The Istanbul bombings of November 2003
by Elias Davidsson
A. The events
On November 15, 2003, two trucks carrying bombs exploded at about 10:00 a.m. outside the Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey. The explosions killed 25 people and wounded hundreds, mostly passers-by.1 Although the Neve Shalom synagogue was at the time packed with worshipers2 attending a bar-mitzvah ceremony,3 fortunately none of them died. Many of the few hundred people inside were evacuated through a backdoor entrance. Yosef Halefa, son of Turkey’s chief rabbi, was, however, wounded in the attack.4 Seventeen people, including six Jews5, were killed at the explosion outside the Beth Israel synagogue, which was severely damaged.6 The explosion collapsed the synagogue’s roof and filled the street with wreckage.7 Most victims in both attacks were Muslims residents, passers-by and security guards.8 The bombings occurred on the eve of the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.9
Private NTV television showed the twisted wreckage of a car and a huge crater in front of the Neve Shalom synagogue. Sabri Yalim, the head of Istanbul’s fire department, said the scene outside the synagogue looked like a war zone: „There is a huge pit on the ground. The houses and cars are completely destroyed, as if a huge earthquake hit the area,“ Yalim said.10 The Turkish police said that the death toll from the double attack was 20, revising downwards an earlier estimate of 23 killed.11 According to a U.S. police study, the explosion in front of the Neve Shalom synagogue caused serious damage to 70 buildings.12
Five days later, on November 20, 2003, two more truck bombs exploded in Istanbul. One exploded at the headquarters of HSBC Bank AS and 12 minutes later another one at the British Consulate (see picture below). Thirty people died in this double attack, including the top British official in Istanbul, consul general Roger Short, and approximately 450 were injured.13 Most victims were Turkish Muslims, as was the case in the earlier synagogue blasts. According to Turkish television stations, cited by The People’s Daily, not two, but five explosions occurred on that day, “including one on the Asian side of this city” and one “in front of a shopping mall.”14 Whether these reports were based on misunderstandings, is not yet clear.
The entrance to the consulate is on a T-junction about 70 metres from Istanbul’s main shopping hub, Istiklal street. There is a row of cafes and office buildings opposite it, and the entrance to the crowded Balik Pasaji food market. A local resident, Onur Galmanoglu, took up the story.
There was a truck moving at high speed and wobbling. It turned left even though the road was blocked, and the driver rammed the metal doors. It destroyed both of the security houses, to the left and to the right. Roger Short had just walked in the building two or three minutes earlier. The security guards saw the truck coming towards them and turning left. They let off two or three shots, but they were unable to stop it.15
Reverend Ian Sherwood, the British consulate’s chaplain, told CNN: „The bomb was so colossal that it demolished two buildings at the entrance of the consulate compound and completely blew out every window in almost every part of the consulate … they’re huge bombs.“ He said that a lot of those who died or who were injured had come from the neighbourhood.16
Celal Korkunç had been working as a security official at the consulate for 10 months. He was by the gate at the time of the explosion. He said: “Nothing was left of the 1-tonne security gate that led into the compound … it had been blown away. There were dead bodies everywhere.“17 Ansel Mullins, an American who was at work nearby, said: „The closer you got to the main entrance of the consulate, the worse the damage was…The building to the right of the entrance had disappeared. At least 30 metres of the red brick wall had caved in.”18
In the final seconds before the blast, Murat Hanzine, a waiter at the nearby Pano restaurant, said, the security guards of the consulate had sounded the alarm. „I can still hear it ringing in my head. It sounded like a telephone. And then there was the explosion.“19
The two Turkish policemen stationed at the consulate’s entrance, Huseyin Apaydin and Salih Gapikin, reportedly opened fire on the van seconds before it smashed into the front gate. They also sounded the alarm. It made no difference. Both men were killed instantly in the explosion. The blast also tore into the main consulate building 50 metres away, killing 34-year-old Cafer Gunduz and his 32-year-old wife Kiraz, who worked in the consulate as cleaners. Gunduz was sitting in the building’s first-floor cafe.20
Traffic blocked ambulances as they tried to reach the wounded and much of the city’s phone network was cut off. The bomb at the consulate was so big, buildings hundreds of metres away had their windows blown out. The consulate bomb occurred two minutes later. The main building had been undergoing refurbishment and many staff were working in outbuildings in the complex.21 The bomb was so powerful that, according to Time Magazine, “smoking, twisted remains of cars lined the street” and “windows were blown out up to half a kilometer away.”22 Body parts, the charred shells of cars and broken glass were scattered around a three-metre-deep crater in the street outside the bank. Water gushed out of the top floors of the building.
