Turkish security forces are claiming a breakthrough in their battle against Islamic State, with the capture of the chief suspect in the New Year’s shooting rampage on an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people.
In a late night raid Monday, anti-terror seized Abdulkadir Masharipov, a 34-year-old Uzbek, in what is described as a luxurious apartment in the Esenyurt suburb of Istanbul. An Iraqi and three women from Egypt, Senegal and Somalia also were detained.
“The vile terrorist who attacked the place of entertainment on New Year’s Eve and led to the loss of so many lives has been captured,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters in Ankara.
The Istanbul governor, Vasip Sahin, speaking to reporters Tuesday, said Masharipov had confessed to the attack and that the suspect's fingerprints matched those found at the Istanbul club. He noted that all those detained Monday are suspected of belonging to an Islamic State cell.
"It is clear that [Masharipov] staged the attack on behalf of Daesh," said Sahin, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "He was trained in Afghanistan and can speak four languages. He's a well-trained terrorist."
The governor said Masharipov's arrest was part of a well-coordinated operation.
"Five addresses were tracked and operations were carried out against them," said Sahin.
The arrest of the suspected gunman follows one of the largest manhunts in Turkey’s history. The Istanbul governor said more than 2,000 police officers were involved in what he called a difficult and complex investigation.
"It was like digging a well with a needle," said the governor.
The capture of the suspect alive also is seen as an important breakthrough. Experts say that Islamic State suspects usually kill themselves prior to capture.
Investigators are expected to focus on what assistance Masharipov may have received.
"Our war with terror and the powers behind it will continue to the end," tweeted Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus on news of the arrest. Kurtulmus repeatedly has accused foreign intelligence services of being involved in the New Year’s attack without naming any specific country.
Turkish media, citing intelligence sources, say the manhunt for Masharipov has revealed as many as 20 Islamic State networks within Turkey. The Istanbul governor said more than 160 foreign jihadists had been detained, along with 50 Turkish citizens during the two-week investigation.
Turkish security forces and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had faced growing criticism over the failure to find the attacker, given that a clear image of the suspect existed. That criticism was stoked by the threat of further attacks by Islamic State.
"Turkey will remain a target for the Islamic State militants for the foreseeable future, given that Turkey is engaged in a bitter campaign against the Islamic State in Syria," warned analyst Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar of the Carnegie Institute in Europe.
A video purported to be put out by Islamic State currently is circulating on social media in Turkey. In it, the group specifically targets Istanbul. Analysts warn Turkey is paying a price for its past policy of offering broad support to any group fighting the Syrian regime.
"In recent years they [Islamic State] have exploited this permissive environment to the utmost in their abilities," said Haldun Solmazturk of the 21st Century Turkey Institute. "In a sense they were given a free hand to further radicalize Turkish society. It is a beast of our own creation."
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismisses such criticism, insisting his country’s record is second to none in fighting Islamic State.
"In this country, no one will get away with what they have done," said Erdogan, thanking security forces and government officials for their efforts to seize Masharipov.
The capture likely will give the government respite in the face of mounting opposition criticism over the failure to stem 18 months of terror attacks which have claimed more than 400 lives.
Some experts caution, though, that the war against terror is likely to be long and bitter, and that all tools need to be employed.
"Turkey will need to strengthen both the abilities of its intelligence and security forces, to prevent these attacks," said analyst Ulgen, "but this will need to go hand in hand with something that has been missing so far, from the Turkish government, a strategy to tackle the issue of radicalization at home."