDP's counterreform policies, Turkey's Western orientation has been derailed at a highly critical time. To make matters worse, Turkey's Western allies seem to be oblivious to its alienation. Aside from occasional shoulder tapping and blandishments, the European Union (EU) does little to push forward from the European Commission's decision to open negotiations scheduled for the end of 2004 over Turkey's accession to the EU. In fact, the commission has even taken recent initiative in sponsoring the settlement of the Cyprus dispute, a precondition for the opening of the negotiations.

Viewing the recent Istanbul bombings in the context of geopolitical developments following the 11 September 2001 attacks, ignoring Turkey's domestic woes and its aspirations for EU accession could prove a fatal strategic error, leading first to the destabilization of Europe's southeast flank and ultimately menacing the rest of the European continent. An unstable Turkey, having lost its long-maintained domestic balance, could present an ideal haven for international terrorism.

(Bora Yagiz is studying for his master's degree at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and previously worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.)