Turkey tastes bitter fruit of Kurdish conflict




By Mark Huband in Bingöl, Turkey

Financial Times, 27 November 2003

Guns are all the rage at the Merkezi Internet Café on the main street through Bingöl.

Teenagers playing computer games blast away at cyber-foes on the screens that are the only brightness in an otherwise dreary room. Egging them on are youngsters who play with toy pistols, awaiting their turn on the computers.

Two weeks ago, the café’s manager, Gokhan Elaltuntas, disappeared. He was next heard of when his identity card was found in the ruined truck police say he exploded – along with himself – outside a synagogue in Istanbul on November 15.

Elaltuntas’ father co-owned the internet café with the brother of Azad Ekinci. Ekinci’s identity card was found last Thursday in the wreckage of a car bomb investigators say he detonated outside the Istanbul headquarters of HSBC bank.

Elaltuntas and Ekinci had travelled to Istanbul with Mesut Cabuk, another friend from Bingöl, and a fourth man, Feridun Ugurlu, from Eskisehir. Cabuk’s remains were found outside a second devastated synagogue, while police believe Ugurlu detonated the suicide car bomb that destroyed the British consulate in the city.

The eastern Turkish town of Bingöl is now trying to banish the belief that an Islamic terrorist cell with ties to al-Qaeda had formed on its main street.

“It’s just by chance that they came from Bingöl,” said Fikret Zaman, deputy provincial governor. “The citizens are very sorry that they came from here, and we haven’t found that there’s an organisation here that is behind this.”

Police, government officials, business people and political activists were yesterday offering their greetings to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But the celebrations have been muted, as the bitter political rivalries between Turkey’s establishment and the region’s Kurdish population have been pronounced by the bombings.

“You can’t just look at this issue as a bombing. You have to understand the cause in the past in order to see where it will go from here,” says Ridvan Kizgin, president of the local Human Rights Association.

Extremism in eastern Turkey began when the Turkish army fighting the Kurdish separatist PKK encouraged the Kurdish Islamic group Hizbollah – unconnected to similarly-named groups in the Middle East – to lead brutal attacks on the PKK and its supporters in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr Kizgin said. His view is widely shared.

“Turkish Hizbollah became a practitioner of state-sponsored terrorism,” says a senior western diplomat. Its stronghold was in the town of Batman, near to Bingöl.

By 1998, the government’s embarrassment at Hizbollah’s brutality and the realisation that it needed to negotiate a solution to the Kurdish conflict if Turkey was ever to join the European Union, led to the army being ordered to quash Hizbollah. Arrests and killings followed, and some followers fled to join al-Qaeda.

Ekinci and Elaltuntas were probably members of Hizbollah in the early 1990s, according to officials and family friends in Bingöl, and Turkish newspaper reports. Cabuk, who formed an unofficial Islamic circle in Bingöl, also spent two years with Ekinci in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, from where they returned with heightened religious fervour.

The bombers’ probable past ties to Hizbollah are now a challenge to the government, as it shows the army’s role in what has since evolved. It may also be embarrassing to the Islamic conservatives of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“Leading religious personalities in Turkey don’t want to accept that there is al-Qaeda and that it is in Turkey and that these attacks were done by al-Qaeda,” says Ruçen Çakir, a writer on Turkey’s Islamic movement.

Kurds in Bingöl see the bombings as the legacy of past state violence against them – and believe their rights are best served by Turkey joining the EU. The government is seeking to accelerate this process. “Please write that Bingöl is a quiet place and wants to forget what has happened and look to the future,” requests a senior Bingöl official.

But instead of unity there is tension. Former supporters of Turkish Hizbollah are hunting people who blame them for the bombings, while the bombers’ families have been told by the authorities to say nothing.

In the Merkezi Internet Café, youths hold toy pistols to each others’ heads. Others pretend they never knew the man who worked there every day as the manager. Nine hundred miles from the deaths they caused in Istanbul, the bombers of Bingöl have helped create tension and enmity. All are part of al-Qaeda’s emerging strategy of stirring friction across the Islamic world.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.