Inside Turkey’s Terror ‘Santa’ Attack

As video emerges of terrorists mowing down least 39 people at a popular Istanbul nightclub, a manhunt is underway for the killers.

Osman Orsal / Reuters

PARIS—That lunatics somewhere would make themselves messengers of death as this New Year begins was to be expected at the dawn of 2017. That one of them might have been dressed as Santa Claus probably was not.

While Europe and the United States celebrated safely amid massive security precautions, Turkey, too, had readied for the worst—or thought it had. But about an hour after midnight, at least one gunman managed to shoot his way into the Reina nightclub on the edge of the Bosporus in the trendy, touristy Istanbul neighborhood of Ortaköy.

Hundreds of people were there celebrating, and by the time the staccato of gunfire and the screams of the wounded began to die down 39 people had been killed, at least 69 injured. Some reportedly had jumped into the icy Bosporus waters to try to escape. Many of the victims were foreigners.

Ortaköy, in the shadow of the enormous bridge that spans the Bosporus, is only a few minutes’ walk from luxury hotels like the Kempinski Çırağan Palace and the Four Seasons. Reina is one of the chicest clubs in the city.

The killer arrived in an Istanbul taxi, retrieved a bag from the trunk and removed the automatic barrel and began to shoot. The first to die were a policeman just outside the upscale nightclub bodyguards and a tour guide standing near the entrance, Turkish media reported.

On entering the Reina nightclub, the gunman sprayed bullets at random at the crowd. The melee lasted seven minutes—from 1:15 a.m. to 1:22 a.m., and at the end of it, there were at least 39 people were dead and 69 wounded, at least four in critical condition. And then he took off his coat and hat, dropped his gun and fled on foot, disappearing in the confusion early New Year’s Day.

Police believe only one gunman was involved in the attack, Süleyman Soylu, the interior minister, said.

At least half those killed were foreign nationals, among them as many as five Saudis, three Jordanians, three Iraqis and three Lebanese, news agencies reported.

The owner of the nightclub, Mehmet Kocarslan, said he’d posted a security guard in front of the nightclub after hearing that the U.S. government had warned citizens of the possibility of a terror attack around the New Years holiday.

Initial reports cited witnesses who saw at least one shooter dressed as Santa Claus, although the CCTV and cell phone videos that have surfaced so far do not entirely corroborate those accounts:

One shows a man wearing dark clothes firing wildly in the street, with bullets ricocheting off of cars, as he moves toward the door of the club.

Another, allegedly taken inside the club, shows a man who may have been the Santa Claus in question dressed all in white: he is wearing a knit hat with a pom-pom on top, a white cloth (or perhaps a short fake beard) over his face, and is carrying a white sack that looks almost like a pillow case as he looks around the chaotic scene in the room.

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Some witnesses said bombs or grenades were thrown in addition to carnage wrought by the gunfire.

Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim said Sunday morning that the shooter was not wearing a Santa costume, but other reports suggested he may have changed his clothes at some point.

As of Sunday midday, Istanbul time, the attacker was believed to be still on the loose. There was no claim of responsibility by Islamic State extremists—but that’s often the case with ISIS attacks inside Turkey. Yildirim said the government had indications of who carried out the attack but could not yet not assign responsibility.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also did not specify who was responsible. But, referring to a spate of terror incidents in the past month, said: “These attacks are not independent of incidents happening in our region.”

But there was little question about the basic motive: to sow fear and dismay at a moment of hope and celebration.

"We are face to face with a terror attack," Interior Minister Soylu told reporters before dawn.

President Erdoğan said Turkey would “fight to the end” against all forms of terrorism. He said the attackers were tyring to "create chaos, demoralize our people, and destabilize our country."

Whoever is responsible, it’s likely Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian government will respond by further ratcheting up security measures and curtailing freedoms, while the Turkish people show, as usual, remarkable resilience.

In the year just ended the country was hit by a failed coup against Erdoğan, the aftershocks of which are still with us, and by numerous terror attacks even bloodier than the one early Sunday morning.

At Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in June, 44 people died; at a wedding near the Syrian border in August, 54 were killed. Those were linked to ISIS. The suicide bomber at the wedding was believed to be a child. As recently as Dec. 10, a pair of bombings targeting policemen slaughtered 44 more people in Istanbul as they left a soccer stadium an attack claimed by a splinter group of Kurdish separatists.

Sadly, such attacks—or attempted attacks—are likely to grow even more frequent as the violence in neighboring Syria continues to metastasize.

On the complex, fractured battlefield there, Turkey and Russia have cut a deal reluctantly agreed to by the the Syrian government of Bashar Assad and his longtime Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies—and de facto acquiesced to by the United States—that begins to recognize areas of control.

The Russians and Assad, as a result, were able to retake the vitally important city of Aleppo, while Turkish troops and proxy forces have thwarted efforts by a Kurdish faction known as the YPG that sought to control much of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.

The YPG is in fact an extension of the PKK terrorist insurgency in Turkey, but it has also been one of the most effective forces fighting the so-called Islamic State in Syria and has received extensive backing there from the United States-led coalition’s Special Operations Forces, intelligence gathering, and close air support.

The Turkish government also says it is fighting a third terror group, linked to Fetullah Gulen, an Islamic imam now in self-exile in the U.S., whose extradition Turkey has sought for his alleged role in the July 15 failed coup attempt against the Erdogan government.

Erdoğan says the government has evidence that the young policeman who assassinated Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov on Dec. 19 was linked to “FETO,” the standard abbreviation in the pro-government media for the “Fetullah Gulen Terror Organization,” but it has not proven its case in material so far released to the public. There’s also no evidence that the al Qaeda-related group formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra had any role in the attack, as had been asserted by some Russian news media.

Meanwhile, as the Russian/Assad/Iran alliance consolidates its positions in the major urban centers of Western Syria, it may also turn its attention to the fight against ISIS. And ISIS, as is its wont, will try to hit back whenever and wherever it can against soft targets around the world.

As Daily Beast correspondent Roy Gutman points out, the nightclub attack has all the hallmarks of an ISIS operation against a soft target, and fits into the message the group sent when it released a video two days before Christmas of two captured Turkish soldiers being burned alive. A Turkish ISIS fighter proclaimed in that clip that Turkey is “the land of Jihad” and urged ISIS sympathizers to “burn it, blow it up and destroy it.

Sometimes ISIS will use trained cadre like those who carried out the Nov. 13, 2015 attacks in Paris and the Mar. 22, 2016, bombings in Brussels, or demented volunteers ready to wreak mayhem like the shooter in Orlando’s pulse nightclub in June or the driver who mowed down spectators at Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, France, in July.

The Tunisian thug who drove through a Christmas Market in Berlin two weeks ago, a teenager who attacked tourists in a train in Germany and the murderers of a priest and police officers in France appear to have been inspired and directed by “remote control,” as French security officials say, using the encrypted messaging app Telegram

So, truly, and sadly, while 2017 is a year to hope for the best, it is a time to prepare for the worst.

—with additional reporting by Roy Gutman