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Istanbul’s new year tragedy

Erdogan's Turkey
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A woman lays flowers in front of Reina nightclub on January 3.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images
A woman lays flowers in front of Reina nightclub on January 3.
Daesh seeks to divide Turkey by attacking a glitzy nightclub overlooking the Bosphorus.
2 016 ended in fittingly macabre fashion in Turkey with the assassination of the Russian ambassador, and any hopes that 2017 might begin more peacefully lasted just over an hour. Party-goers at Reina, one of Istanbul’s most exclusive nightclubs, were celebrating the new year when a gunman shot dead a policeman and civilian at the entrance, ran inside and sprayed the venue with 120 bullets, killing 39 people and injuring many more. He then changed clothes and slipped into the night.
“I did not understand what was happening when the murderer came in,” Abdullah Can Saraç, who survived by hiding with a fellow DJ under their music booth, told The World Weekly. “It was a very difficult night for me and the other 700 people. I had my phone. I didn’t know if the attack was over. I sent farewell messages to my loved ones.”
Fun-loving and cosmopolitan, the victims were everything Islamic State (IS) hates. The group is thought to have been behind several major attacks in Turkey but this is the first time it has officially claimed responsibility, describing the gunman as a “heroic soldier of the caliphate” for striking “where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday”. Officials claim to have identified him but have not released a name, and at the time of writing he remained at large.
“This attack was different,” Matthew Henman, head of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Research Centre, told TWW. Unlike previous atrocities pinned on Daesh, the attacker acted alone and used an automatic rifle rather than explosives. It is therefore unclear whether he was directed by central IS command or simply inspired. Regardless, the atrocity “neatly fitted” the group’s criteria. It targeted civilians - considered just retaliation for alleged civilian deaths during Turkish operations in Syria - and did so at an alcohol-fuelled, supposedly promiscuous event.
The past 18 months have been some of the most troubled in Turkey’s modern history. More than 1,000 people have been killed in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its more violent offshoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, as well as far-left groups and IS. Much of this violence can be attributed to the conflict in neighbouring Syria, which reignited the long-running Kurdish insurgency in mid-2015.
Turkey’s proximity to Syria, its outsize role fighting Daesh and its earlier negligence regarding the group make it particularly vulnerable to jihadi violence. “Turkey is now in the direct crosshairs of ISIS, as announced by [its leader] al-Baghdadi,” Theodore Karasik, a security expert at Gulf State Analytics, told TWW. “ISIS… seeks to wreck the country's economy and its actions in Syria and Iraq.” Officials said the gunman was an ethnic Uighur from China, and Dr. Karasik thinks the attack may have been intended as a warning shot “to ethnic Turkic peoples - from Turkey to Xinjiang”.
At any normal time it would be a struggle to cope with enemies on so many fronts. In the UK, where the jihadi threat is placing the intelligence services under huge strain, 12 terror plots have been thwarted since 2013; in Turkey, 339 were foiled in 2016 alone.
But times have been anything but normal since rebel soldiers tried to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 15 and bombed the Grand National Assembly in the process. Though amateurish, they almost succeeded. But their failure has allowed Mr. Erdogan to purge state institutions, including the security services, of suspected enemies, leaving the country even more exposed.
The motive for the shooting, as well as its execution, may differ from previous IS attacks. Tahir Abbas, a senior fellow a the Royal United Services Institute and author of a new book about ethnic, religious and political conflict in Turkey, thinks the glitzy target was no accident. “By attacking a well-known nightclub, Islamic State aimed to appeal to a more sympathetic element of Turkish society theologically predisposed to decry what are seen as grossly un-Islamic entities,” he told TWW.
President Erdogan himself framed the attack as an attempt to divide the country between conservative, eastern-facing Turks and their liberal, western-facing compatriots. Yet this is precisely what critics accuse him and the ruling Justice and Development Party, which draws much of its support from pious Anatolia, of doing. The Religious Affairs Directorate itself said in December that new year celebrations were un-Islamic.
“People get used to these things very quickly,” said Erdem, a 20-something civil servant who lives in Istanbul, adding that this weekend marks the end of term for students so might see big crowds of revellers. Yet the Reina survivors are unlikely to move on so quickly. “I am trying to pick up my strength,” said Mr. Saraç, the DJ. “It is difficult for me to sleep at night. I am trying to be well.” With so many forces pulling it apart, much the same could be said of Turkey.
Joe Wallace
The World Weekly
05 January 2017 - last edited today