B. Assigning responsibility
An anonymous person called the Turkish news agency Anadolu to claim that Al Qaeda and the Turkish Islamist group IBDA-C (Warriors Front for an Islamic Great Middle East) were responsible for the bombings. The caller said the attacks on the British institutions were the result of a “joint action” by the two groups. The group IBDA-C also claimed responsibility for the earlier synagogue attacks. Some time later, an Arabic newspaper received an email in which a group affiliated with Al Qaeda named “The Martyrs Brigade of Abu Hafs el Masri” also claimed responsibility for the attacks.23 Turkish authorities and representatives of the Israeli, British and American governments immediately assigned responsibility for both series of bombings to Al Qaeda.24 The Turkish interior minister, Abdulkadir Aksu, dismissed IBDA-C’s claims of responsibility as lacking credibility. He said no Turkish organisation was in a position to carry out attacks of such a magnitude.25
Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu told the pro-government daily Yeni Safak that “it has been determined that Turks were used as sub-contractors in this incident, which was organized by foreign groups associated to Al Qaeda.”26
A senior Israeli security source told Reuters the blasts may have been the work of an al-Qaeda affiliate, possibly seeking to target both arch-foe Israel and moderate Muslim Turkey.27
The Turkish daily Radikal reported that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad had warned Turkish intelligence units twice about attack plans. The first warning came in April, when Mossad reportedly said that al-Qaida was planning to attack the Neve Shalom and other synagogues, as well as U.S. British and Israeli consulates in Turkey. A second Mossad warning, that al-Qaida was planning attacks on Israeli citizen and U.S. citizens in Turkey, came in September.28
On 18 November, just three days after the incidents, Turkish authorities claimed that “the World Islamic Jihad” [whatever this means] was behind the attack. They also “revealed” that the terror cell that carried out the attack was primarily made up of members of one family.29 By that date Turkish media already named and published photographs of four foreign-trained Turkish Islamic militants they said were involved in the bombings.30 A day later, Istanbul’s governor, Muammer Guler, declared in a news conference that the identities of two of the bombers had been identified by DNA.31 According to Ha’retz, the older brother of the suspected bomber had been called in by Istanbul police to provide a DNA sample, on the base of which the bomber was identified.32
Turkish news organizations reported that one of the suspects, Mesut Cabuk, 29, spent time in Iran, Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan in recent years. The other, Gokhan Elaltuntas, 22, had two cousins who are serving time for terrorist attacks carried out on behalf of an Islamic group in the early 1990’s, according to the reports. Both men were said from the town of Bingol, about 600 miles southeast of Istanbul. According to local news reports, two other men, Azad Ekinci, 25, and Feridun Ugurlu, also from Bingol, are believed to have purchased the pickup trucks used in the attacks. Mr. Ekinci and Mr. Ugurlu both spent time in Pakistan in recent years, the reports said. They are believed to have fled to the Persian Gulf region, possibly to Dubai.33 Police reportedly set up roadblocks into Bingol, a town of 200,000 people close to the Iran and Syrian borders.34
Police were reported questioning about 30 people in connection with the attacks, including the owner of one of the trucks used.35 According to the BBC, police in Turkey say they have arrested a „key suspect“ in the Istanbul bomb attacks.. They believe the Turkish man – identified only by his initials F Y – helped prepare the explosives and trucks used in the four attacks. The authorities say the man was arrested on Wednesday in south-eastern Turkey while trying to flee to Iran with a forged passport.36
Syria reportedly handed over to Turkey 22 people suspected of involvement in the bomb attacks in Istanbul.37 Istanbul Governor Moammer Guler named the bomber who targeted the HSBC bank as Ilyas Kuncak, who was in his forties and came from the capital, Ankara. 38 Turkish authorities have named 29-year-old Mesut Cabuk and Gokhan Elaltuntas, 22, as the suicide bombers who blew up Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues respectively.39
Turkey’s prime minister plead for international help in tracking down the suspected “foreign masterminds” of Istanbul’s bombings. With domestic investigations into the attacks zeroing in on the remote town of Bingol, where Turkish media say the bombers came from, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said only an international effort could bring the plot leaders to justice.40
Two weeks after the synagogue bombings, a man suspected of giving the order to bomb the Beth Israel synagogue has been charged with subversion. Yusuf Polat was charged with „attempting to violently overthrow the constitutional order,“ legal sources said, after he was earlier taken to the scene of the November 15 blast at the Beth Israel synagogue for a police reconstruction. Polat was arrested at a border crossing into Iran on November 25 and was found to be using a false passport, Turkish officials said. „The enquiry has shown that this man gave the order to launch the operation by going to the area moments before with several of the perpetrators of the attack,“ security official Halil Yilmaz told Turkish television CNN-Turk.41
In 2010, dozens of senior military figures were arrested, prosecuted and convicted for plotting years earlier to overthrow the government and instituting a military dictatorship. Their plot was named “Operation Sledgehammer”. Part of the evidence were maps found on a CD related to this operation, on which the locations of the Neve Shalom Synagogue and the Bet Israel Synagogue were marked in red and singled out from the other synagogues and churches on the list of targets to be bombed.42 Ultimately, 330 Turkish military officers, including the former air force and navy chiefs, were convicted to long prison sentences for plotting to overthrow the government in 2003, but not in relation to the synagogue bombings.43 Was their possible role in the 2003 bombings covered up in order not to embarrass NATO? We do not know. A Foreign Office spokesman, however, said Britain was not asking for the investigations into the attacks to be reopened: „The UK was content with both the conduct and the outcome of the investigation into the 2003 bombing of the British Consulate and HSBC building in Istanbul,“ he said. „There are no outstanding issues to be resolved. 44
1. The trucks and their drivers
Hakan Kozan, 29, a witness, said he saw a white truck speeding toward the site of the consulate blast around 10 seconds before the explosion.45 Ozan, who has a shop selling CDs, recalled the seconds after the truck rammed the consulate gates.46 Witness Mehmet Celik, who was slightly injured, told CNN Turk he saw a brown Skoda van with an open back driving toward the British consulate seconds before the blast rocked the building. He said he was standing about 10 meters (yards) from the site.47 According to Time Magazine the van that rammed into the gate of the consulate was a “green catering van.”48
Foreign minister Abdullah Gul said the attacks appeared to be suicide bombings, the semi-official Anatolia news agency reported. „We were informed that both vehicles paused and exploded in front of the synagogues,“ Mr Gul said. The drivers of the vehicles were believed to be at the wheels at the time of the blasts, he added.49 Officials told Anatolia news agency that security camera film at Neve Shalom showed a person parking a car outside the building and the vehicle was later seen exploding.50 Hurriyet, a Turkish daily, said the driver of one of the trucks was filmed by the security camera outside the Neve Shalom synagogues. But it quoted police officials as saying the driver’s identity was still unclear. The newspaper said that the son of that pickup truck’s owner has been missing for two weeks.51 According to police sources cited by the Chicago Tribune, a security video from the Neve Shalom synagogue showed the explosion of a red vehicle parked in front of the place of worship.52 The New York Times cited the Turkish NTV television network as reporting that security cameras at the Neve Shalom synagogue showed a red truck in front of the synagogue shortly before the explosion.53 According to the Turkish daily Milliyet, the vehicle was white.54
Police investigators said the bombs were similar — both contained potassium chloride and sodium nitrate — and both were packed into station wagons that were parked near the synagogues…Outside one of the synagogues, a surveillance camera taped a man parking a station wagon in the street. Moments later, the vehicle exploded.55
Dr. Keramettin Kurt, head of the coroner’s office in Istanbul, said to media that a “cable mechanism”56 or as reported elsewhere “wire contrivances” were found on the corpses of two people, suggesting a suicide operation.57
According to early media reports, “footage from security cameras showed a red Fiat exploding in front of Neve Shalom synagogue after the driver walked away.”58 At the Beth Israel synagogue, the bomb appeared to have been planted in a small white car.59 In later reports, this footage is ignored, the red Fiat becomes a Isuzu truck and the bomber dies at the wheel of the truck.
