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After Bombings in Turkey, Unease over Country’s Ties with West, Israel

November 26, 2003
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In the days after the second set of suicide bombings that hit Istanbul in the span of less than a week, a thick fog often enveloped the city as the chilly waters of the Bosphorus cooled unseasonably warm air.

The fog was an almost painfully fitting symbol for the confusion that has gripped Turkey following the attacks on Nov. 15 and Nov. 20.

With officials here saying that the four suicide bombers were Turkish radical Islamists, many Turks are struggling to understand how four of their own could perpetrate attacks that killed nearly 60 people and injured several hundred.

The government, meanwhile, is being forced to confront the fact that local Islamists with ties to international terror groups may have managed to create a base in Turkey and, in the process, put the country on the front line of the war on terrorism.

Faik Bulut, an expert on Islamic fundamentalist groups in Turkey, said the country must now choose between increasing its cooperation with the West, particularly the United States and Israel — which could expose it to further terrorist attacks — or backing away from its traditional allies in an effort to minimize the risk it faces.

Indeed, an Al Qaida-linked group that claimed responsibility for the attacks issued a statement telling Turkey it has to choose “peace or America.”

“As for you, Turkey, isn’t it time you left the Crusader army and returned to the Islamic nation?” said the statement from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, one of several groups that has claimed responsibility for the attacks. “Isn’t it time you withdrew your army from Afghanistan, stopped all ties with the Zionist entity, stopped providing America with soldiers for Iraq, left the Crusader Atlantic alliance?”

Turkey, in fact, did not support the U.S.-led war in Iraq, as its Parliament refused to grant Washington permission to transport troops through the country. And though that same parliament last month approved the sending of 10,000 Turkish troops to help in Iraq, the offer was quickly shelved in the face of stiff Iraqi opposition. Overall, however, the government’s answer to suggestions that it change its political orientation appears to be a resounding no.

One of its strategies for dealing with the new terrorist threat is to strengthen cooperation with Israel, particularly in terms of intelligence sharing.

“The government is taking this very seriously and will take all necessary measures. It will look at the whole thing from the beginning and cooperate with Israel on this, which is already happening,” said Sami Kohen, a veteran political analyst and columnist with the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet.

Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said the cooperation with Israel isn’t new but may now become more visible.

“Cooperation has been very close in terms of intelligence and fighting terror,” Inbar said. For example, Israel helped Turkey with intelligence when it was fighting the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party and was instrumental in helping Turkey capture the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.

“The relations between Israel and Turkey are very close and it’s hard to get closer,” Inbar said. Following the Istanbul attacks, “there’s been a demonstration that the common interests are still strong.”

Still, the bombings have raised questions in Turkey about the country’s relations with Israel and with the West, particularly the United States, and whether those relations have made Turkey more of a target.

Not far from the Neve Shalom synagogue, one of two synagogues bombed on Nov. 15, the manager of an electric supply shop said the attack could be linked to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

“Israel is doing all these terrible things to the Palestinians over there, and the revenge is being taken out on our citizens,” said Atakan Senel, 36.

Following the synagogue bombings, a leading Turkish daily asked in a headline, “Is Israel causing harm to the Jews?”

Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism in Israel, said the groups behind the bombs hoped to encourage such reactions.

“We’re not talking about a one-time event. After this, people will criticize the connection to Israel, the move towards the European Union, the relationship with the United States. It’s not an overnight process, but one that continues,” Ganor said. “Their objective is to create chaos, to strike at the stability of the government and to enable radical Islam to take advantage of that scenario.”

So far, Turks have united in condemnation of the attacks, but experts warn that the bombings present some domestic dangers.

Turkey currently is led by the Justice and Development Party, a new party that traces its roots to the country’s political Islam movement. Though Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the party leadership have distanced themselves from the party’s Islamist past, Turkey’s secular establishment remains suspicious of them.

“The prime minister needs to make a very strong statement to not let these attacks polarize the secular-Islamic divide,” said Cengiz Candar, a leading political analyst in Turkey. “These attacks, inherently and implicitly, can threaten the social fabric of Turkey.”

After the Nov. 20 attacks, which struck the British Consulate and the Turkish headquarters of HSBC bank, Erdogan lashed out at the bombers and their supporters.

“Those who shed blood and killed innocents in these holy days will have to account for themselves in both worlds and will be doomed till eternity,” he said.

But Candar said Erdogan has to draw a clear line between his perception of an Islam that is compatible with democracy and the extremism that appears to be behind the Istanbul bombings.

“He must do this to justify the firm action that he will have to take,” Candar said. “This cannot only be defeated in Turkey through security measures. There has to be a strong ideological basis to it.”

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