Turkish officials claim PKK responsible for deadly IED attack in Istanbul

Nov 19, 2022

On 13 November, six people were killed and more than 81 wounded when an IED detonated in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish government immediately blamed the PKK and claimed to have arrested a member who confessed to the incident, however the group denies any involvement and as of 16 November no group has claimed responsibility.

Regardless, the incident is set to raise calls for a renewed cross-border operation in northern Syria and is set to further challenge the US-Turkey relationship given the US’ continued support for the YPG. In the near term, heightened security is expected to remain across Turkey, including at airports and near other high-profile sites.

At approximately 16:20 on 13 November, an IED exploded on Istiklal Street near Taksim Square situated in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. Footage of the incident showed a fireball and loud detonation in the well-known tourist area, killing at least six, including two children. Media reporting later stated that 81 people, of Turkish and other nationalities, were wounded, including four Iraqi nationals. CCTV footage released by the authorities indicated the IED was placed in a bag and left on a bench before detonation. Heightened security is expected to remain at airports and other high-profile sites in the country as a precautionary measure over the near term.

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attack and stated that initial information from the Istanbul Governor suggested the incident “smells like terrorism” while vowing to punish those responsible. Additional reports from Turkish police officials stated that based on available footage, security forces were looking for an unidentified woman seen on surveillance cameras in the area for approximately 40 minutes prior to the explosion. Additional confirmation from Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on the morning of 14 November, stated that the female suspect had been detained overnight and that she confessed to planting the device.

Early suggestions of likely IS involvement were dismissed in subsequent reporting by official sources. Soylu identified the suspect as a PKK-affiliated Syrian woman named Ahla Bashir, arrested in Istanbul’s Küçükçekmece area at 02:50 on 14 November. Soylu also reported that another PKK-affiliated individual – purportedly on orders to kill Bashir to protect the organization – was also arrested. Media sources stated that Bashir had confessed to undergoing training with the PKK or affiliates such as the BYD and YPG, and had infiltrated Turkey via Afrin in Syria. Several arrests were subsequently reported and on 15 November, Turkey Minister of Justice said 50 individuals had been detained in connection with the incident. Additional reports from international sources cited condolences and condemnation of the attack from multiple countries, including senior leaders of Azerbaijan, Egypt, the US, France, Greece, Pakistan, Italy, UK, and Ukraine.

PKK and SDF deny involvement
On 14 November, Soylu said that the Turkish government believed “the order for the deadly terror attack came from Ayn al-Arab district in northern Syria”, where the YPG is headquartered, and vowed retaliation. However, both the PKK and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprises PKK-linked factions, denied any involvement in the attack. In a statement released on 14 November on the Firat News Agency, PKK said the group has “nothing to do with this incident and it is well-known by the public that we would not target civilians directly or approve of actions directed at civilians.” Likewise, a senior official within the SDF rejected that any of its forces were involved and sent condolences to the victims. Senior YPG officials also accused Turkey of fabricating claims as justification for launching cross-border operations in northern Syria.

As of 16 November, attribution for the attack remains unclear and any decisive confirmation for or against PKK involvement is unlikely. The modus operandi and the targeting of civilians by the PKK however is exceedingly rare, with previous PKK-linked attacks inside Turkey predominantly targeting members of the police and military. A recent example includes an attack in September when one police officer was killed and another injured when two PKK members opened fire at a police station in the southern Mersin province.

Large-scale attacks in urban centers by PKK and affiliated groups are also exceedingly rare and, since the ceasefire expired in 2015, PKK-linked violence in Turkey has generally been concentrated in the southeastern provinces that remain the focal point of the PKK’s efforts to establish autonomy. Attribution for more significant incidents since the ceasefire expiration has instead fallen on IS which claimed responsibility for a series of mass-casualty attacks in 2016. This included coordinated attacks on Atatürk Airport in Istanbul and another coordinated attack in the Besiktas district in December. Earlier that same year, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) – a breakaway faction of the PKK – claimed responsibility for a vehicle borne IED (VBIED) attack in Ankara that killed 37 people and constitutes the most recent, confirmed mass-casualty attack involving Kurdish militants.

