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There were several warnings about the impending attack on the New Year’s eve
There were several warnings about the impending attack on the New Year’s eve

Year 2017 had a bloody start in Turkey. A lone gunman, armed with Kalashnikov, entered Istanbul’s exclusive Reina nightclub, in the upmarket Ortakoy District, and indiscriminately fired at the New Year revellers, killing 39 and injuring around 70, including many foreign nationals. Located right on the banks of the Bosporus, the sprawling club was very popular with expatriates, diplomats and the Turkish elite.

Eyewitnesses reported that the  gunman spoke broken Turkish and  accented Arabic, and that he was  a trained assassin as his marksmanship was excellent. Moreover,  he had several small explosives on  him, which he threw at the crowd  to distract them every time he reloaded his Kalashnikov.

Of the 39 people dead, 38 were killed in firing and one in the ensuing stampede. The victims included twelve Turks, seven Saudi Arabians, three Iraqis, three Jordanians, three Lebanese, two Tunisians, two Moroccans and one each from Canada, Syria, Kuwait, Russia and Israel. India too lost two of its nationals-Abas Rizvi, a film maker from Mumbai, and Khushi Shah, a fashion designer from Vadodara, Gujarat.

The assailant, identified as Abdulgadir Masharipov of Uzbek origin, was finally apprehended after a massive manhunt on January 16. The Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin stated that Masharipov was arrested from an apartment in Esenyurt District, a suburb in Istanbul, about 30 km from the Reina nightclub, along with an Iraqi man and three women, all of whom were affiliated with the ISIS. Pistols, two drones, mobile phone SIM cards, and $197,000 in cash were also seized. According to Sahin, Masharipov was born in 1983, was well educated, knew four languages, and had received training in Afghanistan.

The arrests had yielded information that the assailant was part of a well organised sleeper cell of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He was reportedly infiltrated into Turkey by a handler codenamed ‘Teacher Yousuf’. The assailant himself had been codenamed ‘Abu Muhammed Horasani’ by the Amn alKharji, the espionage wing of the group. In November 2016, ‘Teacher Yusuf’ had reportedly installed the killer and his family, comprising a wife and two children, in an apartment block in the town of Konya, where three other families related to the ISIS cadres were living. Turkish police conducted raids at their residences in Konya, and found a mobile phone with a selfie of the gunman taken at the Taksim Square in Istanbul, giving a clear frontal image of his face, which was quickly circulated to the airports, railway stations, etc.

The large quantity of cash, mobile phones, SIM cards, communication equipment, arsenal, etc., that have been seized from Masharipov and his associates make it clear that the terrorist cell was well funded, and was working in coordination with the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa. The ISIS had sent a message via al-Amaq, a propaganda media outlet affiliated to the group, on January 02, 2017, that a “heroic soldier of the caliphate attacked the nightclub where Christians were celebrating their pagan feast”. The message added that the ‘soldier’, who was not named, fired an automatic rifle and exploded hand grenades in “revenge for God’s religion and in response to the orders” of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The ISIS message claiming responsibility for the Istanbul attack was different from the ones issued after attacks in Orlando (June 12, 2016), where 49 people were killed; in Nice (July 14, 2016), where 86 people were killed; and in Berlin (December 19, 2016), where 12 people were killed, which were described as lone-wolf attacks. It was also different from the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, on December 19, 2016, by Mevlut Mert Altintas, an officer in Ankara’s riot police squad. The Turkish authorities claimed that he had been self-radicalised and had no associates. Symptomatic red flags had shot up, as it indicated the prevalence of radicalisation in the Turkish armed/security services, apart from serious security lapses.

WARNINGS FROM ISIS

Similarly, adequate warning had been given in the case of the Reina club attack as well. On November 02, 2016, al-Baghdadi had given a 30-minute audio message, titled, “This is What God and His Messenger Promised Us”, a reference to the 22nd verse of Koran’s Surah al-Ahzab. It referred to the coalition of the Quraysh and various tribes who lost to Prophet Muhammad in the battle of Badr, implying that the anti-ISIS coalition would similarly lose to the ‘caliphate’. He also mourned the death of the senior ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was killed in Syria earlier in August, and called for attacks against Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The ISIS ire against Turkey developed after latter’s détente with Russia. It further sharpened as Ankara activated the Bashiqa Camp on the outskirts of the Mosul city in Iraq, which targeted the fleeing ISIS cadres.

