Like the failed coup in July and the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in December, the New Year’s Day nightclub massacre is suspected of being a CIA plot.
ISTANBUL — Turkish officials accused the United States of abetting a failed coup last summer. When the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated last month, the Turkish media said the United States was behind the attack.
And, after a gunman walked into an Istanbul nightclub early New Year’s Day and killed dozens, the pro-government news media pointed a finger at the United States.
“America Chief Suspect,” one headline blared after the attack. On Twitter, a Turkish lawmaker, referring to the name of the nightclub, wrote: “Whoever the triggerman is, Reina attack is an act of CIA. Period.”
Turkey has been confronted with a cascade of crises that seem to have accelerated as the Syrian civil war has spilled across the border. But the events have not pushed Turkey closer to its NATO allies. Indeed, they have drifted further apart as the nation lashes out at the U.S. and moves closer to Russia, working with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to secure a cease-fire in Syria.
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One story in the Turkish media, based on a routine travel warning issued by the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, was that the United States had advance knowledge of the nightclub attack, which the Islamic State group (ISIS) later claimed responsibility for. Another suggested that stun grenades used by the gunman had come from stocks held by the U.S. military. Still another claimed the assault was a plot by the United States to sow divisions in Turkey between the secular and the religious.
Rather than bringing the United States and Turkey together in the common fight against terrorism, the nightclub attack, even with the gunman still on the run, appears to have only accelerated Turkey’s shift away from the West at a time its democracy is eroding amid a growing crackdown on civil society.
All of this is a reflection, many critics say, of what they call the paranoia and authoritarianism of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose leadership has so divided the country that, instead of unifying to confront terrorism, Turkish society is fracturing further with each attack.
The West, symbolized by the United States, is the perennial boogeyman.
While seeming to pile on the Obama administration in its waning days — by accusing it of supporting Turkey’s enemies, including ISIS; Kurdish militants; and supporters of an outlawed Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blamed for directing the coup — Turkish officials are also telegraphing something else: They are willing to open the door and improve relations with the United States once President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
“Our expectation from the new administration is to end this shame,” Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said this week while accusing the United States of providing weapons to Kurdish militants in Syria who are fighting ISIS, but who are also an enemy of Turkey. “We are not holding the new administration responsible for this,” Yildirim said. “Because this is the work of the Obama administration.”
Meanwhile, the nightclub assailant remained at large Wednesday.
Turkish authorities said they had identified the killer but refused to release any details, although photographs of the man, from surveillance cameras, have been released. Also, a video surfaced that appeared to show the assailant recording himself in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
A senior U.S. official, who has been briefed on the investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Turks had recovered the video from a raid on a house in Istanbul. The official said the Turks now believed the killer was from Uzbekistan, not Kyrgyzstan, as many reports this week had first suggested.
The senior U.S. official expressed alarm at the growing anti-Americanism in Turkey, which seems to accumulate after each crisis, and said it put the lives of Americans in the country in jeopardy.
The chaotic investigation has added to the anxiety on Istanbul’s streets, with vehicle checkpoints, night raids on houses and low-flying helicopters.
“There is significant fear in ordinary people,” said Aydin Engin, a columnist at the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, who was detained last year as part of the government’s crackdown on the news media. “Fear prevails when it comes to going to an entertainment place, being in a crowd, going to a shopping mall, getting on the metro.”
In the days before and after the nightclub massacre on the shores of the Bosporus, nationalists staged a mock execution of Santa Claus in the name of defending Islam; a reporter for The Wall Street Journal was detained, strip-searched and placed in solitary confinement — for, according to the newspaper’s account, “violating a government ban on publication of images from an Islamic State video”; and a well-known fashion designer was beaten up at the Istanbul airport and arrested for his social-media posts.
“In a way, it’s basically a breakdown of order,” said Soli Ozel, a Turkish columnist and academic, seeking to explain the tumult in society. “Everyone feels entitled to do whatever they want to do and how they want to do it.”
While Turkey faces a growing terrorism threat, the country is also largely at war with itself, with deep divisions along many lines — religion, class, ethnicity — that make unity difficult even in a time of crisis. Perhaps the greatest source of division is between supporters of Erdogan, about half the country, and opponents who assert that he has become too powerful.
“Turkey is so deeply polarized around the powerful persona of Erdogan that, instead of asking why terror attacks are happening and how they can be stopped, the pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks in the country are blaming each other,” said Soner Cagaptay, a specialist on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is why I am deeply worried about Turkey and the country’s ability to stymie further terror attacks.”
Parliament voted overnight to extend by three months the state of emergency that went into effect last summer after the failed coup. The emergency grants Erdogan’s government extraordinary powers to detain perceived opponents and hold them in pretrial detention. Tens of thousands of people have either been arrested or been purged from their jobs on suspicion of having links to Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania.
Erdogan on Wednesday made his first public remarks since the attack early Sunday, a striking period of silence for a man who is normally ubiquitous in the public sphere, often giving speeches daily.
Erdogan, an Islamist, rejected criticism that his government, in pushing an Islamist agenda, had deepened divisions between the secular and the pious. Many on social media, in the aftermath of the nightclub attack, noted that the Turkish government’s religious authorities had denounced New Year’s celebrations as un-Islamic.
“As the president of all 79 million citizens,” Erdogan said, “it is my duty to protect everyone’s rights, law and spaces of freedom.”
Erdogan, who spoke this week with President Obama in a condolence call, also told his audience what he believed Turkey, in facing so many terrorist attacks, was really up against: a plot by the West.
Invoking the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the subsequent Turkish war against Western armies and their proxies, he said, “Today Turkey is in a new struggle for independence.”