Saturday, November 22, 2003

Istanbul, Turkey’s major city on the Bosphorous, was struck for the second time in less than a week by a devastating twin car bomb attack that killed at least 27 people and wounded nearly 450 others. Moments later, an unidentified caller to the Anatolian News Agency claimed responsibility on behalf of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

Indeed, two groups — al Qaeda and the Islamic Brotherhood — claimed responsibility for Thursday’s devastating attacks.

There is little doubt the second Istanbul bombings that targeted the British Consulate and a British bank in the city’s commercial center, carried the hallmark of al Qaeda: simultaneous bombings, carefully planned to detonate just moments apart and planned to cause the greatest casualties possible. The group’s deadly modus operandi is already all-too familiar.

A warning from the perpetrators of the previous attacks on the two synagogues a week ago yesterday had warned of further terror action. Thursday’s horrific bombings demonstrates the terrorists were not bluffing.

“We will continue to attack Masonic targets. … The Muslims are not alone,” warned a Turkish-speaking man to a domestic news agency. And on Thursday, they struck again.

However, in selecting Turkey as their new battleground, al Qaeda, or their Turkish affiliates, may have committed a monumental tactical mistake by picking a fight they may well regret. Unlike most Western European countries and the United States, Turkey has a long history of dealing with homegrown terrorism and has always gone about it with a successful, though somewhat, heavy hand. And those tactics have yielded positive results.

Turkey has had to deal with terrorist activity emanating from its Marxist-Leninist extreme left, Kurdish separatists and Armenian nationalists. And in all instances they have managed to ferret out and cause severe harm to those who have tried to undermine the Turkish state.

“We will not bow to terrorism,” Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters shortly after the double explosions. Similarly, Mr. Gul’s warning should not be brushed off as empty words, either. Turkey will now embark on an unrelenting hunt to track down those involved in this latest wave of terrorism and bring them and those behind it to justice — one way or another.

While mainly an overwhelming Muslim country — 99.8 percent — Turkey has a secular constitution, which even the current Islam-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen on maintaining.

The country’s powerful military has often clashed with the religious and political establishments since the modern state was created from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 in efforts to avoid letting the country slip too far to the left or to the religious right. Twice in the country’s relatively recent history, the military — which regards itself as the guardian of Mustafa Kemal’s, or Ataturk’s, modern Turkey — have staged coups when terrorism or politicians allowed the situation to get out of hand.

Today, Turkey’s politicians realize only too well the short leash their military allows them when it comes to dealing with extremism, and without a doubt, Mr. Erdogan will aggressively address this new threat that has manifested itself. Turkish authorities have already identified the perpetrators of the first pair of attacks that killed 23 and wounded 302 as originating from the eastern province of Bingol, where, according to some reports, the Turkish Hezbollah group has been active.

The terrorist war declared by the Islamic fundamentalists on secular Turkey, much as those waged by other extremists groups before it, will motivate the Turks all the more to eradicate this new threat. Mr. Erdogan, speaking only hours after Thursday’s attacks vowed the culprits would be found soon: “Just like we have done in the synagogue incidents.”

One thing now certain is the gloves will come off.

Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.

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