Later, on December 22, 2016, the ISIS put out a 19-minute video on the al-Furqan channel, titled, ‘The Cross Shield’, castigating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his inconsistent stand towards Syria/Iraq war, particularly in view of his rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, dialogue with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, talks with US President Barack Obama, etc. all of which enables the continuance of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Significantly, the video also carried pictures of the above mentioned as well as some other leaders meeting the Turkish leadership, including that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Erdogan, depicting them as world leaders working against Islamic interests.

The mood in Turkey today is disquieting. Since the July 2016 coup attempt, President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), which is based on the ideology of the Ikhwanul Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), have been publically voicing displeasure overconsumption of alcohol, which is now heavily taxed in Turkey. Several restrictions have been placed on bar licenses and vendors. The ruling AKP also disapproves of ‘Western concepts’ such as dancing parties and night clubs, and even commemorating/celebrating Christian festivals.

Differences with the US and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries too have been escalating. President Erdogan has blamed the Obama administration for a host of Turkey’s problems, including fight against the ISIS. In December 2015, Erdogan had publicly criticised the US diktat restricting Turkish forces from going further than 20 kilometres into Syria while conducting crossborder operations against the ISIS fighters. Apart from alleging that the US had obliquely supported Gulen in his coup attempt, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin had further claimed that Washington is supporting the Democratic Union Party of Kurdistan (PYD), fighting for a free Kurdish nation, and helping the Kurdish group to establish a corridor between Afrin in south Turkey and Manbij in Syria, which is against Turkey’s national interest.

INDIA ON ISIS RADAR

From the Indian perspective, there are some takeaways from the Reina club attack that need to be considered. The ISIS is certainly promoting attacks outside their main battle areas, be it lone-wolf attacks or coordinated actions conceptualised in Raqqa/Mosul. Reference to Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with Turkish leadership in the ISIS video, issued on December 22, is a cause for concern. Also, the statements made by Mohammad Masiuddin alias Musa, arrested from Burdwan railway station by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on July 04, 2016, on charges of radicalising youth for recruiting them into the ISIS, that he was linked to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and had agreed to take up an assignment from a JMB leader, Abu Suleiman, to target foreigners and the US nationals in India, need to be taken very seriously.

Musa in his interrogation had also claimed that the JMB and ISIS have sizeable support in West Bengal. Burgeoning radicalism in the porous eastern border regions has serious security implications for the country, as does the growing influence of Salafism in India’s southern states. Containing these home-grown elements need initiatives beyond traditional policing. It requires close and real-time interaction with community leaders and a comprehensive and sustained counter narrative to mitigate the toxic narrative of radical Islamic groups.

Last year, in 2016, scores of ISIS sympathisers were arrested by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Around 450 individuals, who are considered as potential threat, are said to be under watch. IB has also set up a cell to monitor online radicalisation, code-named Operation Chakravyuh, and has reportedly been able to neutralise a number of threats.

While the efforts of the security agencies are wholly praiseworthy, their tasks in view of emerging challenges remain indubitably herculean. Lapses of security, as seen in the case of New Year club attack in Istanbul, of not having adequate perimeter coverage, and real time alerts from CCTV feeds to the security network, need to be factored into India’s urban security landscape.

Terrorists are now adopting innovative and indigenously encrypted communication systems, making the task of cyber security agencies quantifiably more difficult. A system for metadata analysis is urgently required. With the announcement of ‘caliphate’ by the ISIS in June 2014, terrorism has morphed into newer forms. India’s security blueprint therefore needs to keep pace.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

This article first appeared in the Comment section of the website of Institute of  Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in/idsacomments) on January 30, 2017