Turkey Held Hostage By Fears Of Terror

A stalled car on a main bridge, gun-toting security outside embassies, Turkey's citizens are on edge waiting for the next terror attack

A police officer stands guard in front of the German Consulate in Istanbul. — REUTERS
Mar 18, 2016 at 3:36 PM ET

“There’s no way to stop this thing,” said Mehmet, an Istanbul shopkeeper on his cigarette break, nodding towards the German Consulate across the street.

The consulate, a few blocks north of Taksim Square, is usually bristling with Turks, Iraqis, and Syrians hoping for visas for Germany. During a recent Thursday afternoon it is surrounded by scores of police in body armor, toting sub-machine guns. “The Germans, they are not stupid, they must have some information about an attack, but there is nothing they can do,” Mehmet said with a shrug of the shoulders. He declined to give his full name.

An armored personnel carrier is parked at the entrance, and news vans watch the scene unfold. Reporters watching are as nervous as the locals that the consulate would be the next target in a string of attacks carried out by a potpourri of armed groups whose deadly missions have brought Turkey to the edge.

On television pop music videos are interspersed with nationalist spots urging viewers to be vigilant. “Terrorism: Let’s all stop this together,” read giant banners strung across mosques in Istanbul, reminding worshippers to call authorities if they see anything suspicious.

More The Latest Threat To Freedom In Turkey

The most recent major attack to hit Turkey occurred on Sunday, when 24-year-old Seher Cagla Demir, a student from eastern Turkey, drove a car packed with 300kg (660 pounds) of explosives, to a busy bus stop in central Ankara, triggering an explosion that killed her and 37 bystanders. An offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), called the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The group said security forces nearby had been the target and that TAK had “hundreds of members ready to conduct suicide attacks” in response to ongoing Turkish military operations against the PKK in the country’s southeast.

“The attack in Ankara means, for ordinary people, there is a very high risk of being affected now,” says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based researcher with the Silk Road Institute. “The PKK appears to have a greater appetite for killing civilians. This was such a large IED [improvised explosive device] it’s clear any civilians walking around had a high risk of being killed.”

Just last month TAK carried out another suicide bombing in Ankara, killing 28 people, including civilians, traveling in a military bus. In Ankara, Istanbul, and a string of cities in the southeast, ex-pats, tourists, and locals have witnessed a steady stream of attacks from groups that span the political spectrum, that have killed hundreds of civilians in some of Turkey’s most famous locations.

More Turkey Blames Deadly Ankara Blast On Kurdish Militants

At the Arasta Bazaar next to the Blue Mosque, shopkeepers stood in their doorways watching the faces of a handful of shoppers meandering through the market. “Terrorism, that’s why this place is empty,” said one man selling jewelry. “I hope in the summer things will pick up again, but because of [what happened in] Ankara, right now it’s too slow.”

On March 15, hundreds of thousands of commuters watched as police shut down traffic on the Bosphorus Bridge because a car had been left unattended. It emerged that the car had simply run out of fuel, but it had managed to shut down one of the busiest thoroughfares in a city of 14 million for the better part of an afternoon.

Jenkins says its extremely difficult to secure a city like Istanbul. “It’s not like Baghdad, you can’t just make a Green Zone, you can’t cordon off a perimeter and check every car, life would come to a halt.” He says there are other problems with Turkey’s counterterrorism approach.

Hundreds of suspected PKK members have been detained in the last few months, but he says they are not connected with planning attacks. Bomb makers aren’t being arrested, Jenkins said, “instead, we see them rounding up people, a lot of whom are probably innocent, in a knee jerk reaction, after every attack.”

More Terrorism In Turkey: A Brief History

“And what the state is doing in the East is extremely counterproductive,” says Jenkins, referring to eastern districts in Turkey, where troops are locked in battle to root out PKK militants. Areas of south-eastern Turkey have been under siege since a cease fire between the PKK and the Turkish government collapsed last summer. Since then, officials say 219 security forces have been killed, along with 1,250 so-called militants from the guerilla group.

That conflict is directly linked to what is happening in Ankara and Istanbul, said Jenkins. “There is a lot of frustration there, and militants are bringing the war to the West.”

For many others though, life in Turkey continues as usual. “I’m not worried about bombings,” said Alina Kariyeva, a Russian studying Turkish in Istanbul. “I am still more worried about scary guys I pass in the street.” She says she intends to remain in Turkey for the foreseeable future. “The terrorists want us to be afraid,” she said. “If you are afraid, they succeed.”