According to the Chicago Tribune, a Turkish senior police official said that “the license plates on the trucks were fake.”60 One day later, however, Ha’aretz wrote that the “license plate on the vehicle that blew up outside the Beit Yisrael synagogue in Shishli was registered to the older brother” of the suspected suicide bomber.61 Deputy Security director Halil Yilmaz of the Istanbul Security Directorate told Hurriyet on Novemer 27 that the attack on the Neve Shalom synagogue was committed with an Isuzu pick-up truck “whose plate number was 34 zr 099” and that the attack on the Beth Israel synagogue was carried out with another Isuzu pick-up truck, “whose plate number was 34 uhk 68.”62 He did not mention to whom these numbers were registered. Were the trucks a red Fiat and small white car, or two Isuzu pick-up trucks?
Surprisingly, it is difficult to find testimonies from survivors who could have confirmed the color and type of the cars parked in front of the synagogues and whether the driver walked away. While photographs of the bombing scenes were published in the world media, no photographs of the exploded trucks’ wreckage, which might help determining the type and color of the cars, can be found in the public domain. The absence of such evidence is disturbing.
2. The explosives
Turkish ministers told reporters it was too early to talk about the investigation, but within one day of the bombings a senior police official was already informing media that “each pickup truck was packed with some 880 pounds of explosives, a mix of ammonium sulfate, nitrate and compressed fuel oil.” He also was able to state that “the explosives had been hidden in containers wrapped in sacks and surrounded by detergent containers”63 Turkish media said two corpses had been found with wires attached to them suggesting they might be suicide bombers.64
Zelig Feiner, spokesman of the Israeli rescue service ZAKA, invited by Turkish Jews to help retrieve the remains, said: „We’ve seen many suicide attacks in Israel, but the amount of explosives and damage here is something we’ve never seen before.“65 In Israel, police spokesman Gil Kleiman said Israel sent two explosives and two forensics experts to Turkey on Saturday night. Their role will be to try to learn the identity of the attackers or source of the bomb materials.66 According to a U.S.-based Jewish webpage, Mossad secret service teams were sent to Turkey to help Turkish authorities to sift through the wreckage outside the two synagogues.67
Properly mixing 1760 pounds of ingredients is not a task that can be carried out in a kitchen sink. The authorities have not explained how it was done, where and by whom. Furthermore, such a mixture is very sensitive regarding the precise ratio of ingredients. Without testing the mixture, it will not be known whether it will explode. Adding too much boosters, such as potassium sulfate, may cause the mixture to go off unexpectedly.68 It is not clear why contradictory information was provided to media regarding the bombs’ chemical ingredients (see above): According to CNN the bombs were composed of “potassium chloride and sodium nitrate” while other sources reported “ammonium sulfate, nitrate and compressed fuel oil.”
Turkey’s interior minister, Abdulkadir Aksu, said both bombing incidents were probably carried out by the same group, and that a preliminary analysis of the blasts suggested that the explosive material used in each was identical.69
D. Political consequences: cui bono
Against a background of growing resistance to the occupation of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush referred to the Istanbul bombings in Istanbul to justify the occupation of Iraq. At a joint press conference held in London only a few hours after the attack on the British consulate, President Bush vowed to “finish the job we have begun,” and Blair stated: “I can assure you of one thing: that when something like this happens today, our response is not to flinch or give way or concede one inch. We stand absolutely firm until this job is done, done in Iraq, done elsewhere in the world.”70 The attack permitted Tony Blair to once more to declare his total solidarity with the United States, vowing to „stand side by side with the United States of America to rid our world of this evil once and for all“.71 British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw did not wait for evidence. He said the strikes bore „all the hallmarks of the international terrorism operations practiced by al Qaeda and associated organizations.”72
Julie Hyland argued on WSWS: “The terror attack on the British consulate and HSBC headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey last week is being used to justify a further clamp down on democratic rights and to vilify and intimidate all those who politically opposed the war against Iraq.”73 Hyland cited BBC correspondent John Simpson, who from outside Buckingham Palace, where he was covering the mass protests against Bush’s visit to London, wrote: “What happened in Turkey today at 0900 changed everything here. Before 0900, the argument was whether Britain and the US were right to go into Iraq, and the after-effects of that. Now, the whole issue is really how you stand up to this kind of attack, what you do, what the best way on from here is.” The Times, in turn, lectured its readers, “The notion that the President and the Prime Minister were deliberately exaggerating the threat from terror for their political ends, never a persuasive one, has been rendered implausible” by the Istanbul bombings.74 British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country is the United States’s chief backer in the Iraqi occupation, said the strikes bore „all the hallmarks of the international terrorism operations practiced by al Qaeda and associated organizations.”75
In the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday that this week’s bombings were very much in the mode of Al Qaeda. „We should make no mistake in thinking that terrorism is somehow abating,“ he said. A senior United States government official said, is that „the terrorists can attack anywhere, and the civilized world has to be ready to defend everywhere.“76
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Turkey would not bow to terror. „We will continue our fight against terrorism,“ he told reporters in Stockholm. „This time it was British, last week it was two synagogues.“77
According to Al Jazeera, virtually all of the commentaries in the Turkish press agreed that the result of the attacks will be even closer collaboration between Turkey and the US and Israel.78
Did the attacks only strengthen political determination in the war on terror, or were there also more mundane gains to be had from the incidents? The Istanbul stock exchange was closed after the explosions, but not before the stock index had dived 7,37% amid panic sales. Banks ceased quotes on the Turkish interbank foreign exchange market.79 However, a study entitled “Terrorism and Capital Markets: The Effects of the Istanbul Bombings” demonstrated that within six days after the attacks the Turkish Nat-100, Industrial and Bank Indexes showed an increase of 4,56%, 4,95% and 7,90% respectively.80 The study also demonstrated a similar pattern in other cases of terrorism in Turkey. Anyone with foreknowledge was thus in the position to financially gain from the terrorist acts.
