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Istanbul Bombings: Kurds and Erdogan Playing Political Football

The Besiktas bombing raises important questions about counter-terrorism strategy and truth telling in Turkey.

December 12, 2016

The Besiktas bombing raises important questions about counter-terrorism strategy and truth telling in Turkey.

Twin bombs in central Istanbul may not have had the newly refurbished Vodafone Arena stadium of Besiktas JK, one of Turkey’s top football teams, as its main target.

But the event underscores the propaganda value of attacking a soccer match for both jihadist and non-jihadist groups. This also raises important questions about counter-terrorism strategy.

Terrorizing the police, not (so much) the people

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a splinter of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), claimed responsibility for Saturday’s blasts that targeted police on duty to maintain security at a match between top Turkish clubs Besiktas and Bursapor.

According to reports, thirty of the 38 people killed in the attacks were riot police.

The Falcons’ operation appeared designed to maximize police casualties — and minimize civilian casualties. In that regard, they were very different from other acts of terrorism by jihadist groups.

The Islamic State’s attack on the Stade de France in Paris in November last year — and its reportedly subsequent foiled attempts to bomb international matches in Belgium and Germany – aimed at civilian casualties.

American-Turkish soccer scholar and writer John Konuk Blasing reporting from Istanbul during the blasts noted that the attacks occurred two hours after the match — attended by more than 40,000 people — had ended.

Erdogan’s analysis is not correct

Mr. Blasing argued that the timing of the two bombs called into question President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s effort to capitalize on the attacks by asserting that they had been “aimed to maximize casualties,” irrespective of their identity.

Blasing reasoned that “the target of the stadium was chosen in order to send a message, a twisted and violent message that says, ‘We can do worse damage if we wanted to. Right now, we are attacking the state, not citizens. But if we want to target citizens, we can do that too.'”

Erdogan’s assertion that the Istanbul attacks sought to cause random casualties served two purposes:

1. All forms of political violence the same?

Erdogan is keen, for his own purposes, to lump together all forms of political violence. He does not want to distinguish between jihadist attacks that seek to cause maximum civilian casualties and, in the case of militant Turkish Kurdish groups, the targeting of a state.

Erdogan ideally wants no one to remember that he has long suppressed Kurdish political and cultural rights and cynically derailed promising peace talks in June 2015. That move came about when it served the electoral needs of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The breakdown in the talks occurred as Mr. Erdogan was preparing for a second round of elections in November of that year after June polls had produced a hung parliament.

2. PKK not living up to its commitment

To be sure, the Turkish government and the PKK share equal blame for the collapse of the six-year old peace talks that followed the killing by the PKK of three Turkish policemen in June 2015.

Similarly, south-eastern Turkey continued to experience sporadic violence during the ceasefire agreed upon at the outset of the talks. The PKK has not fully lived up to its commitment to disarm and withdraw from Turkish territory.

Nonetheless, analysis with a supercomputer of two years’ worth of geospatial data that sought to establish how militant Kurdish groups perceived threats suggested that the ceasefire on Turkish soil had been largely successful prior to the killing of the policemen.

Erdogan’s analysis vs. Big Data analysis

International relations scholar Akin Unver, who conducted the analysis noted that the PKK had focused its military activity in 2014 and early 2015 on fighting the Islamic State in Syria in a bid to further the national aspirations of its Syrian Kurdish brothers.

Amid Turkish and Kurdish doubts about the sincerity of their interlocutors in the peace talks, PKK support for the Syrian Kurds challenged Turkish policy that often was far more focused on stymieing the rise of Kurdish nationalism and the emergence of Syrian Kurdish entity than on defeating the Islamic State that it at times viewed as a bulwark against the Kurds.

The killing of the Turkish policemen was the convenient straw that broke the camel’s back.

Mr. Unver’s analysis has a bearing on Mr. Erdogan’s effort to lump all political violence together. To be sure, distinctions do not justify the use of violence, nor does the targeting of police officers rather than civilians give it any greater moral value.

The distinction is nonetheless significant in establishing the facts on the basis of which strategies to prevent escalation and the further shedding of innocent blood can be prevented.

There is a way out

More than 30 years of armed confrontation between the Turkish military and Kurdish militants in which upwards of 40,000 people have been killed have failed to resolve the conflict.

Mr. Unver’s analysis suggests the pursuit of a negotiated, political solution, however fraught, may have been a more promising approach at a time that political violence perpetrated by multiple groups has wracked Turkey.

Not counting devastating jihadist attacks, Saturday’s bombings were the sixth Kurdish operation this year.

“It is chilling that this may only be a prelude to much worse in Turkey,” Mr. Blasing noted. Much worse does not bode well and could increasingly turn soccer pitches among others into prime targets.


The timing of two blasts in Istanbul bombs called into question Erdogan’s effort to capitalize on the attacks.

Erdogan is keen, for his own purposes, to lump together all forms of political violence.

The Turkish government and the PKK share equal blame for the collapse of the six-year old peace talks.