Turkish Kurds join suicide bombers’ ranks

People hold placards that reads ''We know the killer'' during a commemoration for the victims of the October 10 bombings on October 17, 2015 downtown Kadikoy in Istanbul. The death toll from the double suicide bombing in Ankara last weekend now stands at 102, prosecutors in the capital said on October 16, raising the previous official toll of 99 people. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

The town of Adiyaman, in the largely Kurdish south-east of Turkey, was once known for growing tobacco. But it has recently won a new notoriety: as the home town of the country’s deadliest terror cell.

Members from a local group trained by Isis have been blamed for the deaths of more than 130 people in little more than four months in attacks that have mainly targeted Turkey’s Kurdish minority and its supporters.

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Beyond the horrific toll of the suicide attacks, the group has also attracted notice for something else: The 21-man cell includes several Kurds, who are among Isis’ most bitter foes across the border in Syria.

Their recruitment by jihadis to carry out attacks killing their brethren is another sign of the complexity of Turkey’s worsening violence, in which religious sectarianism sometimes trumps ethnic bonds.

Fully 18 of the cell’s members came from Adiyaman, and adopted the violent creed of jihad in a transformation family members say was public and yet disregarded by authorities. Turkish media reports say the country’s security agencies circulated the list of the 21 men but did little to stop them.

Two of the men, Omer Deniz Dundar and Yunus Emre Alagoz, killed at least 102 people a week ago, detonating 10kg of explosives reinforced with ball bearings at a peace rally in Ankara — the worst such attack Turkey has suffered.

Alagoz’s younger brother, Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz, blew himself up three months earlier in the middle of a crowd of pro-Kurdish activists in Suruc, a town near the Syrian border, in an attack that claimed 33 lives. A month before that, another young Adiyaman man, Orhan Gonder, an ethnic Kurd, is reported to have planted two bombs that killed four people at a Kurdish political rally in Diyarbakir, the regional capital.

Map: Turkey and Syria

The impoverished south-east is well known as the breeding ground for armed Kurdish insurgents fighting the Turkish government. But much of the region is also deeply conservative — and many locals like Orhan Gonder have joined the ranks of violent Islamists, whether in Syria or Turkey itself.

Gonder’s older cousin, Ercan Gonder, had noticed odd changes in his relative’s behaviour at the end of 2013. “He wouldn’t sit at the same table with his sisters; he started to grow distant from his family, he decided to stop studying,” he recalls. “We found a book about jihadi fighters in Chechnya and Afghanistan in his bedroom. He begged us not to burn it.”

Orhan also began to spend more time with Dundar and a larger group of young men, all of whom appeared to grow more radicalised by the day. They set up an “Islamic tea house”, where they congregated for months. “They started to grow beards, to wear different clothes, and to eat only one meal a day instead of three,” says Mr Gonder.

In October 2014, Orhan berated his older cousin for delivering aid to Kurdish refugees displaced by fighting with Isis militants in Kobani, a Syrian town. “He said I shouldn’t help them, because they were infidels,” Ercan remembers. “I was livid.”

Days later, following deadly clashes between Kurds, police and Islamists in several Turkish cities, Orhan Gonder, Dundar, Dundar’s twin brother Mahmut Gazi and most of the other young radicals disappeared — presumably to Syria.

Today, attention is focusing on how four of them were able to sneak back into Turkey and move around seemingly undetected before launching their attacks. Still more urgent is the question of whether other members of the cell are poised to strike elsewhere.

“There must undoubtedly be a mistake, a shortcoming in some place,” acknowledged Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president. “This will emerge after examinations.” The Ankara police, intelligence and security chiefs have been suspended.

But for Osman Suzen, the head of the Adiyaman branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, and for the bombers’ families, the issue goes much deeper than lapses at the Ankara rally.

“What allowed Isis to organise so easily here, and what prevented any effective investigation from being launched, was Turkey’s policy in Syria,” he says. “The government used to say that everyone fighting Bashar al-Assad was its friend . . . This encouraged these young people, it gave them a sense of legitimacy.”

Ankara fervently denies backing jihadis against Mr Assad’s regime. But both Isis and the Turkish government have a common foe: Kurdish militants.

For two years, Mr Suzen and others repeatedly tried to warn the authorities that young men and women across Adiyaman were turning to a radical, violent strand of Islam.

In 2013, Dundar’s father alerted police officials that both his twin sons had travelled to Syria to wage jihad. When they returned, he pleaded with the authorities to arrest Omer Deniz, who would later become one of the Ankara bombers. His daughter wrote letters to the offices of the president and prime minister, asking for help.

Officials questioned Gonder, who denied any extremist sympathies. He was let go.

A probe was reportedly launched into 19 suspects, including the Dundars, on suspicion of al-Qaeda links in 2014, but was later dropped.

Mr Suzen is bewildered. “When it comes to the [outlawed Kurdish militants of the] PKK, you see mass police operations, people get put in jail for the smallest thing,” he says. “But in Adiyaman, there has been no effective investigation, no arrests, nothing.”

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