Anxiety in Ankara: Assassination, Geopolitics, and Democracy in Turkey
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. BY AHMET S. YAYLA, PH.D.
On December 19, 2016, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was assassinated by Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty police officer, in Ankara during an art exhibit. The assassination took place at a critical junction, as Turkey and Russia have just started to repair their broken relationship due to the earlier downing of a Russian jet fighter. Furthermore, it also coincided with historic meetings between Turkey, Russia, and Iran to create a Syrian peace treaty, where Turkey gave up almost all political and military positions regarding the Syrian crisis.
The assassination itself still has many unanswered questions: was the assassin acting alone or on someone’s behalf or with the assistance of others; why did Turkish intelligence and law enforcement forces not provide sufficient security for the ambassador; what was the motive behind the attack and why was the assassin killed rather than captured? Additionally, a Turkish judge issued a media ban on the attack, making it more difficult to understand and reveal facts about the assassination. In order to inform the international community and reduce the chances of such an attack happening against other diplomatic dignitaries in Turkey, the Turkish government needs to be transparent about the findings of the investigation, demonstrating it has solid, objective evidence provided in a timely manner.
I graduated from an American university with Ph.D. in criminal justice in the summer of 2005 and returned back to Turkey to work for the Ankara Police Department’s counterterrorism and operations division. This assassination has reminded me of another high-profile killing which happened in Ankara in 2006. On May 17 of that year Alparslan Arslan, a lawyer, used his official ID to enter the council of state court building in Ankara, circumventing security checks. Once inside, he attacked a session of the council of Turkish State members, killing one and wounding four. Luckily, a police officer who was working on the Court’s security detail managed to catch Arslan alive and handed him over to the counterterrorism division. As we started to investigate the assassination two disturbing details arose. First, the security camera recordings at the high court building were erased immediately after the attack . Second, as I started to interrogate Arslan, I was surprised in several ways: Arslan was not acting like a suspect who just killed somebody. He had very high self-esteem, was very relaxed, and tried to portray what he had done as quite normal. As I spoke to him he told me, “not to worry myself too much and let me be as I will get out of prison very soon.” I asked him how and he said “there will be a coup and I will come out as a hero.” When I confronted him, asking how he was so sure of such a thing, he said “this is what I know and will not comment more.” This conversation was recorded during the interrogations in the Ankara counterterrorism and operations interview room and the video is still available in police archives.
When I look at the assassination of the Russian ambassador, I see a lot of similarities. First of all, the attack was carried out by a police officer who allegedly entered the art gallery by using his official police ID. Additionally, as I watch the videos available from different angles during and after the shooting, it was very obvious that the assassin prepared for his attack professionally. He was very relaxed and almost too calm before he killed the ambassador. He patiently waited while acting like a security guard. It appears he planned every detail of his attack, including his speech with Arabic quotes. Moreover, just like Arslan, he was also sure what was going to happen to him. Only this time, according to his own words, he wanted to die instead of fleeing the crime scene alive. In contrast to the common practice during hostage takings, the killer let everybody in the art gallery leave while he remained in the room with his gun. The assassin wore a slim black suit and, based on the video recordings, had only a hand gun. His clothing was not bulky, indicating he did not carry additional weapons. In fact, he might have had at most a spare magazine, giving him the chance to have twenty more bullets after shooting the ambassador eleven times. These details raise several questions.
First, a regular riot police officer does not have access to the schedule of the Russian ambassador. Further, according to reports, Ambassador Karlov decided to attend the program just two hours prior to the event. Additionally, the assassin had obviously surveyed the crime scene and surroundings in advance as he prepared for the attack. Therefore, one of the most important questions to ask is how the assassin received details of the ambassador’s schedule as well as have time to conduct surveillance. Second, it is a very well-known police procedure in Turkey that a high value target - like the assassin of an Ambassador - should be apprehended alive if possible. After all, these kinds of attacks could spark greater events or be tied to future plans. Instead of capturing the assassin alive, the Ankara police opted to kill him at the scene, eliminating the most important piece of evidence – the assassin himself. A suspect with only a handgun and limited ammunition should have easily been captured alive. I wonder many things: were there negotiations with the suspect; why the police did not use any tear gas to incapacitate the suspect; why didn’t they incapacitate him by wounding him; and why were the police so impatient, as the priority in such cases is to always capture the suspect alive? There seems to be no logical explanation for killing the assassin. This alone raises the most critical suspicion about the attack and its aftermath.
