Turkey saw its largest mass murder by two synchronized suicide bombings at the large-scale “Labour, Peace and Democracy” rally held in the capital city Ankara on 10 October. As of this writing, there have been102 fatalities and more than four hundred injured. While the international media has reported the horrifying assault, the crisis needs a deeper examination to reveal its wider impact on the peoples of Turkey. Beginning with a discussion on the immediate context around the attack, I will move on to the larger scene of violence going back to the recent national elections and build up to the current devastation.
The mass meeting in Ankara sought to condemn the attacks and curfews that the Turkish military and special security forces have been inflicting in Kurdistan over the last couple of months. It also hoped to call for dialogue between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants before the elections, for which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant organization fighting for Kurdish liberation and self-governance, was prepared to announce ceasefire on 11 October. The pro-Kurdish and the radical democrat Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which represents a new turn in Kurdish politics with their insistence on dialogue and end to violence, was amongst the major figures in the rally’s organization. Other supporters included the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, the Turkish Medical Association, Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions, the social-democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP), other left-leaning parties, political organizations, civil society groups, students, feminists, anarchists, and socialists.
It was a nation-wide open call to oppose the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “war against terrorism” and the party leaders’ actions that had politically polarized the society. The movement was not merely to condemn the state’s infringements of law, authority, and human rights in the southeastern part of the country, but was also aimed to stand in support of labor rights and democracy, and push for a reconsideration of official peace negotiations between the state and PKK. These negotiation issues have been recently swept aside by President Erdoğan and the AKP on account of their overwhelming defeat, after a thirteen-year tenure, in the recent national elections on 7 June.
The peace rally represented the coming together of almost all segments of the population that the AKP’s policies and police practices have marginalized for over a decade now. The bomb attack sought to rupture this consolidation of oppositional voices, which consisted of figures frequently targeted by AKP’s and Erdoğan’s aggression. At the very outset, it must be noted that the significant threat this congealing solidarity posed to the state constitutes the obvious motive that implicates the AKP regime in the massacre, thus rendering its investigations into the bombings untrustworthy. Nevertheless, there is more to it. Here are some terrifying details adding to the whole outrage of this attack:
- Right before the explosions, a convicted mafia leader held a rally in support of the President and declared, “there will be blood and no mercy.” Nine hours before the explosions, a tweet on the Internet read, “the bomb will explode in Ankara.”
- Immediately after the explosions, the police entered the area and attacked hundreds of injured people with teargas. In addition to destroying the evidence, they not only hindered the administration of first aid to the injured but also prevented the ambulances from reaching the area.
- Immediately after the explosions, the Radio and Television Supreme Council, the state’s media censor, announced a ban on news coverage of the attack.
- Immediately after the explosions, several AKP members and AKP-sponsored opinion leaders speculated on how this would benefit some in new elections and how it might be a tactic of self-victimization for political gain by the Kurdish leaders.
- Immediately after the explosions, the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Justice announced that there was no security weakness or mismanagement on their part. They scoffed when a journalist asked if they would consider resignation.
- Immediately after the explosions, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that the bombers could be related to terrorist organizations, including the PKK, DAEŞ (his way of saying ISIS), and the DHKP-C (a militant-socialist group). That is to say, he ridiculously implied that the “Kurds bombed themselves,” and that they “might be collaborating with ISIS.” No other statement condemning the ISIS terror was released. Yet, Davutoğlu explained his refusal to pay a visit to the HDP’s co-chair Selahattin Demirta with the excuse that Demirtaş accused the state of having blood on its hands: for not providing security of the rally; for not investigating other recent bomb attacks; and for silently encouraging ISIS activities within the borders.
- As people were still looking for their relatives and friends in the hospitals and morgues, social media and the AKP’s media were full of defamatory comments, almost relishing the murders of those “damned Kurds and leftists.” An anchor for the official television channel of the state claimed, “There might be a few passer-by innocents amongst those who died.” (Regarding the media comments, I wanted to believe the majority of these commentators were Internet trolls. But even if they were, they contributed to the event’s trauma as written, posted, and circulated content.)
- The identities of the suicide bombers were established, only to reveal that they were part of a group from the southeastern town, Adıyaman, known and supposedly tracked by the security forces. Furthermore, it was understood that they crossed to Syria, trained in ISIS camps, and returned to organize suicide attacks. In fact, one of the attackers, Yunus Emre Alagöz, had earlier been caught by the police and released despite security intelligence from months earlier. It was Alagöz’s brother who perpetrated a previous suicide attack in Suruç, which I further discuss below.
