Turkish police have arrested a “Syrian national” named Ahlam Albashir, who they claim is responsible for an explosion that killed six people and injured 81 others on İstanbul’s busy İstiklal Street on Nov. 13. Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, said a day after the attack that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), were responsible for the deadly bombing. The PKK and the YPG have denied any involvement in the attack. A senior Turkish official, meanwhile, told Reuters that Turkish authorities are not ruling out that the attacker has ties to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). However, this deadly blast, which targeted civilians, was more likely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s new false flag operation prior to the G-20 summit, which convened in Indonesia earlier this week, to convince world leaders of the need for Turkey to conduct a military operation in northern Syria.
This deadly attack has left many unanswered questions. According to a series of events surrounding the tragedy, Turkish authorities claim that Albashir took a taxi to an address in İstanbul’s Esenler district to retrieve her money and gold after leaving the bomb. She then moved on to Küçükçekmece, where the police detained Albashir in her home. The police raided a total of 21 locations, detaining 46 people who were in contact with Albashir during the operation. The Anadolu news agency reported that “the terrorist admitted that she had carried out the bomb attack at around 4:20 p.m. on Sunday, on orders from the headquarters of the PKK/YPG terrorist organization in Kobani, Syria.” It is unusual for the PKK to target civilians in cities, and furthermore, the armed organization would normally move its militants to the mountains immediately after an attack. PKK militants do not stay in cities, knowing that Turkish security forces are easily able to track them down. The PKK has been fighting against the Turkish state since the 1980s to establish an autonomous or independent Kurdish rule in Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey, and the group is experienced in carrying out attacks. Turkey, the EU and the US all list the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The second unusual fact is that it would be highly unlikely for a trained terrorist or intelligence operative to wait 45 minutes with a bomb in a location that is monitored 24/7 by more than 1,000 CCTV cameras. CCTV footage shows Albashir waiting calmly for around 45 minutes with the bag she used to carry the bomb. According to Turkish security expert Emre Uslu, she was possibly unaware that she was carrying a bomb in her bag. The other suspicious fact is that a person who entered Turkey together with Albashir four months ago has not yet been found. Albashir and this person pretended to be a couple and worked in a textile workshop in İstanbul. The other question is why Albashir was carrying her mobile phone during the attack. Any experienced militant would know not to carry electronics unless the person is a suicide bomber. Another point of confusion relates to how Turkish police failed to notice her for a more than 40 minutes. Furthermore, if Albashir is an Arab as claimed — some even say she is Ethiopian — the PKK is a Kurdish armed organization that is not known to recruit ethnic Arabs or Africans. Another strange fact is that according to Turkey’s official statement Albashir and her partner entered Turkey through Afrin in northwestern Syria. Turkey has controlled Syria’s Afrin region since 2018, and it would be difficult for the İstiklal Street bomber to enter Turkey using this route.
Sunday’s attack could also have been carried out by Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups. Turkey supports Free Syrian Army groups in Syria, which constantly fight among each other. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, seized Afrin early last month. There are reports that Turkey is attempting to mobilize all armed groups in Turkish-controlled Syrian cities like Afrin, Jarabulus and Tal Abyad under the SNA. HTS has largely withdrawn from Afrin since Turkish intervention, but Turkey-backed groups accuse Ankara of siding with Russia and selling them out.
The attack on İstiklal Street is more likely a false flag operation by Turkish intelligence to justify an operation in Syria. Turkey targeted the YPG, the armed group that is the main fighting element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in northeast Syria in October 2019 after then-US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria’s border with Turkey. The US together with major Western countries supported these Kurdish groups against ISIL. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the PKK and is trying to take control of Kurdish cities such as Kobani, Manbij and Tel Rifaat in northern Syria from YPG forces. On the other hand, Erdoğan has failed since October 2021 to get a green light from Russia and the United States for its Syria operation. It seems that Turkey has a strong excuse now to target Kurdish forces in Syria since Soylu said Albashir got the order for the terror attack from Kobani, where the PKK/YPG has its Syrian headquarters. Soylu added that if the security forces had failed to arrest the alleged perpetrator, she would have fled to Greece. Turkey accuses Greece of harboring PKK terrorists, and there are currently high levels of tension between the two neighbors over the sovereignty of some islands and maritime rights in the Aegean Sea.
Turkey announced that Albashir is a Syrian terrorist trained by the PKK, but social media users commented that she is not a Syrian Kurd or an Arab but from Ethiopia or Eritrea since she has a tattoo on her wrist in an Ethiopian Semitic language. A Somali woman appearing in a video message claimed that Albashir is her sister, she lives in İstanbul and she is not the perpetrator of the attack and not a member of the PKK nor any other terror organization.
What is more interesting is that the Turkish T24 news website reported on Tuesday that two calls had been made between a phone line registered to Mehmet Emin İlhan, a member of the Turkish far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and one that was used by Albashir. The MHP has been election ally of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2018.
While Turkish authorities were incredibly quick to make an assessment regarding the perpetrator, the attack in İstiklal Street still raises many questions. Turkey experienced a mysterious coup attempt on July 15, 2016. A parliamentary commission formed to investigate the failed coup ended without hearing from key names such as President Erdoğan, the then-army chief Hulusi Akar and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and moreover, its report has been “lost.” Erdoğan was quick to accuse the faith-based Gülen movement of orchestrating the coup attempt, although the movement strongly denies any involvement. The July 15, 2016 abortive putsch provided Erdoğan with an opportunity to purge all his opponents from key government institutions. Turkish army generals were opposed to entering Syria, but Erdoğan purged many of them, and the Turkish army conducted its first operation into Syria just a month after the so-called coup attempt. It would seem that, similar to the coup attempt, the mysterious İstiklal Street blast gives Erdoğan an excuse to carry out military operations in Syrian Kurdish towns.