Expressing shame that the four suicide truck bombers in the attacks on two Istanbul synagogues as well as the British Consulate and a branch of London-based banking giant HSBC were Turkish, Turkish PM Erdogan said the attackers had global connections. „All of our security forces at this point are looking into this international connection,“ he told BBC Television. „Terrorism is a phenomenon which has international aspects and we must establish a joint platform to fight against it.“ This statement was certainly received warmly at NATO headquarters, vindicating its strategy to expand its operations to the entire globe.
Author Gareth Jenkins, an expert on Turkish affairs, while attributing the bombings to Al Qaeda suicide bombers, supports the above view He wrote:
Before the Al Qaeda suicide bombings in Istanbul […] few members of members of the counterterrorism department in the Turkish police took the threat from Al Qaeda seriously. The main reason was that most believed the conspiracy theories surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. and would not accept that they were carried out by Al Qaeda. It was only when they were presented with irrefutable evidence of its ability to carry out attacks in Turkey that they finally began to devote resources to monitoring and counteracting Al-Qaeda activity in Turkey.81
One could easily reverse the implied causality and argue that the attacks were planned in order to justify increased police and military resources for the “war on terrorism”, the title given for the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well for NATO’s quest for global hegemony.
Considering the Western Alliance’s global quest, we note that the majority of terrorist attacks attributed to al Qaeda or groups linked to it since Sept. 11, 2001 have taken place in Muslim countries — including Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen.82 It is difficult to remain oblivious to the fact that Al Qaeda has essentially refrained from killing Jews83 and its attacks on U.S. installations caused mainly the deaths of non-Americans.84 This fact stands in a glaring discrepancy to the fatwa allegedly issued by Osama bin Laden and his colleagues in 1998, which stated the alleged duty “for every Muslim…to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military.”85
E. Arrests, interrogations and trials
On 31 May 2004 the trial of 69 defendants, accused of forming a terror cell, linked to Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam in Iraq, began in Istanbul. Some of them, though not all, were charged in connection with the Istanbul bombings of 2003.
The interrogations and trials of the suspects may be perceived as a closed black box. Outsiders cannot gauge the amount of threats and promises that might have gone into preparing the suspects for trial. The entire process was and remains highly opaque. The case-law of the European Court of Human Rights provides ample grounds for suspecting the Turkish law-enforcement and judicial authorities of tweaking the facts to a political agenda.
Whatever evidence there is about arrests, interrogations and trials can be adduced from what transpired in open court.
First, we note that many of the defendants admitted in court attending training camps in Afghanistan, yet – as reported by the BBC – “ all but one man denied any part in the Istanbul attacks.”86 According to another BBC report, the “main defendants have been protesting their innocence, making long, often ideological final speeches.”87 The court did not give much credence to their denial and imposed on them long prison sentences.
The question remains: Why would they deny their participation in the attacks, if they actually participated in preparing the attacks? Their denial was certainly not prompted by the fear of longer sentences: Some of the defendants who emphatically denied foreknowledge of the Istanbul bombings – Adnan Ersoz, Baki Yigit, Fevzi Yitiz, Osman Eken and Yusuf Polat – were nevertheless sentenced to life imprisonment. It should be added that the defendants did not attempt to deny their overall jihadist views. The most plausible explanation, vindicated by the absence of forensic evidence, is that they truly did not have anything to do with the attacks.
Second, and probably more important, is the question whether the prosecution was able to prove the defendants’ involvement in the bombings. Unfortunately, there exists no publicly verifiable evidence proving such involvement. Nor did the court settle the numerous anomalies and contradictions presented above. Finally, it has not been shown what interest or motive true Muslims, including so-called jihadists, could have in carrying out bombings that would cause Muslims to die on Ramadan and strengthen the collaboration of Turkish, Israeli and Western government in their war on Islamic nations. It is difficult to take seriously the explanation that the attackers intended to kill only Jews and British officials but bungled their operations in four separate locations.
