The New Year began badly for Turkey and particularly Istanbul. In the last two weeks, a series of bombs have kept Turkish police guessing. First, a pregnant suicide bomber blew herself up in front of a police station in the tourist hub of Sultanahmet, just a few feet from the Blue Mosque, killing a policeman. She was later discovered to be the wife of a Norwegian ISIS fighter of Chechen origin.
Then police discovered two bombs hidden near shopping malls. And just before this column went to print, three bombs were found hidden in various densely populated parts of the city.Terror spreads
So far, casualties have been minimal, but the city remains uneasy and jittery. What’s worrying is that Istanbul seems to be an easy target for extremists of all shapes and sizes, from leftist Kurds to ISIS terrorists. Words written on the home-made bombs referred to the army crackdown on Kurds in Cizre, southeast Turkey, where several young Kurds have died.
A Twitter account purportedly from the youth wing of the outlawed Kurdish PKK party also claimed that they had left bombs in seven locations in Istanbul in revenge for the “Cizre massacres”. The other bombs were not found, but Istanbul’s residents were kept busy with bomb scares.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities were further embarrassed when Hayat Boumedienne, the wife of one of the Paris gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo shootings, passed through Turkey on her way to Syria. And if all that were not enough, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed this week that about 3,000 people in Turkey have been linked to ISIS militants, in addition to the 700 Turkish fighters already fighting alongside the Islamic state. Turkish authorities also warned of ISIS sleeper cells and possible attacks on the consulates and citizens of Western countries.
One would think that all this would call for strong action by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but he has always been reluctant to take a strong line against ISIS. On past occasions, he has denied Islamic terrorism, going so far as to say “There is no Islamic terror” and blaming the ISIS surge in Syria on Western powers. This time was no different, with Erdogan still in denial. Instead, he chose to take on Western countries over the Charlie Hebdo shootings.
“Racism has increased steadily and dangerously across the western countries. We are following with concern the latest wave of hatred against our Prophet Muhammad that hides behind the French attack,” he said. A defiant Erdogan also blamed French authorities for letting Boumedienne past. “They are talking about people who go through Turkey, but they should first learn how to check passports when these people are leaving their own country,” Erdogan said.Threat at the gate
But Erdogan can’t deny Turkey’s terrorist hub status for ever. Already, the US and UK are pressuring Turkey to plug its porous border with Syria. But, even as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoðlu was visiting the UK to talk about anti-ISIS measures with British Prime Minister David Cameron, he was already backtracking on commitments, arguing that Turkey could not stop the flood of volunteers to fight for ISIS. “Is it Turkey’s fault that it has borders with Syria?’ he asked.
It’s time Turkey woke up to the threat in its own backyard, before it becomes a hub for terrorists of all shapes. To do that, Erdogan will need to accept that there is, in fact, such a thing as Islamic terrorism, and it’s now targeting Turkey.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul and Bangalore