The attacker was very sure of himself and his speech as he addressed people at the exhibit, perhaps memorizing Arabic references from al-Qaeda nasheeds. Also, his speech had specific references to jihadi literature, such as “emin beldeler” – safe places - and the police found three books related to al-Nusra in his hotel room. It is highly likely that this officer’s radical views were known among his peers at the riot police. If this is the case, the question is obvious: how was he allowed to continue to serve as a police officer with open Salafist jihadist ideas? Riot police officers work very closely, in groups of ten to twenty, often waiting for long hours without doing anything. This would give other officers and team leaders ample time to assess the assassin’s thinking and report it. This never happened. Some might argue the assassin could have deliberately hidden his views from those around him, but such a task is structurally very difficult by the riot police work environment.
The attacker graduated from the Izmir Rustu Unsal Police School in 2014. After the December 2013 corruption operations against Erdogan’s son and his close circle, the AKP did not allow graduates of the police schools to become officers unless they were proven loyal to the AKP. Thus, Altintas could only have become an officer after receiving open support from AKP members, as hundreds of other police school graduates did not become officers in 2014. In addition, he was transferred from Diyarbakir to Ankara after working only one year as an officer in Diyarbakir. This, by regulation, is actually impossible in Turkey. I served in the Turkish National Police (TNP) for twenty years and the TNP administration closely follows this rule without bending it. Normally, only ministerial or prime ministerial level interference would result in the transfer of an officer from Diyarbakir to Ankara after just one year. Typically, at least three years of service is mandatory before a move. This raises significant questions and needs to be explained.
In another break with standard norms, Interior minister Suleyman Soylu was reported to have directed the police operation against the assassin. It is very uncommon for a cabinet minister to direct a counterterrorism operation. In fact, even a city chief of police does not get directly involved in such operations, as they also require special training and experience. Under normal circumstances, the chief and deputy chiefs of the counter-terrorism and operations division and the chief of Special Operations (SWAT) would come together at the crime scene to plan and execute maneuvers. In Turkey, the chief of counter-terrorism operations is the police operative who is by law assigned as the legally responsible person for such command. Therefore, the Interior minister should not have had any say in such operations at all, let alone led them with impunity. In addition to Soylu being at the crime scene immediately after the attack, there were allegations about the assassin’s roommate (a lawyer whose law office was searched and locked after the attack) having relationships with several high level AKP members, including Soylu himself. Allegedly, it was after an interview with the assassin’s sister to Hurriyet daily that several pictures appeared on social media showing Soylu with the assassin’s roommate and compelled the subsequent court ban on reporting the case. This instantly put an end on any news or social media posts related to the assassination and investigation.
Further complicating the situation, Minister Soylu was transferred to the AKP in 2012 , later becoming its deputy director. Before that he was the General Director of the True Path Party (DYP). Soylu became the general director of the DYP after Mehmet Agar. Agar is widely known as a representative of the so called “deep state” in Turkey, a vigilante organization formed by high-level officers carrying out murders, especially after the infamous “Susurluk case” for which he was sentenced to five-years imprisonment . This connection is also an essential tie which is being overlooked entirely. The assassination happened at a time of great political and economic distress in Turkey. President Erdogan and his administration changed their Syrian policies and partnered with Russia and Iran, abandoning their ambitions in Aleppo. Erdogan personally asked al-Nusra members to leave Aleppo. In fact, several jihadist organizations, including al-Nusra and Ahrar-usham and their affiliates, likely felt back-stabbed as Turkey signed the treaty with Russia and Iran, guaranteeing the integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Government and by extension Bashar Assad. This assassination, like the downing of the Russian jet, crippled Turkey’s independent stand against Russia, almost compelling them to approve all of Putin’s demands.
Turkey needs to answer the unanswered questions behind the assassination. The details of the investigation and the more sinister ambiguities of the attack, including the potential ties of the assassin and his close circle to formal government, must be revealed to the public. Assassination on an ambassador in the heart of Turkey’s capitol by a police officer with a state-issued gun is a crime that cannot be ignored. Until the unresolved questions are clarified foreign delegations may not feel safe in Ankara, creating another huge setback in Turkish democracy, the rule of law, and the country’s global standing.