Ten days before the New Year's attack on an Istanbul night club for which the so-called Islamic State now claims responsibility, it posted a grisly video on social media showing its forces burning two Turkish soldiers alive—and coupled it with a warning of worse atrocities to come.
Turkey “has become the land for Jihad,” a Turkish ISIS fighter calling himself Abu Hasan declared in the immolation video. He urged the group’s sympathizers in Turkey to “burn it, blow it up and destroy it.” It may well have been a signal to proceed with the attack early Sunday, which killed at least 39 and wounded 65.
“A hero soldier of the caliphate attacked one of the most famous nightclubs, where Christians celebrated their pagan holiday” and “transformed their celebration into mourning,” the group said in a message posted on an Internet app early Monday.
The message, a rare example of ISIS taking responsibility for an attack in Turkey, went on to condemn the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, where its forces along with Syrian rebels now encircle the ISIS-held town of Al Bab. “The government of Turkey should know that the blood of Muslims, which it is targeting with its planes and its guns, will cause a fire in its home by God’s will,” it said.
The Turkish government, which has clamped down severely on news reporting on the assault, responded defiantly, vowing to continue the cross-border operation.
“Those who cannot digest our success on the ground are the ones shaping this terror act,” said Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy prime minister, following a meeting of Turkey’s top security officials. “Wherever it goes, we will continue our cross-border operations,” he said, naming the border town of Jarablus, which Turkish forces entered in August, Al Bab, which they hope to capture soon, and Manbij, a town where Turkey intends to oust the U.S.-allied Kurdish militia that has controlled it since August.
But Kurtulmus coupled a pledge to continue Turkey’s ground assault on ISIS with a veiled attack on powers that he said are supporting the terror groups. He did not name any country.
“If those behind the terrorist organizations would not support them for at least a week, they would all collapse,” he said.
He referred to ISIS, which since mid-2013 has freely moved about Syria and taken control of whole sectors of the country without opposition from the Syrian government. And he referred to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, whose Syrian branch is allied with the Syrian government, supported by Iran, and is currently collaborating with the United States in fighting ISIS. Meanwhile, PKK is conducting an armed uprising in southern Turkey and has taken credit through an affiliate for terror attacks elsewhere in the country.
Kurtulmus revealed little about the attack itself, however, a well-planned assault by a lone gunman said in the Turkish media to be from Kyrgyzstan in central Asia. The gunman arrived by taxi close to the posh nightclub, retrieved his semi-automatic weapon from a satchel in the trunk and then approached the club, which is located on the European side of the Bosphorus strait separating Europe from Asia.
Killing a policeman and at least one bodyguard outside the club, he entered the club and for seven minutes fired on patrons close both near the entrance and on its second floor, returning to the ground floor to continue the shooting Police said he used up six cartridges and fired 180 rounds at the night club patrons. He then changed his clothes. Fleeing the scene, he hailed a taxi and got out in Kuruçeşme, a nearby neighborhood claiming he had no funds.
That he could carry out and escape after such an attack in a city which had put tens of thousands of police on patrol baffled many Turks and has added to a sense of crisis in a country which is fighting a war on multiple fronts, recovering from an attempted coup blamed on a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and is still investigating other acts of violence like the assassination of the Russian ambassador by an off-duty policeman on Dec. 19. Turkey has been in a state of emergency since July, after the failed coup, and now that is likely to be extended, government officials said.
A measure of the tension was the gag order imposed on Turkish media about any details of the night club attack, coupled with threats against anyone posting supposed support for terror actions on the social media.
Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım warned of “consequences” for those who violate the order. “It must be known that actions praising terror are crimes and have penal sanctions,” Yıldırım said on his official Twitter account.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ also warned that “making the propaganda of terror and terrorist organizations constituted a crime.”
Also under threat are foreign news media reporting from Turkey. Dion Nissenbaum, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was detained and held for two and a half days in solitary confinement apparently after he tweeted a link to images of ISIS burning the two Turkish soldiers alive. The Turkish Foreign Ministry and Erdoğan’s office did not respond to requests to explain the detention and the treatment meted out to the veteran Middle East correspondent.
Also silent was the U.S. government, which has made no statement about the detention, an extraordinary development in Turkey.
Although Turkey is actively fighting ISIS today, that wasn’t always the case. ISIS captured two key border towns on the Turkish border at the beginning of 2014, Jarablus, which Turkey seized four months ago, and Tel Abyad, which the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, captured with the help of U.S. airpower in June 2015.
But in the period ISIS was in control, ISIS operatives often transited the border between Turkey and Syria. Hayat Boumeddienne, the wife of the gunman who killed four people in Paris at a kosher supermarket the week of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015, escaped through the Turkish border town of Akcakale to Tel Abyad when it was under ISIS control.
But there have been repeated terror assaults attributed to ISIS, the most spectacular of them an attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport June 28, which killed 41.
Turkey’s problem today was summed up by Murat Yetkin, a columnist in Hurriyet, one of the few more or less independent newspapers. As Turkey toughened it policy on ISIS, he wrote Monday, “military groups active in the Syria theater may be showing their reaction by awakening the sleepers they recruited in Turkey back when they could move around more freely inside the country.”
—with additional reporting by Duygu Guvenc