- A confidentiality order on the judicial proceedings on the massacre was issued. This means that lawyers, journalists, and the public have no access to the files and legal process.
- When asked about the lack of security measures, Davutoğlu explained that they couldn’t arrest someone before they do the criminal deed in a democratic society. Three days prior to his words, eleven people were arrested for dancing halay, a circle dance associated with political resistance. Thousands of people have been detained and arrested by the police without evidence of crime or criminal intent. Some were accused of allegedly “insulting the president” on twitter.
- Overshadowing tactics such as Angela Merkel’s visit manipulated the course of events and the news. In the meantime, AKP leaders, members, or the media issued no explanation, correction, apology, or message of unconditional sympathy and solidarity.
State officials’ reluctance to point to the actual suspects with precision, and their reciprocal haste in insinuating and in some cases outrightly blaming the involvement of the HDP and the Kurdish resistance movement might tell you how these suicide attacks cannot solely be seen as an extension of ISIS brutality to Turkey. ISIS is only part of a larger onslaught that has escalated in intensity since the June election. Let’s roll back a bit to have a better sense of the violence leading up to this carnage.
The 7 June elections was the first time the HDP entered the race as an official party instead of contesting through its members as independent candidates. Since there is a ten percent threshold of the vote count the parties need to pass to have parliamentary representation, the HDP took the risk and implemented a grassroots campaign to coalesce Kurdish votes as well as those of leftists, activists, workers, and ethnic and religious minorities beyond Kurdistan. Some of these Kurdish votes were previously AKP voters, especially during the ceasefire and peace negotiations between the PKK and the government. Their campaign was a huge success, proving the party’s immunity to the threshold threat with a constant vote of thirteen percent. This consisted of an overwhelming majority in Kurdistan, high support in larger cities in the west, and fairly equal distribution in the rest of the country. The quick interpretation of this result was that the HDP succeeded in drawing some of the AKP votes into their party as well as fulfilled their statement to represent not only Kurdistan but all peoples of Turkey.
In the interim period from the HDP’s announcement to contest the election as a party to the day of election, AKP leaders, President Erdoğan, and the news agencies “affiliated” to the government constantly attacked the HDP, trying to portray them as the supporters of terror and a foil for the PKK, hoping to pigeonhole the party to the Kurdish region. Considering the HDP’s success in entering the parliament and barring the AKP from gaining the overwhelming majority to hold the government, it is safe to say that the AKP’s paranoid attacks were aimed to prevent this result at all costs. Hence, the anti-Kurd rhetoric of the 1990s, when the Turkish State’s dirty war against the Kurdish population was at its height, was re-circulated in AKP’s political rallies, especially in regions with more right-wing, Turkish-nationalist demographics.
These “political” assaults did not have to wait long to translate into physical violence; HDP’s province and county representatives and political rallies were attacked by anonymous groups with stones, guns, and arson, with no investigations on the attackers or arrests to follow. Two days before the election, HDP’s final and biggest rally in the largest Kurdish city, Diyarbakır/Amed, was attacked by a bomb explosion, killing four people and injuring more than a hundred. The Human Rights Foundation in Turkey announced that there have been 114 incidents of violence against the HDP and its voters in the pre-election period in total. HDP leaders and Selahattin Demirtaş showed incredible effort and equanimity to not let these overshadow the election process. The support emerged despite what immediately followed the attack.
In claiming that the HDP perpetrated this to garner victim-sympathy that would translate into more votes, the AKP’s news agencies and opinion leaders were ready to spread incredible speculations as to the identity of the bomber(s), who later turned out to be a member of the same ISIS-associated group mentioned above. But things got even more terrifying and violent following the elections. After the “surprising” election result for the AKP, Erdoğan assigned Davutoğlu the task of presiding over coalition meetings. Deliberately delayed by the AKP and further staggered by the ultra-nationalist (and ultra-anti-Kurd) Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP’s) unwillingness to negotiate and consider the HDP’s presence in the parliament with eighty members, Davutoğlu announced the impossibility of a coalition and called for a re-election.
