The mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub is just the latest tragedy to strike a country still reeling from a tumultuous 2016. But with Turkish armed forces being drawn into an ever more direct confrontation with ISIS, and the intelligence services struggling to contain the group’s new vicious tactics, the future looks increasingly uncertain.
In the early hours of January 1st 2017, Istanbul was shaken by an act of terror that left 39 dead and 65 wounded. The attacker, who has yet to be fully identified, opened fire in Reina, a popular nightclub crowded with people celebrating the New Year. One on-duty police officer and 38 civilians were killed, while another four remain in a critical condition. 25 of the victims were foreigners, including citizens of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, France, Tunisia, India, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Canada, Israel, Syria, Belgium, Germany and Russia.
The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) issued a statement the next day, claiming that: “In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.”
The attacker, who escaped the scene, is now the target of a major manhunt, and has been described as a “professional terrorist” with military training. And while at least 8 suspects have been detained in connection with the shooting, the suspected lone-gunman remains at large.
Increased security measures
This latest tragedy is being called out as a failure in domestic intelligence, or at least a failure to take adequate precautions; with 2016 seeing six major terrorist attacks in Istanbul alone.
Following the thwarted July 15 coup attempt, many police chiefs, senior intelligence and counterterrorism officers were fired or arrested, hampering efforts to counter terrorism just as multiple security threats from the fallout in Syria are on the rise.
As a result, this New Year’s Eve saw a considerable increase in security for larger Turkish cities, with an estimated 17,000 police deployed across Istanbul, and, following the recent attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, trucks and lorries banned from many roads. But there exists some discrepancy between such heightened security measures and the existing prior intelligence of potential attacks.
Several warnings were recently dispatched to provincial Turkish governors that terrorists were looking to target places often frequented by foreign nationals and tourists on New Year’s Eve. Just a few days ago, an online message posted by a pro-ISIS group urged for attacks by “lone wolves” on “celebrations, gatherings, and clubs”, and month ago, a spokesman for the group openly encouraged supporters to target “the secular, apostate Turkish government”.
Reina nightclub owner Mehmet Kocarslan told the Sputnik newspaper: “The US intelligence warned about the terror attack. Increased security measures were taken here 7 – 10 days ago. So what? That has happened.”
The only security present at Reina in the early hours of January 1st was a single on-duty police officer, just 10 months into his career, and two nightclub guards, both of whom were unarmed due to weapons restrictions. All three were shot immediately upon the assailant’s entrance to the club.
Despite the thousands of police officers spread across Istanbul’s center, and the venue being located across from a police station, the attacker managed to spend several minutes in the club before escaping surrounding police checkpoints.
Lack of media attention
Given the number of people dead or injured, and the diverse nationalities among those killed, the global reaction to the attack has been comparatively limited. Nearly two-thirds of those dead were foreign nationals; including Canadian and Russian citizens, with the U.S. State Department official admitting, only on condition of anonymity, that an American was among the wounded.
But although most Western governments have offered the standard official condolences, media attention and international reactions have been noticeably passive. Only a day later, and with the assailant still on the run, attention had largely begun to falter.
On social media, no “marked as safe” function was activated as a result of the attack, nor has there been any notable hashtag movement calling for solidarity with Turkey, as we saw in 2016 with the Bataclan shooting in Paris, the bombing in Nice, or the recent truck attack in Berlin. Given the scale of the attack, the absence of one of Facebook’s most lauded security features is significant.
The muted global reaction is perhaps in part the result of the government imposed media blackout. Local media coverage of the attack has been largely hampered by this ban, which is commonly invoked after similar incidents, with the government citing security and public order concerns. The ban does not extend to official statements, but officials have so far refused to comment on the possible identity or motives of the gunman. That said, the subdued responses so far are striking when compared to similar attacks such as the one in Paris. This time, however, the majority of the victims came from other parts of the muslim world. And this, combined with such terrorist incidents becoming the new normal in the country, maybe be behind the western media’s seeming indifference to such events in Turkey.
Consequences of the attack
As Turkey has ramped up its involvement on the ground in Syria, particularly around the key supply routes linking the cities of al-Bab and Aleppo, ISIS has increasingly targeted the country. And though a ceasefire between the Assad regime and oppositional forces was recently brokered, joint Turkish and Russian airstrikes against ISIS in al-Bab have continued unfettered.
Several ISIS elements in al-Bab, Bzagah, Tadif, and Dayr Kak were reported successfully destroyed on January 1st. And the New Year’s Eve massacre is only likely to strengthen the government’s resolve in taking further action against the group in Syria. However, given the growing questions about the efficiency of Turkey’s massive domestic security apparatus, and further involvement in the Syrian conflict, there are ever more challenges facing the country.
Already suffering from the loss of Western and Russian tourism, the Middle Eastern nationality of many of the victims could have significant economic consequences, as Istanbul’s main streets and bars continue to empty.
But more worrying is what the location and the timing of the shooting is revealing about ISIS’ intentions. This was a shocking, if not surprising, targeting of Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, likely aimed at further polarization of an increasingly divided country and region. Its strategic logic seems to have been to fuel the culture war that has engulfed the country’s politics in recent times; creating division by raising tensions between the more secular and the more religiously conservative.
This can be seen in the growing outcry over the Religious Affairs Directorate’s decision to criticize New Year’s Eve celebrations in the days before the attack. The government-controlled body issued a sermon lamenting that: “the first hours of new years turn into a waste by the festivals and entertainments that belong to other cultures, other worlds”. But in a public statement following the massacre, the religious body strongly asserted that: “The bloody attack targeting defenseless people within the first hours of the new year has hurt everyone deeply. The only difference between today’s terrorist attack and other events is to divide the society and confront different people according to their life-styles”.
ISIS’ swift claiming of this attack, as it did with the Ataturk airport bombing in June, indicates a significant change in tactics. Since the devastating Suruç bombing in 2015, ISIS have been consistent in anonymously targeting Kurdish and Leftist groups with suicide bombs. But the terrorist group now seems more inclined to hit other soft targets with a renewed ferocity, and in ways that are much harder to prevent against, increasing the likelihood of potentially devastating results in the future.