Could Osman Karahan, the lawyer who represented the defendants, shed some light on these issues? Karahan died unfortunately in dubious circumstances. According to unverifiable news reports he was killed in Aleppo, Syria, in August 2012 while fighting along jihadists against the Syrian regime.88
Here is an overview of the individuals who were charged in connection with the Istanbul 2003 bombings:
Adnan Ersoz: He was allegedly captured on 15 December 2003 as he tried to enter Turkey. The BBC’s Jonny Dymond, in Istanbul, said Ersoz was the most senior figure to have been detained in the investigation into the Istanbul bombing.89 He was charged with “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order by force” and “for helping to build the truck bombs” that exploded in November 2003. He denied, however, foreknowledge of the attacks and claimed that at the time he was in Iraq supporting anti-US insurgents. On 17 February 2007, the Turkish court sentenced Adnan Ersoz for life imprisonment.
Baki Yigit: It is not known when he was arrested. He was charged with “helping to build the truck bombs” that exploded in November 2003. He denied, however, any part in these attacks. On 16 February 2007 he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Fevzi Yitiz: According to news reports he went to Iran and returned to Turkey in order to surrender to the authorities. He was charged with “helping to build the truck bombs” that exploded in November 2003. He denied, however, any part in these attacks. On 16 February 2007 he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Harun Ilhan: He was reportedly captured in southwest Turkey (no date given). He was charged for participation in the Istanbul bombings’ plot. He was the only defendant who “took responsibility for the bombings”, whatever that meant. In 2004, according to Reuters, Harun Ilhan told the court: “I am proud of being a member of al Qaeda…I am responsible for the (Istanbul) explosions along with Habib Aktas and Gurcan Bac.”90 In his closing arguments in court, Ilhan criticized Turkey’s secular system and expressed hope for the establishment of an Islamic state. On 16 February 2007 he was convicted and sentenced to 67 consecutive life sentences.
Osman Eken: Was already in prison by 24 Dec 2003. He was charged with “helping to build the truck bombs” that exploded in November 2003. He denied, however, any part in these attacks. On 16 February 2007 he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Yusuf Polat: Allegedly arrested on 25 November 2003 when trying to leave Turkey. He was charged with “helping to build the truck bombs” that exploded in November 2003. He denied, however, any part in these attacks. On 16 February 2007 he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
According to official reports the four men who allegedly participated in the Istanbul bombings as suicide attackers were: Mesud Cabuk (Beth Israel synagogue), Gokhan Elaltuntas (Neve Shalom synagogue), Feridun Ugurlu (British consulate) and Ilyas Kuncak (HSBC building).
Other suspects are said to have escaped, including Gurcan Bac, Azad Ekinci and Habib Akdaş [or Aktas] (said to have died in combat in Iraq).
A further defendant who was reportedly sentenced to life imprisonment is Louai al-Saqa (or Sakka). Louai, who denied involvement in the Istanbul bomb plot, is, however, a highly dubious figure, widely considered as a double or triple agent of Turkish, Syrian and U.S. intelligence services. It is difficult to believe that such an agent would quietly accept to be imprisoned for life after serving his masters. Did the court inflict on Louai a fake life sentence in order to conceal his true role? The suspicion cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is noteworthy that news media did not report the existence of Louai al-Saqa (al-Sakka) before the trials.
Two categories of conclusions can be gleaned from the above account. The first category are inescapable inferences and the second category are conjectural.
Undisputed are the following facts:
1. A number of facts remains unsettled. Among these are the colors and makes of the trucks that reportedly exploded in November 2003; whether the trucks stopped and parked before the explosions or were moving when the explosions took place; whether one or more drivers of these trucks were seen walking away before the explosions; what was the composition of the explosives; how the identities of the alleged bombers were determined; where and how were the bombs assembled; and more.
2. No eyewitnesses have come forward to confirm the color and make of the trucks that parked in front of the synagogues.
3. No security video, depicting the trucks that parked in front of the bombed buildings, were released.
4. The Turkish authorities could not point to any plausible motive the defendants may have had for mounting attacks foreseeable to cause the deaths of many Muslims, and that on Ramadan!
5. The Turkish authorities failed to reveal the role played by Louai al-Saqa in the various terrorist operations.
Generally, it is reasonable to presume that a criminal act would be committed by those who could, in one or another way, gain from it. It is certainly the case that no bona fide Muslim could remotely gain from randomly killing innocent Jews and Muslims. Who had a vested interest in such bombings?
• Those who wanted to discredit Islamic forces in Turkey, particularly the Turkish military.
• Those who sought to create a climate of insecurity prompting the population to seek a stronger role for the police and the military, particularly the Turkish police and military.
• Those who wanted to push Turkey into more aggressive policies towards Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly the United States.
• Those who wanted to demonstrate that antisemitism is prevalent in Turkey, particularly Israel.
According to a Hurriyet article of 5 August 2010, files uncovered in the investigation into a 2003 military plot to overthrow the Turkish government, referred to plans that “included bombing two major mosques in Istanbul, an assault on a military museum by people disguised as religious extremists and the raising of tension with Greece through an attack on a Turkish plane that was to be blamed on the Aegean neighbor.”91 The aim of such operations was said to “spark political chaos and justify a military takeover”.92 The Turkish military claimed, however, that their plans had been merely a “theoretical scenario” to help them plan for potential political unrest.93 Such explanation is ludicrous, for bombing mosques and contriving an attack on a Turkish plane does not help suppressing popular unrest.
U.S. author Gareth Jenkins, who followed the above case in detail, published under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and the Sweden-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, a detailed study of “what has become known as the Ergenekon case.” The Ergenekon case made headlines, including in Western media, and led to the arrest of top former military leaders in Turkey and the massive resignation of other military leaders. It represents a deep crisis in Turkish contemporary history.
