Deadly bombings in major Turkish cities have become an increasingly common tragedy: the March 19 deadly suicide bombing in Istanbul occurred only six days after another suicide attack in Ankara—each attack perpetrated by a different group with a different motive. The Istanbul attack marked the seventh major terrorist attack in the past nine months and the second in Istanbul in 2016 alone. Ankara, meanwhile, has been the target of three bombings since October 2015.
Timeline of Bombings in Turkey
March 19, 2016: ISIS Bombing in Istanbul
A suicide bombing in Istanbul’s popular Istiklal Avenue caused five deaths and injured approximately 40 more. Those killed in the blast were foreign nationals, in addition to the perpetrator: three were Israeli, two of which held dual citizenship with the United States, and one was Iranian. While the government initially suggested that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) may have been responsible, the bomber was later identified through DNA testing as an ISIS member of Turkish origin, an additional ISIS suspect may have fled the scene.
March 13, 2016: TAK Bombing in Ankara
A car bomb in Ankara’s Kızılay district, near a transit hub where many bus lines meet, killed 37 and wounded hundreds more. The attack occurred only a few blocks away from the previous Ankara attack, in a neighborhood that includes government ministries, as well as a court and police station. The attack differed from the previous Ankara attack, however, in that its primary targets were civilians. Turkish authorities were quick to blame the PKK for the attack—and to tie it to the Syrian Kurds, alleging that the bomber had received training from Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—but it was ultimately claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a separatist Kurdish group that splintered from the PKK.
February 17, 2016: TAK Bombing in Ankara
A car bomb in Ankara targeted a convoy of military vehicles, killing 29 and injuring 60. Following the bombing, the Turkish government misidentified the perpetrator as a Syrian national, alleging that the Syrian Kurdish YPG were responsible for the attack. However, the attack was later claimed by TAK.
January 12, 2016: ISIS Bombing in Istanbul
A suicide attack in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square killed 13 and wounded more than a dozen others. Occurring in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist district near the Blue Mosque, all casualties in the attack were foreigners, primarily German tourists. The bomber was identified as a Syrian member of ISIS.
October 10, 2015: ISIS Bombing in Ankara
A suicide attack outside of Ankara’s central railway station killed 103, and injured over 400, making it the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s recent history. The bombs targeted a “Labour, Peace and Democracy” rally organized by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Demoratic Party (HDP) and other organizations to protest the resurgent conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK. The bombing occurred shortly before Turkey’s parliamentary elections in November. Though no one claimed responsibility for the attack, it is widely believed that ISIS was responsible: the bombs used in the attack were extremely similar to the bombs used in Suruç in July. Additionally, one of the identified suicide bombers was the brother of the Suruç bomber.
July 20, 2015: ISIS Bombing in Suruç
A bombing outside of a culture center in the primarily Kurdish Southeastern town of Suruç killed 33 and injured over 100 more. The victims were primarily Kurdish youth who had gathered to give a press statement on their planned trip to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. ISIS is believed to be responsible for the attack, but the Turkish government and the HDP disputed the identity of the attacker.
June 5, 2015: ISIS Bombings in Diyarbakır
Bombings in the primarily Kurdish Southeastern town of Diyarbakır during an electoral rally for the pro-Kurdish HDP, only two days before Turkey’s parliamentary elections, killed four and injured over 100. ISIS is believed to be responsible, and a suspect was arrested in connection with the bombing shortly afterwards.
Perpetrators of Terror Attacks in Turkey
The list of those who have carried out attacks in Turkey in recent years and could potentially orchestrate future attacks is a long one, highlighting both the growing instability in Turkey and the region.
The Syrian conflict has increasingly spilled over into Turkey, with devastating effects. The majority of the terrorist attacks in Turkey since June 2015 have been attributed to ISIS, though the terrorist group has not officially claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, meaning that ISIS attacks lack a clear statement of motive. It is unclear whether or not ISIS attacks in Turkey, which so far have primarily targeted Kurds and foreign tourists, are attempts to target ISIS enemies within Turkey or the Turkish state itself.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
The PKK was founded as a Marxist-nationalist movement by leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1978. For over two decades, the PKK was engaged in a bloody civil war with the Turkish state, which resulted in over 40,000 deaths. In its inception, the PKK sought the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Over time, however, its goal has shifted towards securing greater rights and autonomy for Kurds within Turkey. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a ceasefire and opened a peace process aimed at getting the PKK to lay down its arms and bring the conflict to a close. However, the ceasefire collapsed and hostilities resumed between the PKK and the Turkish government in July 2015, leading to clashes between PKK militants and government forces, primarily in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast.
The Turkish government has been quick to blame the PKK after past terror attacks—even when the PKK did not appear to be immediately responsible. Following the October 2015 bombing in Ankara, when all signs pointed to ISIS, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu asserted that the attack was a collaboration between the PKK and ISIS in what he termed a “terror cocktail.” The Turkish government, by rhetorically linking the PKK to ISIS, has used ISIS attacks to justify increased operations against the PKK in Turkey and Northern Iraq—and to justify its opposition to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which it considers an offshoot of the PKK.
The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK)
TAK emerged in 2004, when it split from the PKK, alleging that the group’s methods were too “feeble.” Since then, TAK has criticized the PKK’s attempts to negotiate with the Turkish state and has carried out several attacks within Turkey, including both government and civilian targets. Its autonomy is a subject of debate: some view TAK as a splinter group or even an alias of the PKK, while some view TAK as a group independent from the PKK.
Recent TAK attacks have been in response to the government’s policies in Turkey’s southeast since the resumption of hostilities in 2015. TAK statements have focused particularly on the town of Cizre, where military operations have been the most extreme, placing residents under harsh curfews and preventing them from receiving medical treatment. After the February Ankara bombing, TAK seemed to warn of future attacks, saying “From now on, the AKP and its collaborators won’t be able to live in a fascist dictatorship so comfortably in their own city. As of now, we won’t be responsible for the safety of international airlines that fly to Turkey, or for foreign tourists.”
The Turkish government and Turkish public see little difference between TAK and the PKK, Pro-government media has pushed a narrative that treats all Kurdish groups as one and the same, accusing the PKK of “using every letter in the alphabet” to deflect responsibility for terrorist attacks. This narrative provides further fuel for the government’s conflict with the PKK and continued opposition to the Syrian Kurds.
The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C)
A Turkish Marxist-Leninist group that has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, the DHKP-C has been responsible for assassinations and suicide bombings in Turkey since its founding in 1978. The DHKP-C took credit for a suicide bombing outside a Turkish police station in Istanbul in January 2015, however DNA testing revealed that the bomber was a Chechen-Russian woman unaffiliated with the DHKP-C.
The DHKP-C, which is more focused on domestic Turkish policy than the conflict in Syria, originally claimed that it had carried out the attack to punish the murderers of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who was shot in the head with a tear gas canister during the 2013 Gezi Park protests and died in 2014 after a nearly year-long coma. The last major action taken by the DHKP-C was in March 2015, when they took a Turkish prosecutor hostage, demanding that police release the names of the officers involved in Elvan’s death.