November 16, 2003 | Op-ed

Jihad in Istanbul

By Walid Phares

There is no doubt about it: the final target in the terrorist attacks against the Jewish synagogues of Neve Shalom and Beth Israel in Istanbul, beyond the Jewish community itself, was Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founding father. This would be the conclusion of any reasonable analyst, or any attentive viewer of al-Jazeera's panels on the Turkish secular experience. Many Jews were killed, but in historic terms it was Ataturk who was being assassinated. And here is why.


It took shorter than the usual al-Qaida waiting time for the terrorist group to take responsibility for the massacre. On Monday, November 17, 2003, at 2:23 AM “Mecca Time,” falling on 23:23 GMT, the pro-Jihadist Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi said it has received a claim of responsibility from the al-Qaida network for the synagogue bombings in Istanbul. It read: “Abu Hafz al-Masri Brigades struck a mortal blow after having kept Jewish intelligence agents under surveillance and determined that five of them were in two synagogues in the centre of Istanbul.” M Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the publication, said he received the statement emailed to the London-based newspaper on Sunday.

The Abu Hafz al-Masri Brigades-al-Qaida, named after one of its killed fighters, warned in a statement of more attacks around the world. Mr Atwan, “confirmed to Al-jazeera that the statement was sent in an email.” Atwan, who is known to deliver raging Jihadist speeches on al-Jazeera condoning suicide attacks, declared that the “al-Qaida statement said that they carried out the operations after they found out that Mossad agents were working at the synagogues and therefore they bombed them.” Here is a typical attempt to legitimize terror in Arab and Muslims minds.

The Turkish authorities and media smelled al-Qaida from the start. The semi-official Anatolia news agency quoted senior police official as saying each pickup truck was packed with some 880 pounds of explosives, a mix of ammonium sulfate, nitrate and compressed fuel oil. The explosives had been hidden in containers wrapped in sacks and hidden detergent containers. A Turkey-based Islamist group, the “Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front” (IBDA/C) claimed responsibility to the state-run Anatolia news agency. But Turkish officials said the scale of the attacks showed that foreign groups played a role in the operation. The local press also pointed the finger of blame at al-Qaida. “Bin Ladin's terror has hit us as well,” the popular daily Vatan said. “Istanbul's two most prominent synagogues were hit in quick succession just as the twin towers (in New York) and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.”


From the moment of the bombing, both Turkish and Israeli officials pointed their fingers at the outside — accusing al-Qaida. Turkish Government sources said al-Qaida was behind it. Israeli sources said it appeared that this type of sophisticated attack must have been at least coordinated with international terror organizations. “The method of operation leads to the assumption — a quite solid one — that (the bombs) were the making of al-Qaida or Hezbollah, two organizations that specialized in this type of assault.” The main target was highly symbolic. It was Istanbul's biggest synagogue and the symbolic center of Turkey's 25,000-member Jewish community. The other synagogue was Beth Israel, located in an affluent neighborhood. The symbolism of the targets, the fact that al-Qaida has called for such attacks, including bin Laden's October's audiotape, in addition to the list of previous attacks against Jews in Tunisia, Morocco, and Kenya over the past 12 months. All of that converges onto one point: it is the work of al-Qaida.

In addition to officials in Ankara and Jerusalem, most Turkish experts tend to believe that the local IBDA-C “doesn't have the means to do something like this” as Professor Nilufer Narli, from Istanbul's Kadir Has University puts it. “Its top leaders are all in jail and in the last few years it has lost most of their influence.” The group's leader, Salih Izzet Erdis, also known as Salih Mirzabeyoglu, was arrested by Turkish police in 1998 and is now in prison – along with many of the group's older cadre. “Now, it is nowhere near capable of organizing something this sophisticated,” adds Narli, who is an expert on Turkey's illegal Islamic groups. “This was a very professional attack.” Narli believe that the success of parliamentary Islamism in Turkey has led to groups such as the IBDA-C losing almost all their support. Gareth Jenkins, an expert on Turkish Islamist groups from the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. “Their style had also always been very amateurish.” But other researchers adds a local component: “While I think the people who actually planted the bombs may have been outsiders,” Rusen Cakir, Turkish expert on Islamist groups, told local broadcaster NTV, “these kinds of acts need a lot of preparation. That's where you need local contacts.”