According to the public prosecutors handling the case – as presented by Jenkins – Ergenekon is a vast organization which has penetrated virtually every aspect of Turkish life and is committed to destabilizing and eventually overthrowing the government of the Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prosecutors maintain that, in addition to carrying out terrorist attacks in its own right, Ergenekon is involved in extortion and narcotics trafficking and effectively controls not only the Turkish underworld but virtually every militant group that has committed an act of violence in Turkey over the last 20 years – from the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) through the Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party – Front (DHKP-C) to numerous violent Islamist groups and organizations.
Jenkins traces the origin of the Turkish “Deep State” to “NATO’s attempts during the early years of the Cold War to create clandestine ‘stay-behind’ forces in member states.” These forces would then form the foundations for a resistance movement in the event of an invasion and occupation by the forces of the Warsaw Pact. Often referred to as ‘Gladio’ organizations, after the force which was created in Italy and was the first to be publicly acknowledged, most were established in the 1950s and remained one of NATO’s most closely guarded secrets through to the end of the Cold War.
The Turkish “stay behind” force was based on what became known as the Özel Harp Dairesi (Special Warfare Unit or ÖHD). The ÖHD was formally founded by a September 27, 1952, decision of the Milli Savunma Yüksek Kurulu (Supreme Council for National Defense or MSYK) although it did not become operational until 1953.94
The forces mentioned by Jenkins operated in the following manner: “When officers were selected for ÖHD training, their unit commanders were told only that they had been temporarily seconded to other duties. After they had completed their training, the officers returned to their units to resume a standard career path and work their way up through the military hierarchy. In theory at least, they were expected never to reveal to their colleagues either that that had received ÖHD training or that they were now performing a dual function: namely, combining the roles and responsibilities of a conventional member of the Turkish Armed Forces with those of the ÖHD.95
The creation of the ÖHD was a NATO initiative. Similar forces were established in most Western European countries. p. 16 Until the early 1970s, most of the financing for the ÖHD’s activities appears to have come from the U.S.; and very few people in Turkey were even aware of the ÖHD’s existence.96
Even if its precise extent is unclear, the involvement of the ÖHD networks in the factional violence of the 1970s did exhibit what were to remain the defining characteristics of Deep State activity over the following decades; namely, not a highly centralized and tightly controlled campaign directed by a cabal of senior figures but a culture of immunity in which individuals and small groups were able to operate with almost complete autonomy against targets they knew others in the ÖHD-created networks regarded as enemies of the Turkish state – and could be confident that a combination of tradecraft and connections to influential figures in the apparatus of state would ensure that they were never prosecuted.97
Yet, as he moves from relating early practices to dealing with the current period and particularly with efforts by the Turkish authorities to clean up the historical record, Gareth appears to defend the Turkish military against accusations that he designates as conspiracy theories “believed, not least by those handling the investigation”98. As an example of prevalent conspiracy theories in Turkey he writes: “the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in exile in the U.S. since 1999. Gülen has consistently denounced violence in the name of religion and called for dialogue rather than conflict with members of other faiths… As a result, Gülen and his followers are particularly prone to conspiracy theories. Gülen’s repeated condemnations of violence take place in the context of a culture of denial, where almost every act of Islamist terrorism in Turkey is attributed to the machinations of dark forces seeking either to discredit Islam or destabilize the country.”99 As a further proof of the prevalence of conspiracy theories in Turkey the author writes: “In common with some non-Muslim conspiracy theorists, many Turkish Islamists still refuse to believe that the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 were carried out by Al Qaeda.”100 The problem, however, is that the author is merely asserting his own beliefs as if they were facts and tars others who do not share his beliefs as conspiracy theorists. The author may genuinely believe that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out by al Qaeda and that Islamists perpetrated terrorist attacks in Turkey, but belief cannot supplant hard and verifiable evidence.
The above military plot, designated as Ergenekon, may be a residue of Turkey’s Gladio forces NATO had established during the Cold War. Gladio forces in Italy and Belgium have reportedly engaged in covert terrorism activities, which were at the time blamed on leftist groups.101 It is thus plausible that the Istanbul bombing attacks were directed by the above military circles, as part of a strategy of tension that would pave the way for overthrowing the Islamic government in Turkey and restoring military rule. The military plotters certainly possessed a motive to carry out the bombings, the facilities to execute these operations and the means to intimidate witnesses. Due to the documented links between these military circles with Turkish police, the judiciary and the media, they also possessed more than anyone else the means to ensure the cover-up the attacks. The Istanbul bombings should, therefore, be presumed to have been a classical false-flag operation.
False-flag terrorism can be presumed when (a) the alleged perpetrators cannot be brought to trial; (b) no bona fide organisation claims the attacks; (c) the alleged perpetrators did not make any specific demands; (d) no known organisation celebrated the alleged perpetrators as martyrs. The Istanbul bombings fulfill these conditions. That a single person (Harun Ilhan) confessed to have “taken responsibility” for the bombings102, does not suffice to reverse the aforementioned presumption, particularly as there exists no reliable independent corroboration of that person’s participation in actual acts facilitating the bombings.
