Ankara bombing and the failing Turkish state

The first responsibility of a state is to protect its citizens.

Explosion in Ankara
In recent months Ankara has proven itself incapable of stopping terrorists from attacking the heart of its largest city or the centre of its capital, writes Lepeska [EPA]

Is Turkey a failed state? Its fourth major terrorist strike in five months suggests that it is headed in that direction.

A car bomb ripped through a transport hub in the centre of Turkey’s capital on Sunday evening, killing at least 37 people and wounding 125.

Last month terrorists struck only a few blocks away, killing 29 on the heels of a January attack in Istanbul, in which 12 people died, and a few months after Turkey’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack killed 102 people, also in Ankara.

What is worse is that this time the attack had been foretold. On Friday afternoon, the United States Embassy in Ankara issued a warning of a terrorist plot targeting government buildings in Ankara.

Following Sunday’s attack, the embassy issued a statement, explaining that it had learned last week of “threat information through a Turkish government warning on social media”.

So, the government may have known of a looming attack as far back as Wednesday or Thursday, and may have had three or four days to respond, to deploy security teams throughout the city centre, to issue warnings to all departments and to tap its vast intelligence apparatus for clues and suspects or launch raids on potential terrorist cells across the city.

Questioning authority

Did it do these things? Perhaps. Yet, somehow terrorists were still able to strike one of the most high-profile sites in the capital, beside a popular park and a couple hundred metres from the Ministries of Justice and Education.

A deadly civil conflict decimating cities in its southeast, a high-profile bombing every month, millions of refugees, terrorist cells throughout the country, and an increasingly authoritarian government ...

This spot, in Ankara’s Kizilay district, is comparable to Foggy Bottom or Farragut Square in Washington DC, central transport hubs within shouting distance of the heart of United States power.

An attack at these locations, days after a high-profile warning, would be a gross security failure, an embarrassment for which heads would roll. The first responsibility of every citizen, according to one of the founding fathers of the US Benjamin Franklin, is to question authority.

Yet, when Turks question their leaders about these security failures, they tend to receive deflection and smirking, rather than responsible leadership.

The first responsibility of a state is to protect its citizens. But in recent months Ankara has proved itself incapable of keeping enemies from entering the country via its border with war-ravaged Syria, or of stopping terrorists from attacking the heart of its largest city or the centre of its capital, even after being warned.

It’s also shown itself largely unable, despite great effort, of keeping thousands of people from squeezing on to boats heading across the Aegean to safer harbours.

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In their ongoing negotiations with the European Union on a deal to curb that migrant flow, Turkey’s leaders have sought to re-open accession negotiations. But their country now has more in common with its neighbours to the south than those to the northwest.

A deadly civil conflict decimating cities in its southeast, a high-profile bombing every month, millions of refugees, terrorist cells throughout the country, and an increasingly authoritarian government … These realities put one in mind of Egypt, Libya or Tunisia, not Greece, Hungary, or Austria, forget Germany or France.

‘Pakistanisation’ of Turkey

Turkey is now a borderline failed state. We may be witnessing early signs of the “Pakistanisation” that analysts have warned about since at least 2014.

Ankara famously supported radical groups in the early days of Syrian Civil War, allegedly allowing jihadists to funnel weapons and fighters through the country and into Syria. This echoed Pakistan’s backing of the Taliban during the Afghan war, which of course led to radical jihadists seeping back across the border into Pakistan and wreaking havoc.

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Thousands of Turks are said to have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, which has repeatedly declared its antipathy to Turkey (PDF).

At the same time, since violence flared anew last summer, thousands of Kurdish militants have been at war with the Turkish state. Turkish officials have said that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or an affiliated group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), which claimed the last Ankara attack, is likely to be behind this latest bombing.

Firefighters try to help people after an explosion in Ankara. [EPA]Firefighters try to help people after an explosion in Ankara. [EPA]

Kurdish militants have little recent history of attacking civilians, so we might consider alternatives. There is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, ISIL also known as ISIS, responsible for previous attacks in Suruc, Diyarbakir, Ankara and Istanbul. Or, though highly unlikely considering their differences, it could be that within Turkey, ISIL has begun working with Kurdish militants to attack a common enemy.

The PKK, labelled a terrorist group by the US and EU, has already joined forces with an array of armed leftist groups to fight Ankara, and according to a researcher for the International Crisis Group a disproportionate number of the Turks who have joined ISIL are of Kurdish origin.

The Syrian war has been known to make strange bedfellows, and a weaker, more desperate Turkey focused on domestic security would be a boon to both groups.

Or the perpetrator could be even closer to home. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calling for a constitutional change to install a presidential system for eons, and if Turks believe Kurdish militants are now attacking civilians, the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) would have little chance of maintaining its parliamentary position in the event of an election.

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This would open the door to a greater majority for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and clear the way to constitutional change.

But setting aside the conspiracy theories and assuming the likeliest suspects are to blame, the attack would mark a major shift for Kurdish militants, harkening back to the dark violence of the 1990s, when masked PKK gunmen would shower civilian buses with bullets.

Even before Sunday it was abundantly clear that Turkey needed to refocus on security, to start anew and begin, step by step, to eradicate its vast, deeply embedded terrorist infrastructure. It could start by moving towards peace with the PKK then follow the Saudi model, as I previously advised. But it needs to do something.


After the February attack, Turkey implemented what Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called “extraordinary security measures” in Ankara. They seem to have made little difference. “Our people should not worry,” Erdogan said shortly after Sunday’s attack, “the struggle against terrorism will for certain end in success.”

Early today, Turkey began bombing PKK positions in northern Iraq. All evidence suggests Ankara subscribes to an eye-for-an-eye security policy. It has failed so far, and Turks have been paying the ultimate price, by the busload.

Anybody can respond to an attack. The real challenge is to prevent them.

David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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