Assassination of Russian ambassador echoes Turkey’s tumultuous past of political violence

*Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty member of the Turkish security forces pictured after his shooting of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov. Source: @GarciaReports on Twitter

Yesterday’s police shooting of the Russian ambassador in Ankara sparked shock and outrage across the world. As Russian President Vladimir Putin demands that: “We have to know who directed the hand of the killer,” speculation over both culprit and motive continues.

The Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, has been shot and killed while visiting a photo gallery in Ankara.  The gunman, who was caught on film by several cameras, can be heard clearly proclaiming: “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria! Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria! As long as our brothers are not safe, you will not enjoy safety! I will leave this world only after death removes me from here! Allahu Akbar!” He was shot and killed when Turkish security forces arrived, surrounding the gallery.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, accompanied by Health Minister Recep Akdağ and Defense Minister Fikri Işı, later identified the attacker in a public statement as a 22 year-old Ankara police officer Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş. Altıntaş was a member of the city’s riot police squad, heightening speculation about the motives behind the attack. He also added that three other people were wounded in the attack, two of whom are currently hospitalized.

The incident comes during a complex period in relations between Ankara and Moscow, who despite finding themselves backing opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War, have developed a remarkably pragmatic friendship. Relations between the two were severed in November of last year when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet along its border with Syria, claiming a violation of airspace. Russia, meanwhile, denied any breach. Despite the shock of the most recent incident, swift reactions on both the Turkish and Russian sides show that the substance of Turko-Russian normalization will remain relatively immune, at least in comparison to the jet crisis.

It was only June of this year that the two reinitiated relations, which have flourished despite Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo being condemned by the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms. Large demonstrations, led by groups linked to the government, were recently held outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul against Moscow’s actions in Syria.

U.S. and NATO officials have publicly decried the attack as “cowardly” and “heinous”, offering condolences to the victims’ families, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling it “an assault on the right of all diplomats to safely and securely advance and represent their nations around the world.”

But any hope within the alliance, or elsewhere, that the assassination would scupper growing ties between NATO member Turkey and Russia will quickly have been dashed. In a televised statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the killing as an attempt to damage growing relations between Turkey and Russia, arguing that it was intended to derail the progress of the ongoing Syrian peace process.

Leonid Slutsky, head of the international affairs committee of the Russian Duma, was more explicit, stating that: “there will be no fresh cooling in relations between Moscow and Ankara, no matter how strongly our strategic opponents in  Ankara and the West want this”.

A long history of political assassinations 

In a political climate already rife with conspiracy theories, the ambiguous details of the assassination has enabled all sides to have their own reading of the killing.

Many have focused on the killer’s use of jihadi rhetoric, including quoting a religious poem which is reportedly associated with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Al Qaeda franchise in Syria. Alongside the explicit reference to Aleppo, this has been taken as proof of the attacker’s links to radical Islamist groups, and has been used to imply government culpability due to their alleged support for these groups in Syria.

However, such targeted assassination would seem to go against the kamikaze modus operandi usually associated with jihadi groups, which look to inflict mass casualties in highly orchestrated attacks, and Altıntaş’s use of religious language may simply have been misdirection.

The official investigation into the killing of the ambassador is instead focusing on Altıntaş’s alleged links to the so-called Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), which is widely accused of masterminding the failed coup of July 15.  Media outlets close to the government have already been quick to point the finger at FETÖ, who they accuse of continuing attempts to destabilize the country.

Justice and Development MP and Deputy Chair of Foreign Affairs Committee, Kani Torun, told Al Jazeera that Altıntaş most likely had no direct connection to Syria and “accordingly, the only likely culprit for this attack is FETÖ. They have been very active in police forces,” adding that, “although members of this group have been widely wiped out from the police forces, we believe, they can carry out suicide attacks like this.” There seems to be an abundance of evidence as to Altıntaş’s links to Gülen, which begs questions as to how he has endured the purges as a member of the security forces.

An assassination of this kind would indicate a significant change in tactics for Gülen affiliated groups however, who have not previously used targeted political violence against civil servants, academics, or journalists. They have however been implicated in a number of covert operations, not least the coup, but also in scuppering the Kurdish peace process and corruption probes against government officials. A spokesman for Gülen told Reuters that the Islamic leaders’ implication in the assassination was “laughable”, arguing that it was an attempt to cover up for lax security.

Turkey does, however, have a long history of political violence of this kind. Groups such as the Grey Wolves, a shadowy organization embedded in Turkish security forces and allegedly used as death squads during the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s, have, at times, been allowed to operate with relative impunity by the state.

Most recently, according to Kommersant – one of Russia’s leading broadsheets – the Grey Wolves were implicated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) for the Russian airliner crash in October 2015, which killed all 224 passengers after a bomb went off on board.

Active since the Cold War battles of the 1960s, the Grey Wolves have a scandalous legacy of domestic terror, corruption and politically motivated assassinations. Abdullah Çatlı for example, a fugitive gangster and key leader of the group, gained notoriety for helping fellow Grey Wolf member Mehmet Ali Ağca escape from jail. Ağca had been imprisoned for the murder of left-wing journalist Abdi İpekçi, and subsequently attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Vatican City. He was released early from his sentence, however, and met with a heroes welcome in Istanbul in 2006.

Çatlı was killed in a suspicious car crash in 1996 alongside Hüseyin Kocadağ, a top police official in command of Turkish counter-insurgency units. Following the scandal, it was admitted that Çatlı had close links to state security forces. Then Prime Minister Tansu Ciller stated that: “I don’t know whether he is guilty or not…but we will always respectfully remember those who fire bullets or suffer wounds in the name of this country, this nation and this state.”

Regardless of the culprit and agenda, yesterday’s attack darkly echoes Turkey’s tumultuous history of political assassinations, often with unclear relationships to the state. While the underlying motive of the attack will remain disputed, it is a reminder that the country’s coercive institutions have long been sites of aggressive politicization.

The Justice and Development Party government claimed that it had put an end to this so-called “deep state”. But if FETÖ, as accused, was able to gain power at all levels of the security apparatuses, the phenomenon remains alive and well. Having once relied on FETÖ to counter secular and nationalist elements within the state, the question now remains as to who is being empowered in the vacuum as huge numbers of alleged FETÖ members are dramatically purged.

The murky nature of the details has, publicly at least, allowed Ankara to maintain its relations with Moscow by shifting blame elsewhere, with Turkish PM Binali Yıldırım insisting both sides are determined not to “fall into the trap of terror.”

Kaitlyn Modzelewski & Yakup Coen

Kaitlyn Modzelewski & Yakup Coen, “Assassination of Russian ambassador echoes Turkey’s tumultuous past of political violence”, Independent Turkey, 20 December 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=13130

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