It was in the midst of this political stagnation that a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS attacked a group of young socialist students at the border town, Suruç, killing thirty-four people. In an effort to help the recuperation of the town and the children from the war, the group was on its way to Kobane. Without interrogating why an ISIS militant would do such a thing, the Davutoğlu-led temporary government that the AKP had literally seized agreed to join US operations against ISIS. But the Turkish air forces instead reignited the battle with the PKK. And Davutoğlu justified the heavy airstrike by grouping ISIS and the PKK as terrorist threats to Turkish State security. The PKK retaliated. Violence escalated, leading to curfews and combats in Kurdish towns in the southeast.
In early September, the town of Cizre-Şırnak was amongst the brutal scenes of state violence. Over the period of a nine-day curfew and blockade, the “security forces” killed twenty of its civilians including infants, women, and elderly. While Davutoğlu announced there were no civilian casualties, the people of Cizre were keeping the bodies of their dead in refrigerators until they were allowed to get out of their confinement to bury them. Bear in mind that the Cizre population was completely disconnected from the world from having no continuous electricity, water, provisional needs, or healthcare access. A couple of weeks later, another traumatizing image and subsequent video was circulated by an anonymous twitter account, using the alias “JITEM,” Turkish counter-guerilla force that unofficially combatted with the Kurds from late 1980s onwards. The media content showed the dead body of Hacı Lokman Birlik, the brother-in-law of an HDP PM, tied to a police vehicle that dragged him along on the streets. The people faced more terrorism after the military bombed the graveyards of Kurdish militants and demolished the mosque and cemevi, which is the Alevi believers’ house of worship in the Kurdish-Alevi town of Varto.
In a few months after the elections and the Suruç massacre, the Turkish State, led by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s AKP, returned to its well-known tactics to violate the bodies and minds of the Kurdish population. Davutoğlu himself declared at a recent AKP rally in Van that, in the event of the AKP losing the government, the streets will be taken over by terrorist mobs or the “white Toros cars” associated with the counter-guerilla that “disappeared” the Kurdish population in the 1990s. The majority of the victims of the Ankara massacre feel that the AKP uses the rhetoric of ISIS terrorism to cloak its expanding state violence against challengers of its aggressive, capitalist, neo-Ottomanist, sunni-Turco, machismo engineering of the country. 694 persons have been killed since 7 June during Turkey’s re-instigated war with the PKK and at the three bombing attacks.
Although some international media commentators attribute the AKP’s brutality to the aftermath of the Gezi protests in June 2013, this extreme assumption and execution of state power can only come out of a longer investment in it. The AKP’s plan to shape Turkey into a state heavily controlled by neoliberal interests has been in effect since the very beginning of their reign. One only needs to look at legislations around private investments, labor rights, privatizations, social rights and services from their first term. Yet, this shift towards a more aggressive management of any dissention in society might be in anticipation of a threat due to the changing political climate in Egypt, Syria and the larger Kurdish geography.
It is challenging to interpret and critically intervene on the intricate web of relations and power dynamics in the Middle East. What is quite obvious, however, are the AKP’s efforts to demonize leftists and the Kurdish political movement even as they downplay ISIS, refrain from openly identifying them as a threat, and in fact, allowing them inside the borders to recruit volunteers and obtain hospital. Speculations remain about Turkey’s undercover ammunition transfers to ISIS and other dissident groups in Syria, but it takes no investigation to notice Davutoğlu’s general sympathy towards ISIS, summed up in his explanation of the group’s emergence as the “result of a natural reaction to religious oppression.” According to their calculations, ISIS’ fight with the YPG (mainly the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units,” in alliance with the PKK) in Syria would weaken the PKK and Kurdish politics in Turkey. Turning a blind eye to the suicide bombers in Suruç and Ankara, and un-marking them under the “terrorist” umbrella involves such agendas that pawn citizens’ lives to the AKP’s fear of losing its overbearing power. Surely the links between the AKP and ISIS must be much more complicated than this. But at the heart of it, this is what “we” see and feel: we, the peoples that resist the AKP’s increasing fascism, the peoples that demand peace and democracy in solidarity, the peoples that get killed, arrested, traumatized, targeted, reviled. In a nauseating current of hatred and assault that does not even allow the space and silence for proper mourning, and in country ripped apart mentally and emotionally, we cannot make do with simplistic accusations that solely resort to the rhetoric of ISIS ”terrorism.” Time has already shown us what the “war against terrorism” signifies. The peoples of the Middle East now live the consequences of it. We know who the murderers of those 102 people are. Now, do you?