While it has become clear that al-Qaida ordered the strike and local elements are involved in it,  most officials and fellow experts are still using the lenses of the pre-9/11 era. But it simply has to be stressed that, nowadays, there is no more major cleavage between external and internal Jihadism; they are all connected. And more troublesome to many to absorb: Jihadism is not solely a strategy restricted to Islamists. As an international community in general, and Americans in particular, we're dealing with a mutant. Here's the real picture:


In the Istanbul strike, we can clearly see the fingerprints of al-Qaida. Bin Laden has declared his harb (war) against Jews and Americans since 1998. He wants it waged on a global scale, with no boundaries nor time limits. Wherever, whenever and with whomever he can, the sultan of jihad will kill any Jew, anywhere. His harb is not against Israel, or a Zionist entity, as the PLO use to wage. Nor does his attack take place only inside Palestine, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad tend to confine themselves. Osama's jihad is as global as the Jewish community itself. In the October tape he made it even clearer, insisting on emptying the region of “the infidels.” From Kfar Habu in Northern Lebanon to the Muhayya in Riyadh, Christians are targeted at will. And from Jerba in Tunisia to Casablanca in Morocco, Jews are terminated by slices. It is ethno-religious cleansing in slow motion. When President Bush warned against the terrorist threat against Christians and Jews in the Middle East and Africa, some intellectuals called the speech a “builder of fear.” But the Istanbul massacre, as much as the Riyadh slaughter are evidence written in blood. In the general context of jihad, as constructed by the survivors of Tora Bora, this war is about remaking world order. Al-Qaida's harb is a war of elimination of Jews, Christians, Hindus on the one hand and Muslims who refuse this war on the other hand. This is the first and foremost explanation of the Bosphore killings.


But there is another dimension to the Istanbul attacks. The Jews targeted in the former capital of the Ottomans were not aliens, nor settlers. They are the descendants of communities who fled the Reconquista and the Inquisition of Spain. They left the Iberian Peninsula along with Arabs and Muslims with whom they lived for centuries. They were persecuted by Christians, when its institutions were managed by ruthless theocracies. It was a Muslim Caliph who opened his lands to them. The Ottoman Sultan granted them political asylum and the right to live in security. The highest Islamic institution, the Caliphate – for which reestablishment bin Laden would kill millions around the world – granted the authority to accept the Jews on Muslim lands. This begs the question: by what authority are the Jihadists attacking these Jews' descendants? Bin Laden himself clarified his answer, and al-Jazeera's numerous panels analyzed it: As long as no Caliphate is around, the harb will go on. To the neo-Wahabi groups around the world all other forms of Islam are illegal, and therefore their protection of infidels is illegal. Neither Sufis nor Shiia, neither secular nor conservative moderate Muslims, are accepted. Only Salafism is the norm.


Attacking the Jews in Istanbul is also a warning to the political establishment in Turkey. From moderate Muslims to arch-secularists, from left-wingers to military, the Jihadists are not sparing anyone. Today the Jews, tomorrow the secularist Muslims, and after that? Anyone who does not concur with their form of Islam, apparently. This is the ideological message. But read the tactical move as well:  Turkey has a conservative Muslim Government, seeking to revive the country's Islamic identity. But Anatolia has a solid and dynamic secular establishment, at once both liberal and nationalist. If you are a Turkish affiliate of al-Qaida, you would want to create chaos from the within. You would attack the Turkish Jews and leave the country to deal with it. You would expect the military to move on the religious and the later mobilize against the secularists. You would hope relations with Israel to deteriorate, the U.S. presence to be rethought and a jihad crisis to begin. Only this path leads to radical Jihadist victory.


In addition to al-Qaida's profit, who gains from the Istanbul massacre? The answers are speculative but converge into one analytical highway. First, the Jihadist forces inside Turkey, which have been underestimated by many, including by the Turks themselves, come out winners. As a result of 9/11 and the rise of Jihadism in the region and worldwide, Turkish radical Islamists are the first group to take advantage of the attacks. This opens the path to future strikes, if the government doesn't react strategically. Two, al-Qaida's international networks gain political credibility inside the Islamic fundamentalist world. If Ankara goes silent on the Jihadist nature of terrorism, bin Laden will recruit more elements in Asia Minor. Three, although on the lower levels of suspicion, regional regimes may well be implicated in the destabilizing of the lone Muslim member of NATO.

Damascus and Tehran are very nervous about the long term commitment of Ankara in a regional axis including Turkey, the new democratic Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Striking first and striking unexpectedly would be the best tool to preempt that axis from being formed. When attacked by Israel, Syria's regime warned that it would respond on the battlefield of its choice, on the timing of its choice and with the means of its choice. While al-Qaida is certainly not a Syrian Baathist outlet, in Iraq it has been made clear that Baathists and Islamists can come together for the sake of their survival in a changing region. And perhaps they have in the heart of Istanbul, to strike at their common enemies.

Walid Phares is a Professor of Middle East Studies and Religious Conflict and a Terrorism expert with MSNBC. Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.