Istanbul bombing raises security fears
Wed 10 March, 2004
By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - An Istanbul suicide bombing has raised security concerns in Muslim Turkey at a time when the country is preparing to host a NATO summit and canvassing support for ambitions to join the European Union.
Officials and diplomats said Tuesday's attack on a freemasons' lodge, killing one of two bombers and a waiter, appeared less sophisticated and less well prepared than November attacks attributed to al Qaeda that killed more than 60 people.
One analyst said it nonetheless presented a danger.
"It does not appear al Qaeda was behind this, but the attackers may share an ideology or admire Osama bin Laden ... and may have been influenced by the November bombings," said Rusen Cakir, a journalist who is an expert on militant Islam.
"This is more dangerous. It encourages anyone with rage towards a target to act...It shows Turkey remains under threat from Islamist violence. We cannot underestimate this attack."
Local television stations reported the bombers chanted Islamist slogans before the explosion.
In June, U.S. President George W. Bush is due to visit Turkey, a country Washington promotes as a model Islamic democracy that could be emulated throughout the Muslim world. That distinction has won Ankara the contempt of militant Islamists.
November's suicide truck bombings, one of the worst spates of peacetime violence in modern Turkish history, targeted two synagogues, the British Consulate and London-based HSBC bank.
In Tuesday's attack, two assailants wearing flak jackets first opened fire on the lodge. A second bomber failed to detonate his explosives and was taken to hospital with four wounded freemasons and a security guard, officials said.
Four of the bombers' homemade devices had detonated, while police found another 10 at the scene.
"The appearance right now is of a religious terror organisation," said Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler, but added authorities had not yet determined the bombers' identities and had found no links with any foreign-based networks.
"The method of the attack, the bombs used and the assailants are very different," Guler said when asked about a connection to al Qaeda or the November attacks.
Authorities linked those blasts to al Qaeda. No group has so far claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombing.
FEARS OF INSTABILITY
Turkish financial markets showed little reaction to the attack, focusing on slow progress in Cyprus peace talks that could affect Turkey's hopes of joining the EU.
Turkey aims to win a date for the opening of membership talks when EU leaders meet in December, and recent market rises have mirrored growing hopes of success. Though Turkey's case will be judged formally on issues such as human rights, any fears of instability could play a role.
June's summit of NATO leaders will present a particular security challenge in Turkey which has a multitude of small splinter groups with militant leftist or Islamist loyalties.
"I don't see it as the start of a new wave of major terrorist attacks, more a continuation of small-scale activities by domestic Islamist groups," one European diplomat said.
Turkey's government, with its roots in political Islam, has been suspected by the strictly secular establishment of fostering an Islamist agenda. But it has steered a staunchly pro-Western line on the EU, economics and security.
Experts said the pipe bomb was of the kind used by the Turkish militant group IBDA-C or the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders' Front.
IBDA-C surfaced in the mid-1990s with bombings at nightclubs and churches in Istanbul and claimed responsibility for the November blasts. But experts doubted they could have pulled off those highly coordinated attacks, even with help from al Qaeda.
Tuesday's attack was the first on a Masonic group in Turkey.
Freemasonry has long claimed followers in Muslim but secular Turkey among prominent businessmen, academics and politicians. In some Islamic countries they have been targets of hostility because of suspected Christian links.
Freemasons trace their roots to the medieval guilds that built cathedrals in Europe. A secretive, ritualistic group, it claims more than 10,000 members in Turkey.