Turkey is terror’s new battleground

ANKARA – Coffins wrapped in Turkish flags, Jews and Muslims praying side by side for their dead, and many more pictures of emotions and humanity… Just when the Turks thought Saturday’s attacks on two Istanbul synagogues had solidified their national unity, they were horrified by new blasts – possibly a precursor to a larger wave of terror attacks. In the span of just five days, terror claimed at least 52 lives and injured around 800 people. This may be the beginning of a new irregular war Turkey must face. Judging from the choice of targets on Saturday and yesterday, one cannot miss the fact that Turkey is not the only target. It is a «natural target» and a «convenient venue» to attack: It is not a coincidence that each attack has forced a foreign dignitary to rush to Turkey – Israeli and British foreign ministers had to do the unpleasant job after the tragic deaths of Turkish Jews and Britain’s consul-general in Istanbul, Roger Short. What does the choice of targets show – two synagogues, the British Consulate and a British bank? US President George W. Bush’s war on international terrorism has not only failed but may spread it to otherwise safe territories. President Bush probably opened Pandora’s box when he attacked Iraq. He is not a great mathematician, but he should be able to count the death toll since he set foot in the Iraq quagmire. How many more deaths before Mr Bush sees that Iraq, like Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, is becoming a «crystallizing point» for Islamic extremists? As in the aftermath of every tragedy, the West may begin to view Turkey as a victim, from a point that is more sympathetic than usual. A staunch ally of Western democracy, Europeans should never let it drift into isolation and regional alliances… All these suggestions look plausible but may tend to fade as wounds begin to heal. A psychology of victimization may not earn Turkey a permanent place in Europe, though tragedy of this sort may temporarily remove the feeling of «otherness» the Europeans feel about Turkey. For one thing, Turkey may feel obliged to rethink the wisdom of some of the reform steps it has taken lately. For example, some articles in the anti-terror law have been scrapped in line with efforts to meet the Copenhagen criteria. But the recent bombings may force Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pass new laws against international terrorism. He may follow the example of the United States or EU-member Britain, who have quite tough rules that hardly comply with the EU’s political criteria. The new terror wave carries a number of risks for Mr Erdogan: His economic recovery program may suffer as common fear ruins consumer confidence, some of the Western companies pull out of Turkey, new ones don’t arrive and the tourist industry collapses. Terror may also strengthen the state establishment against the government. The military is quite doubtful about the ability of the police force to cope with terrorism. Many officers in various ranks believe there may be intelligence leaks, deliberate or otherwise, in the police ranks (some of which have been connected with radical Islam in the recent past). «The police needs further cleaning up,» says one general. At the same time, Mr Erdogan’s rigid stance against Islamist terror will earn him many military pats on the shoulder. Mr Erdogan has an Islamist past. His pictures, showing a younger man kneeling before an Afghan sheikh linked with Osama bin Laden, still ornament his adversaries’ political campaigns against him. But his sincere helplessness against bombings has put him in the same camp as the generals. Turkey remains vulnerable to Islamist terror. It has its own groupings. The mainly Kurdish southeast is an ideal recruiting pot for suicide bombers – young, literally hungry Kurds who are ready to become martyrs of Islam. It was not a coincidence that the two suicide bombers in Saturday’s attacks were from Bingol, a Kurdish town with a history of radical Islamic activity. Add to that the loose border controls with Iraq and Iran, and the picture becomes more alarming. Many terrorists are traveling into Iraq, back to Turkey, to Iraq, and back to Turkey again through the mountains and, naturally, without border checks. Others take more civilized routes – flying to and from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran with fake passports. Blame it all on intelligence failures. All this makes Turkey an ideal venue to hit Western (and Turkish) targets. Al Qaeda is establishing itself, with logistical help from its Turkish collaborators, in the land of the Crescent and Star. Worse, the Kurdish Islamists have legitimate businesses in Istanbul (coffee shops, Internet cafes, retailing, etc), already an arena of criminals of all sorts. The police are often helpless in chasing even the most petty criminals. Well-organized, ideological criminals with state-of-the-art equipment, immense funding and logistics go beyond the reach of the police. These days Istanbul is all about fear. Its people are desperately waiting for the next time they will again be hit by bombs.