While PKK involvement cannot be reasonably dismissed, the modus operandi understandably raised suspicions of Sunni extremist involvement and IS authorship. However, as of 16 November no claim of responsibility has been issued and, besides the alleged confession of Ahla Bashir, the PKK and affiliated groups continue to deny any involvement. An additional consideration involves the historic authorship of attacks by IS, in combination with an intentional lack of a claim of responsibility, as a calculated effort to foment further violence and conflict between various groups and create instability.

Domestic and regional implications
Regardless of the PKK involvement, the political fallout of the attack is inevitably expected to be shaped by Turkey’s accusations of PKK involvement. This involves most notably the potential for retaliatory strikes against YPG in northern Syria, including Ayn al-Arab district in Aleppo and other areas associated with PKK presence. No significant uptick in Turkish operations was noted in the days after the incident however the attack raised immediate calls for a renewed operation in northern Syria.  On 15 November, a Turkish security official cited by Reuters said Turkey would pursue targets in Syria after concluding operations in northern Iraq, implicitly referencing the possibility of a renewed cross-border operation.

Within Iraq, there is increased potential for significant retaliatory Turkish strikes against suspected PKK locations within and outside of routinely targeted Operation Claw-Lock areas over the coming days. This includes increased threat in areas of Sinjar, the Rustem Jodi Camp in Makhmour, and suspected PKK-linked areas in northern Erbil and Sulaymaniyah provinces. Noteworthy retaliatory operations have likewise not been reported following the attack, yet remains a standing consideration for client operations.

Domestically, the attack will most likely result in increased political pressure on the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) which the government and Turkish nationalist parties accuse of ties with the PKK. Several members of nationalist parties accordingly renewed calls for a permanent closure of the HDP following the attack. For their part, the HDP continues to deny any links with the PKK but it does not deny ideological sympathies with founder Abdullah Ocalan.

For President Erdogan, the attack will potentially be seen as an opportunity to rally support behind the AK Party ahead of the 2023 elections and plausibly be used to detract attention from economic issues and inflationary concerns which have impacted voter support over the year.  To recall, in 2015, the AK Party won re-election largely by running on a security-themed campaign and the latest attack may offer the president an opportunity to repeat the tactic by focusing on the threat posed by the PKK ahead of the 2023 polls.

Implications for Turkey-US relationship
A final result of this event concerns the US-Turkey relationship which is set to be challenged by the attack. In a sign of Turkey’s enduring frustrations with the US support for the YPG in northern Syria, Interior Minister Soylu accused the US of being ‘complicit’ and that the government “does not accept the US Embassy’s message” of condolences. To recall, the government previously claimed that weapons used in a deadly PKK-linked attack in Mersin were provided by the US, with US officials subsequently involved in an investigation to determine the origin of the weapons.

On 15 November, President Joe Biden also met with President Erdogan on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali where Biden reportedly reiterated his condolences and said the US stands side-by-side with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. Both sides notably appeared to adopt a conciliatory tone in an assessed effort to limit any diplomatic fallout of Soylu’s statement, with an official readout mentioning discussions on NATO enlargement and support for Turkey’s bid to purchase F-16 fighter jets. Separately, Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler spoke on the phone with his US counterpart to discuss the incident, with joint readouts reinforcing the strength of the US-Turkey partnership.

While characteristically devoid of details, the rhetoric implies US intent to downplay the attack amidst wider geopolitical tensions and associated efforts by Turkey to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. President Biden notably praised Turkey’s efforts in reviving the Black Sea Grain Initiative which remains critical to ensure global food security. Turkey also remains key to the ascension of Finland and Sweden to NATO, affording Erdogan a significant degree of leverage when it comes to negotiating over the US support for the YPG moving forwards.

Notwithstanding Soylu’s comments, it appears that more substantial diplomatic fallout from the 13 November incident has been prevented due to wider geopolitical priorities. That said, a continuation in PKK-linked activity (whether alleged or confirmed) would understandably pose a significant challenge to the US-Turkey partnership moving forward.


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