Erdogan: Istanbul explosion caused by Syria-linked suicide bomber

The Guardian

Eight of 10 victims of deadly blast in Sultanahmet district believed to be German nationals, with one Peruvian also killed

Police secure the area after an explosion in central Istanbul, Turkey January 12, 2016. Turkish police sealed off a central Istanbul square in the historic Sultanahmet district on Tuesday after a large explosion, a Reuters witness said, and the Dogan news agency reported several people were injured in the blast. REUTERS/OsmanOrsal
Police secure the area after an explosion in central Istanbul, Turkey January 12, 2016. Turkish police sealed off a central Istanbul square in the historic Sultanahmet district on Tuesday after a large explosion, a Reuters witness said, and the Dogan news agency reported several people were injured in the blast. REUTERS/OsmanOrsal


A suicide bomber said by Turkey to be affiliated with Islamic State was responsible for a blast near Istanbul’s grandest tourist attractions that has killed 10 people, most of them German.

“We have determined that the perpetrator of the attack is a foreigner who is a member of Daesh,” prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said, using an Arabic acronym for Isis. “Turkey won’t backtrack in its struggle against Daesh by even one step … This terror organisation, the assailants and all of their connections will be found and they will receive the punishments they deserve.”

Confirming eight of the victims as German citizens, Berlin sent out an urgent travel warning to its citizens telling them to avoid gatherings or landmarks in Istanbul and Turkey as a whole. Peru’s foreign ministry said one Peruvian man was killed and a Peruvian woman was among the 15 people who were wounded. It was not known whether the bomber was counted among the dead.

Earlier, Turkish officials had said the bomber was an individual of Syrian origin born in 1988, and an investigation was ongoing to determine his affiliation, although Davutoğlu only said he was a foreign national.

Tuesday’s blast targeted a square in the Sultanahmet district, an area usually crowded with tourists a stone’s throw away from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

It was the latest in a spate of bombings that have rocked Turkey in recent months as the authorities battle to contain the fallout from the civil war in neighbouring Syria and an escalating insurgency by Kurdish separatist guerrillas.

Last summer, Isis targeted a gathering of Kurdish activists in the town of Suruc with a suicide bombing that killed 33 people, and in October the capital Ankara was the scene of the worst terror attack on Turkish soil when 102 people at a peace rally were killed in a suicide blast.

“I condemn the terror incident in Istanbul, assessed to be an attack by a suicide bomber with Syrian origin,” the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said in a televised speech. “Unfortunately we have 10 dead, including foreigners and Turkish nationals … There are also 15 wounded.”

The city’s governor said an investigation was ongoing to determine the perpetrator. Police sealed off the area and the government imposed a broadcast ban.

A Norwegian man who was wounded in the bombing says his knee was pierced by shrapnel from the explosion. Jostein Nielsen, a 59-year-old Salvation Army officer, told Norway’s TV2 from his hospital bed that he and his wife were sightseeing in the Turkish city when the bomb went off.

“I first heard a bang that I think is what detonated the bomb,” Nielsen said. “After that came the real bang. I felt that my knee stopped working. There were human remains all over the place.”

Ramadan, who owns a jewellery shop across the road from the site of the blast, said: “We were sitting inside the shop when we heard a big explosion, which shook the windows. By the time we had gone outside the police were already blocking the scene.

“This is really bad. The situation was already bad, but this will only make things worse for tourism. I didn’t lose any friends, but all of the people of Istanbul are our friends and it is very sad to see this happening.”

One woman who works at a nearby antiques store told Reuters: “The explosion was very loud. We shook a lot. We ran out and saw body parts.”

In a typically defiant speech, Erdoğan attacked foreign academics and writers, including Noam Chomsky, for criticising his government.

“Pick a side. You are either on the side of the Turkish government, or you’re on the side of the terrorists,” he said.

A security analyst, Metin Gürcan, said the signs pointed to Isis being responsible: “The choice of the location, the targeted nationalities, the way the attack was carried out and the government’s immediate effort to stop the dissemination of any information all point to Isis as the primary suspect.”

He said the latest attack on Turkish soil would lead to more pressure on the country from the international community to increase its efforts in the fight against Isis, and to prioritise it over Ankara’s current clash with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).

“One of the tough questions for Turkey in the coming days is how to allocate security and intelligence capacities to fight more efficiently against Isis-inspired terrorist attacks.”

Gürcan criticised Turkish intelligence networks for failing to dismantle the Isis networks thought to be behind the suicide attacks in Suruç and Ankara last year, despite the government’s knowledge of their existence.

Arguing that Turkey urgently needed to launch a deradicalisation programme to better counter Salafist networks and Salafist-inspired violence in the country, he also said it was crucial that Isis networks were more clearly labelled as terrorist organisations in legal terms.

“The definition needs to be very clear, and security forces need to be able to conduct more stringent operations against such cells, the tracking and hunting down of sleeper cells needs to be dramatically improved,” he said.

Turkey borders Syria and is home to more than 2 million refugees from the country, but was also until recently a transit hub for Isis militants travelling to take part in the fighting there.

In recent weeks, Turkish authorities have detained several suspected Isis members, with officials saying they were planning attacks in Istanbul.

A Kurdish splinter group, the Freedom Falcons of Kurdistan, claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on Istanbul’s second international airport on 23 December that killed a cleaner and damaged several planes.

The banned leftwing Revolutionary People’s Liberation party-front has also staged a string of mostly small-scale attacks in Istanbul over the past few months.

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