1. Darren Butler, “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at least 25 Dead”, Reuters, November 20, 2003, as cited by Al Jazeera
2. Don Singleton, “Twin Temple Blasts Kill 20 In Istanbul”, Daily News (N.Y.), November 16, 2003, at http://articles.nydailynews.com/2003-11-16/news/18248507_1_neve-shalom-synagogue-al-qaeda
3. Dave Goldiner, “It was a holy terror Turkey attack shattered bar mitzvah joy”, Daily News (N.Y.), 17 November 2003, at http://articles.nydailynews.com/2003-11-17/news/18236717_1_bar-mitzvah-suicide-bombers-al-qaeda
4. “Turkey: Bombings may be work of foreign terrorists”, CNN, 15 November 2003, at http://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/11/15/turkey.explosion/
5. “Newspapers given al-Qaeda statements”, The Age (Australia), 17 November 2003, at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/17/1069027021740.html
6. James Helicke, “Twin car bombs hit synagogues in Turkey”, The Age (Australia), 16 November 2003, at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/15/1068674442642.html
7. Don Singleton, supra n.
9. “Istanbul residents fearful, angry, defiant after twin bombings terrorize city during Ramadan”, Baptist Press, 20 November 2003, at http://www.bpnews.net/printerfriendly.asp?ID=17130
10. James Helicke, “Twin car bombs hit synagogues in Turkey”, The Age (Australia), November 16, 2003, at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/15/1068674442642.html
12. “Responding to Terrorist Attacks: Trends in European Response Scenarios”, New York Police Department (NYPD) Counterterrorism Bureau, TTAG, October 6, 2008, p. 3
13. Luke Harding and Helena Smith, supra n. at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/nov/23/turkey.terrorism
14. “Five explosions rock Istanbul, Turkey”, People’s Daily, 20 November 2003, at http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200311/20/eng20031120_128670.shtml
15. Nicholas Birch, supra n.
16. Nicholas Birch, supra n.
19. Luke Harding, “How the bombers exposed fatal flaw in British security”, The Guardian, November 22, 2003, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/nov/22/alqaida.politics
20. Luke Harding and Helena Smith, “The softest target”, The Guardian, November 23, 2003, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/nov/23/turkey.terrorism
21. “Syria expels Turkey bomb suspects”, BBC, November 30, 2003, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3251572.stm
22. Andrew Purvis and Johanna Mcgeary, “Knocking On Europe’s Door”, Time Magazine, November 24, 2003, at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,548948,00.html
23. Justus Leicht and Peter Schwarz, “Terror blasts in Istanbul: atrocities aid Bush’s ‘war on terror’”, WSWS, 21 November 2003
26. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead…”, supra n.
27. “Suicide bombers blamed for Turkey synagogue attacks”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2003
28. James C. Helicke, supra n.
29. Haaretz, 18 November 2003, supra n.
30. Daren Butler, “Afghan link in Istanbul bombings, says Turkey”, The Age (Australia), 19 November 2003, at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/11/18/1069027115635.html
31. Craig S. Smith, “Turks Identify Synagogue Bombers and Look for Qaeda Link”, The New York Times, 20 November 2003, at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/20/world/turks-identify-synagogue-bombers-and-look-for-qaeda-link.html
32. Haaretz, 18 November 2003, supra n.
34. “Turkey asks global aid in attack probe”, Chicago Tribune, November 24, 2003, at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-11-24/news/0311240194_1_synagogue-attacks-bingol-security-forces
35. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead…”, supra n.
36. “Police quiz Istanbul bomb suspect”, BBC, December 14, 2003, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3317331.stm
37. “Syria expels Turkey bomb suspects”, BBC, November 30, 2003, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3251572.stm
40. “Turkey asks global aid in attack probe”, Chicago Tribune, November 24, 2003, at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-11-24/news/0311240194_1_synagogue-attacks-bingol-security-forces
41. “Turkish court charges prime suspect in Istanbul synagogue attack”, ABC News, 30 November 2003, at http://www.google.de/imgres?q=2003+istanbul+neve+shalom+bombing&um=1&hl=de&sa=N&tbo=d&biw=1392&bih=824&tbm=isch&tbnid=QZg78IH2wkk41M:&imgrefurl=http://www.abc.net.au/news/2003-11-30/turkish-court-charges-prime-suspect-in-istanbul/97918&docid=oeiqGXI2PhJG1M&imgurl=http://www.abc.net.au/news/image/97930-3×2-340×227.jpg&w=340&h=227&ei=K9_NUKj9MYz74QTDi4DQDg&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=202&vpy=285&dur=4988&hovh=181&hovw=272&tx=139&ty=107&sig=101200862266927512897&page=1&tbnh=142&tbnw=211&start=0&ndsp=36&ved=1t:429,r:8,s:0,i:112
42. “Turkey’s churches, synagogues marked in red in Sledgehammer plan”, Turkish Journal Net, 5 August 2010, at http://www.turkishjournal.net/index.php/democracy-watch/news/1837-turkeys-churches-synagogues-marked-in-red-in-sledgehammer-plan.html
43. Suzan Fraser, ”330 Turkish military officers convicted for attempted coup”, The Independent, 21 September 2012, at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/330-turkish-military-officers-convicted-for-attempted-coup-8163626.html
44. Damien McElroy,”Turkey generals accused of links to 2003 Istanbul bombing “, The Telegraph, 01 March 2010, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/7347026/Turkey-generals-accused-of-plotting-2003-Istanbul-bombing.html
45. Darren Butler, supra n.
46. Nicholas Birch, “We were buried in rubble. There were bodies everywhere’”, The Guardian, November 21, 2003, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/nov/21/alqaida.turkey
47. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead, including British Consul-General Roger Short”, Al Jazeera, November 20, 2003, at http://www.aljazeerah.info/News%20archives/2003%20News%20archives/November/20%20n/Blasts%20Hit%20Istanbul,%20at%20Least%2026%20Dead,%20including%20British%20Consul-General%20Roger%20Short.htm
