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Turkey is Tangled up in Terrorism
by Aaron Stein - WarOnTheRocks.com
Just after midnight on January 1st, a lone attacker, Abdulgadir Masharipov, drove up in a taxi to Reina, a famous Istanbul nightclub on the Bosphorus. After exiting the vehicle, the gunman retrieved a Kalashnikov from a bag inside the trunk and began to fire his weapon as he walked towards the club entrance. Less than 10 minutes later, the attacker had expended six magazines of ammunition, killing 39 people and injuring 69.
The Islamic State has been carrying out attacks in Turkey since May 2015. The main group responsible for these — a Gaziantep-based cell headed by Turkish nationals who had spent considerable time in Syria in 2013 and 2014 — was in charge of getting supplies across the Syrian border to the Islamic State. A series of police raids have severely disrupted the cell. More recent Islamic State attacks point to a different Turkey-based network. The Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, has specifically called for attacks in Turkey in response to the Turkish military intervention into Syria — Operation Euphrates Shield.
The Reina attack is the latest reminder that the Turkish government has not articulated or executed a coherent strategy to counter the multi-pronged terrorism threat it now faces. This, of course, includes the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in addition to the Islamic State. Instead, the government relies only on military action — divorced from any achievable political goals to address some of the drivers of terrorism. This military-only strategy has created incentives for a surge of populist and anti-Western rhetoric, which is now contributing to the erosion of its relationships with its most important allies, including and especially the United States.
The Reina Attack
Before executing the attack, Masharipov took a series of steps to avoid detection. He first travelled to Konya with his wife and child, before flying to Istanbul. It is unclear where he was living in Istanbul, but closed circuit video footage shows him changing money in Laleli — a neighborhood in Fatih and very close to the apartment where the three Ataturk Airport attackers lived — before storming the airport with AKM assault rifles and suicide vests. The Ataturk attack killed 48 people, including the three bombers. Fragmentary evidence suggests that the Reina shooter had logistical help. At least one other other individual seems to have given him money for an apartment in Konya, a religiously conservative city in the Central Anatolian region of Turkey, and for the attack itself in Istanbul. There are likely more accomplices , as well.
The analysis in Turkey focused mainly on whether the gunman had military training. The few open source videos suggest that the shooter was familiar with his assault rifle, that he taped two magazines together and that he used flash bang grenades. The reality is that regardless of the shooter’s training, grisly success is all but guaranteed for a shooter with a high-capacity firearm who gets into a crowded area, especially at night in a social setting.
The shooter appears to have taken considerable steps to evade police forces. For example, he reportedly took eight taxis — six before the attack and two after as he slipped away. He also made mistakes. During the escape, the shooter left his coat and cash inside the club, and therefore, he had no money to pay for his getaway taxi. He also made a series of phone calls from the driver’s cell phone, a mistake that may have helped Turkish police to narrow the search for the gunman to Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu neighborhood. At the time of writing, it is unclear if the police have recovered the shooter’s cell phone — a key piece of evidence that could help to shed light on his support network.