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Turkey Better Prepared After Its Own 'September 11' Terror Attacks - 2004-01-13

Although terrorism is not new to Turkey, the country had never faced anything like the devastating suicide bombings that ripped through Istanbul last November. Many analysts say the uniquely secular Muslim nation remains a vulnerable target of the al-Qaida terrorist network for many reasons. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on 'why Turkey' and how Turks have dealt with what one newspaper called 'Turkey's September 11.'

Today, the deafening sound of a suicide bomber igniting a truck filled with explosives is heard in more parts of the world than ever before. Last November, the people of Istanbul shuddered from this sound four times. The first two attacks targeted synagogues during the Jewish Sabbath. Five days later, a British bank and the British consulate were rocked by powerful explosions near crowded urban centers.

Across the Bosporus straits on the Asian side of Istanbul, Cigdem Morekli, a 38-year-old teacher, was in her apartment when the blasts occurred. “It was about 10 in the morning. I was preparing breakfast and I heard the explosion. I did not know what was going on. Then I heard another explosion and a relative called me. I knew there was something going on. I immediately turned on the TV and I saw people crying and full of blood. Some of them were dead, lying in the street.”

Just the day before, Ms. Morekli was near the British consulate located in Beyoglu - a commercial district dotted with foreign embassies. Her reaction to the bombers reflects what many Turks felt. “Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city. We have Jewish, Christian and Muslims living together peacefully for centuries. I really protest those criminals and terrorists. I felt hatred towards them. And I felt really terrified. I was worrying about my parents, my friends and myself because we face the danger of dying each day we go out. A little boy was crying and asked why does this happen? Why do other people kill humans?”

In all, flying bits of metal and shards of glass had ripped through nearly one thousand people, killing more than 60 -- most of whom were Turks. Britain's top diplomat in the city, Roger Short, was also killed. The attacks took place while President Bush met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London and as most Turks prepared to celebrate the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Turkish officials have arrested and charged more than 30 people in connection with the suicide attacks. Police seized enough explosives in one suspect's house for five truck bombs of the kind used in the assaults. Sabri Sayari is Director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University here in Washington. He points out that terrorism is not new in Turkey. During the 1980s and 90s, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, carried out terrorist attacks during its war with Turkish forces in the southeastern part of the country. Since the capture of its top leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the PKK has changed its name and says it has abandoned its weapons to campaign peacefully for Kurdish rights. “Turkey has had a long experience with terrorism, but of course, the proportions of this kind of massive terrorism has never been seen,” says Mr. Sayari. “In the past it has been with individual assassinations and rather small-scale bombings. Even though Turks were used to living in an environment of terrorism, they had never experienced this intense situation before, and I think it has created shock waves throughout the body politic and society.”

Turkish authorities have linked the suicide bombers to the nternational terrorist organization al-Qaida. Officials say many were trained in Afghanistan at Osama bin Laden's camps. Mr. Sayari believes al-Qaida selected Istanbul to frighten Turkey and other countries allied with the United States. “The perpetrators of these terrible bombings wanted to make a point that Turkey's relationship with the United States could bring greater danger to Turkey in the coming months and years.”

Zeyno Baran, Director of International Security and Energy Programs at the Nixon Center in Washington, agrees. Furthermore, she believes that Turkey has been a target of al-Qaida for quite some time. “The question is 'why Turkey?' It has been a NATO ally for over 50 years. It is the only Muslim NATO country. It has very close relations with the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as Israel - which are unique for a Muslim country.”

Some analysts say US-Turkish relations are showing strain. Washington was surprised last March when the Turkish parliament refused to let US troops invade Iraq from Turkey. Many Turkish people are deeply opposed to the war in Iraq, leading to a rise in anti-Americanism. Sabri Sayari of Georgetown University says the recent bombings have intensified those feelings: “the anti-American sentiments seem to have increased following the bombings in Istanbul. In the eyes of some people, Turkey is paying some kind of price for that close relationship in addition to its close ties with Israel. The bombings reflected a reaction to that kind of policy. This is not a predominant sentiment, but there is that feeling among substantial segments of the Turkish population.”

The Saturday following all four Istanbul blasts, 10,000 people turned out to protest these acts of terrorism. Observers say the crowd expressed outrage at the bombers but also some anger at US and British policies in Iraq. Some marchers chanted 'America is a Terrorist State,' and carried placards showed George Bush dressed as Osama bin Laden.

Educator Cigdem Morekli said “people were sad and really angry. They burned American flags in the street after the attacks. It was a small group, but I know that most Turks do not like US policy. There is a very strong negative feeling toward America because it started by sending troops to Iraq where lots of innocent people died.”

Ms. Morekli adds there is a widely held view among Turks that American power and perceived imperialism has incited global terrorists to strike at Turkey and other countries.

Sabri Sayari of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University says the terrorists chose Turkey for another reason: “they wanted to show that a moderate Islamic government is not the best government in their mind. An Islamic government should be much more radical in its orientation.”

Turkey is a rare meeting place of democracy and secular Islam. Born as a bold experiment by founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey rose from the remains of the decaying Ottoman Empire to become a secular Islamic nation. In 1923, Ataturk enforced far-reaching reforms to steer the country in what he considered a modern direction. He replaced religious laws with a secular system of jurisprudence. He adopted a Latin-based script for the Turkish alphabet, replacing the Arabic used by the Turks for a thousand years. Ataturk favored western-style dress, rejected headscarves and gave women the right to vote.

Since those changes, tensions between secularists and Islamists have not subdued. Analysts say Turkey remains vulnerable with ample targets. But the capture of many of those involved in the bombing and tighter security may make another attack less likely. In Istanbul, Cigdem Morekli feels safer than before, but concedes she recoils whenever she sees a parked truck - in fear that it will explode.