48. Andrew Purvis and Johanna Mcgeary, supra n.
49. “Al Qaida linked to synagogue attacks”, Mail Online (UK), undated (probably 16 November 2003), at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-202149/Al-Qaida-linked-synagogue-attacks.html
50. Yigal Schleifer, “Bombers kill 20 in attacks on synagogues”, The Telegraph (UK), 16 November 2003, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/1446883/Bombers-kill-20-in-attacks-on-synagogues.html
51. Suzan Fraser, “Turkey investigating al-Qaida claims of responsibility for Istanbul synagogue bombings in Istanbul”, Jewish Colorado, 17 November 2003, at http://www.jewishcolorado.org/page.aspx?id=51989
52. Chicago Tribune, 17 November 2003, supra n.
53. Sebnem Arsu and Dexter Filkins, “20 in Istanbul Die in Bombings At Synagogues”, The New York Times, 18 November 2003, at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/16/international/europe/16TURK.html
54. Derya Sazak, writing in Milliyet on 16 November 2003
55. “Turkey: Bombings may be work of foreign terrorists”, CNN, 15 November 2003, at http://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/11/15/turkey.explosion/
56. Derya Sazak, writing in the Turkish daily Milliyet, 16 November 2003.
57. James C. Helicke, “Israeli foreign minister visits sites of Istanbul synagogue bombings”, Canadian Press, 16 November 2003, at http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1022847/posts
58. Jason Burke and Nicholas Birch (reporting from Istanbul), “Synagogue bombs kill 20 and threaten to destabilise Turkey”, The Guardian, 16 November 2003, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/nov/16/turkey.jasonburke; similar reports were published by other news media, based on the Turkish Anatolian news agency.
60. Catherine Collins, “Israel joins Turkey bomb probe”, The Chicago Tribune, 17 November 2003, at http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-11-17/news/0311170080_1_al-qaeda-istanbul-synagogue-attacks-interior-minister-abdulkadir-aksu
61. Jonathan Lis, Yossi Melman and Zvi Barel, “Turkey: Man who dispatched Istanbul bombers fled to Syria”, Ha’aretz, 18 November 2003, at http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1024283/posts
62. “Perpetrators were Torn into Pieces”, Hurriyet, 27 November 2003, at http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=perpetrators-were-torn-into-pieces-2003-11-27
63. James C. Helicke, supra n.
64. “Suicide bombers blamed for Turkey synagogue attacks”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2003
65. “Newspapers given al-Qaeda statements”, The Age (Australia), 17 November 2003
66. James C. Helicke, supra n.
67. “Suicide bombers blamed for Turkey synagogue attacks”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2003, at http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/17/1069004714588.html?from=storyrhs
68. Greg Goebel, “Pyrotechnics, Explosives, & Fireworks”, faqs.org, 1 July 2002, at http://www.faqs.org/docs/air/ttpyro.html
69. Sebnem Arsu and Dexter Filkins, supra n.
70. “Leaders unite to condemn terror”, BBC, 20 November 2003, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3286069.stm
72. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead…”, supra n.
73. Julie Hyland, “Britain: Media and government use Istanbul bombings to intimidate antiwar dissent”, World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), 27 November 2003, at http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/11/terr-n27.html
75. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead…”, supra n.
76. Craig S. Smith, “Explosions in Istanbul DestroyBritish Consulate and Bank;At Least 27 Killed, 400 Injured”, The New York Times, November 20, 2003, at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/20/international/20CND-TURKEY.html
77. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead…”, supra n.
78. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead…”, supra n.
79. “Blasts Hit Istanbul, at Least 26 Dead…”, supra n.
80. Nikos Christofis et al, “Terrorism and Capital Markets: The Effects of the Istanbul Bombings”, Economics of Security Working Paper 31, EUSECON, April 2010
81. Gareth H. Jenkins, “Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation”, Central Asia–Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, August 2009, p. 27
82. “Turks Bust Alleged Qaeda Plotter”, CBS, December 17, 2003, at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/12/17/terror/main588982.shtml
83. In the attacks on the synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia in 2002, no Jews died. In the attacks outside the synagogues in Turkey in 2003, most victims were Muslims.
84. In the attacks on the East African U.S. embassies, most victims were local Africans. There exists no hard evidence that the attacks of 9/11 were perpetrated by Muslims, or Al Qaeda. No person has yet been convicted for participation in these attacks. The U.S. government has failed to indict Osama bin Laden for these attacks. The FBI admitted in June 2006 that it possesses no hard evidence of a connection between Osama bin Laden and 9/11.
85. Osama Bin Laden’s 1998 Fatwa, at http://www.mideastweb.org/osamabinladen2.htm
86. “Seven jailed for Turkey bombings”, BBC, 17 February 2007, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6370117.stm
87. Sarah Rainsford, “Verdict due in Turkey bomb trial”, BBC, February 16, 2007, #115
88. Karen Hodgson, “Lawyer who defended suspected al Qaeda militants in Turkey killed in Aleppo”, The Long War Journal, 6 August 2012, at http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2012/08/lawyer_who_defended.php#ixzz2FFdhxRRA
89. “Turkey charges ‚key bomb suspect”, BBC, 19 December 2003, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3333501.stm
90. “TV: Al Qaeda member says was behind Istanbul bombings”, Reuters, September 13, 2004, #160
91. “Missing Sledgehammer report in Turkish military’s ‚cosmic room’”, Hurriyet Daily News, 5 August 2010, at http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=missing-8216sledgehammer8217-seminar-plan-in-8216cosmic-room8217-2010-08-05
92. “Turkey: Military chiefs resign en masse”, BBC, 29 July 2011, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14346325
94. Gareth Jenkins, supra n. xx, p.14
95. Ibid. p. 15
96. Ibid. p. 17-18
97. Ibid. p. 18
98. Ibid.p. 47
99. Ibid., p. 26-7
100. Ibid., p. 26
102. The formula “taking responsibility for the bombings”, an ambiguous way to admit participation, is being referred widely by mass media to his alleged participation. This ambiguity appears intentional for it actually does not specify anything in particular.