Turkey: Embassy bombers cling to Cold War ideology
Istanbul • Long before al-Qaida, when the Cold War gripped the world, leftist terrorists staged spectacular attacks in a doomed campaign to overthrow governments and impose their vision of a socialist utopia. The bulk of these extremist groups eventually drifted into oblivion, gutted by police pressure, internal rifts and an ideology undercut by communism's fall.
In Turkey, one cult-like group didn't get the memo.
Decades on, a band of outlaws wedded to this antique brand of militancy has been blamed for a suicide bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara that also killed a Turkish guard and seriously wounded a television journalist, the latest in a grim sequence of bombings and assassinations that failed, over and over, to bring the triggermen closer to their revolutionary goals.
Some analysts have speculated that the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, or DHKP-C, carried out Friday's attack in anger at NATO member Turkey's cooperation with Washington, the old "imperialist" nemesis of leftist radicals everywhere, in efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. The consensus is that the group is a throwback, deaf to historical shifts and political nuance, almost a novelty if it weren't so deadly.
Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in the United States, said the group is trapped in an "ideological time warp" and falls "outside of our comfortable narratives," meaning actions such as the embassy bombing might have only a glancing connection with wider, contemporary events and trends.
"They've cut themselves off from the wider society and they're talking to each other in a soundproof box that allows them to think of themselves as having more connections" to public aspirations, Eissenstat said. He wryly observed that the group's clunky name and Turkish acronym, rather a mouthful, are emblematic of just how out of touch it is with the modern, message-conscious world.
The group's flags include the hammer and sickle and red star designs, which date from the Russian revolutionary era in the early 20th century.
The DHKP-C claimed responsibility for the embassy attack in a statement posted on a website linked to the group, saying bomber Ecevit Sanli carried out the act of "self-sacrifice." The group called itself "immortal" and said, "Down with imperialism and the collaborating oligarchy." But it gave no reason for attacking the U.S. Embassy.
How is it that groups like Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades of Italy became extinct while the DHKP-C clung to its quixotic mission, even if it has been relatively quiet in recent years? The reason may lie in Turkey's polarized history: big battles between left- and right-wing cadres in the 1970s that subsided after a military coup, virulent anti-Americanism that reached a peak around the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the loose interplay among Kurdish and other militant groups, and lingering suspicions about alleged reactionaries embedded deep in the old state apparatus.
Turkey today is a rising power with a far more stable political landscape, a robust economy that allows it to project soft power beyond its borders and a bid to join the European Union that, while stalled, still represents its outsized ambitions.
"The Turks will take this to some degree as a slap in the face because they'll feel that things like this shouldn't happen in their country," James F. Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador in Turkey between 2008 and 2010, said of the embassy attack.
The story of the bomber, 40-year-old Sanli, personalizes a besieged yet hardened group that still apparently finds recruits in urban centers and, according to Turkish officials, collects funds from sympathizers in Europe, where there are large ethnic Turkish communities.
Sanli spent several years in prison on terrorism charges but was released on probation in 2001 after being diagnosed with a hunger strike-related brain disorder. He had fled Turkey, but returned at some point with a fake ID, Interior Muammer Guler said.
NTV, a private broadcaster, said he is believed to have come from Germany, crossing into Turkey from Greece.
Officials said Sanli was arrested in 1997 for alleged involvement in attacks on Istanbul's police headquarters and a military guesthouse, and jailed on charges of membership in the DHKP-C group.
While in prison awaiting trial, Sanli took part in a major hunger strike that led to the deaths of dozens of inmates, according to the Ankara governor's office. The protesters opposed a maximum-security system in which prisoners were held in small cells instead of large wards.
Sanli was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and released on probation in 2001, following legislation allowing hunger strikers with the disorder to get treatment. The syndrome is a malnutrition-related brain illness that affects vision, muscle coordination and memory and can cause hallucinations.
Officials said Sanli, who was convicted in absentia in 2002, had used 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds) of TNT for the suicide attack and also detonated a hand grenade.
Some Turkish officials have linked the attack to the arrest last month of dozens of suspected members of the DHKP-C group, including some lawyers.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the bombing was related to U.S. support for Turkey's harsh criticism of the regime in Syria, whose civil war has forced tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to seek shelter in Turkey. NATO has deployed six Patriot anti-missile systems to protect Turkey from a possible spillover of the violence. The United States, Netherlands and Germany are each providing two Patriot batteries.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said the Syrian regime, which had backed terrorist groups in Turkey, including autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels, during the Cold War and the 1990s, recently revived ties with these groups.
Eissenstat, the American analyst, was skeptical that the Syrian regime would direct DHKP-C attacks, let alone risk a heavy price for targeting American interests.
"If Syria wants to poke Turkey in the eye, they're not going to do it through these guys, they're going to do it through Kurdish groups," he said. "If you're Syrian intelligence, the last thing you want to do is stir up the Americans."
DHKP-C's forerunner, Devrimci Sol, or Revolutionary Left, was formed in 1978 as a Marxist group openly opposed to the United States and NATO. Attacks included the killing of several Americans, including a retired U.S. Air Force officer.
The group, designated as a terrorist organization by the West, changed its name to DHKP-C in 1994. Two years later, its militants shot dead prominent Turkish industrialist Ozdemir Sabanci and two aides in his office.
Friday's bombing was the second deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic post in five months. On Sept. 11, 2012, terrorists attacked a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The attackers in Libya were suspected to have ties to Islamist extremists, and one is in custody in Egypt.
U.S. diplomatic facilities in Turkey have been targeted previously by terrorists. In 2008, an attack blamed on al-Qaida-affiliated militants outside the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul left three assailants and three policemen dead.
Sadik Sanli, the embassy bomber's father, said he hadn't heard from his son in 15 years and that he fought the state out of "ignorance."
"What can I do?" the father told Turkey's Anadolu agency. "He threw himself into the fire. He burned himself as well as me."