On January 12, on a sunny winter day that visitors saw as a blessing, Istanbul was hit at its most popular tourist spot: A suicide bomber blew himself up in front of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known also as the Blue Mosque, next to the ancient Egyptian obelisk placed in the 4th century by the Romans.
The immediate victims were foreign tourists – 10 people, nine of them from Germany. Also hurt were Turkey’s sense of security, its peace, and its tourism industry.
In the first hours of the attack, who had carried out the attack was unclear, as the usual suspects included not just the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL), but also Kurdish militants affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). I pointed to ISIL as the likely culprit, as this was an attack that hit Western tourists, which would not be strategically helpful to the PKK, but would be desirable by ISIL.
In a couple of hours, the Turkish government announced that the suicide bomber was an ISIL militant: a Saudi-born Syrian citizen. Nabil Fadli, 27, had entered Turkey from Syria very recently. The press also found a photo of him, taken last week when he was in an official office in Istanbul for some paperwork.
Heart of Istanbul
The question, then, is that if it was ISIL, why did they hit Turkey right in the heart of Istanbul? ISIL militants had carried out two other deadly suicide attacks inside Turkey in the past six months – one in Suruc on July 20 and another in Ankara on October 10, killing a total number of 135 people.
Both of those bloody attacks, however, were directed at a specific ideological target: the secular, left-wing, pro-Kurdish political line in Turkey.
In that sense, both of those attacks could be seen as the encroachment of the ISIL-Kurdish war into Turkish territory, or, as I argued then, the spilling of the Syrian civil war into Turkey.
The target was not the secular, left-wing, pro-Kurdish line; it was random tourists, an iconic Istanbul site, and ultimately Turkey itself.
Yet, the latest on Sultanahmet Square was of a different kind. The target was not the secular, left-wing, pro-Kurdish line; it was random tourists, an iconic Istanbul site, and ultimately Turkey itself.
On New Year’s Eve, Turkish policemen had arrested two would-be suicide bombers who were planning another deadly attack in Kizilay, the very heart of Ankara, during the midnight celebrations.
Both that unsuccessful plot in Ankara and the sadly successful in one Istanbul show that ISIL is now targeting Turkey directly, with a focus on soft targets.
This should come as no surprise, since the conflict between Turkey and ISIL has been deepening since last July, after the first major suicide attack in Suruc and following a United States-Turkey deal allowing US warplanes to use the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey against ISIL.
Soon, ISIL publications had upped the rhetoric against Ankara, condemning it as one of many “apostate regimes” allying with the “crusaders”. In the Turkish-language ISIL digital monthly Konstantiniyye (Constantinople), an article promised the “conquest of Istanbul” and also ran a poem that read:
“Oh, Istanbul, you have allowed disbelief in your avenues. You have filled your streets with sins, but surely you will be conquered. You will bow down to the takbirs [declarations of God’s unity].”
Furthermore, only four days before the attack on Sultanahmet, Turkish forces in northern Iraq, located as the Basiq camp near Mosul in agreement with Iraqi Kurdistan authorities, were attacked by ISIL fighters.
Turkish forces had repelled the ISIL fighters and reportedly killed 17 of them. Meanwhile, at home, Turkish authorities have arrested about 1,200 people inside Turkey through the past year, many of them Turkish citizens, for suspected links with ISIL.
All of this means that Turkey is at active war with ISIL. It also debunks the conspiracy theory, popular among certain voices – within the Turkish opposition, some parts of Western media, and also, lately, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his media – that the Turkish government is in secret collaboration with ISIL. That is incorrect and unfair.
It is fair, however, to argue that the Turkish government woke up to the ISIL threat belatedly and only gradually. One reason has been the long-time fixation on the Assad regime as being the only evil in Syria. Another reason was Turkey considering ISIL, at least for a while, as a counterbalance to the Kurdish resurgence in northern Syria.
A third one is the latter-day Islamo-nationalist ideology of Turkey’s ruling AK party, which assumes that all the problems of the Middle East are created by conspiratorial Western powers and no Islamist actor can ever threaten Turkey, no matter how extreme it is.
Moreover, it is also fair to remind ourselves that the authoritarian measures the Turkish government is relying upon in the face of terror do not help. The gag order imposed on the media after every terror attack only makes the opposition more suspicious of the government’s intentions.
Meanwhile, the condemnation of every critic of the government’s war on the PKK as “traitors” and a “fifth column”, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did on the very day of the Sultanahmet attacks, serves nothing other than to further polarise the society.
With the serious threats coming both from ISIL and the PKK, along with other troubles created by the Syrian civil war, the crisis with Russia, a slowing economy, and declining democratic credentials, Turkey does need “national unity” as both Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu often call for.
But this itself needs a more constructive leadership, which will seek national unity not under the narrow ideological banner of the AK party, but a broad umbrella that will welcome all different colours of Turkey’s complex society.
Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist, regular opinion writer for Al-Monitor, and author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.