As the dust settles in the US Embassy bombing in Ankara, questions have started to be asked already about whether there was a serious lapse in security on the part of Turkey, as well as some European countries, given that the suicide bomber involved was known to have a record, and yet appears to have traveled freely. He did under an assumed name, from Germany, entering Turkey from Greece in order to carry out this attack.
Many are wondering if the attack, which killed a Turkish security guard and seriously injured a well-known television reporter, could have been prevented with more vigilant surveillance and international cooperation against terrorism. Prompting these questions is the fact that Ecevit Sanli, who carried out the attack on the US Embassy, was a well known member of the ultra-left wing Revolutionary People's Liberation Army-Front (DHKP-C), which is designated as a terrorist group internationally.
The group, which is driven by a Marxist-Leninist ideology, is opposed to the US and to NATO, and says the Turkish government is a lackey to Western imperialism. It declares its aim to be to put an end to this by violent means. The DHKP-C shot to prominence after it killed the well-known Turkish businessman and industrialist Ozdemir Sabanci in his office in Istanbul, in 1996, together with his secretary and an associate.
Fehriye Erdal, one of the perpetrators who had been lodged in the company beforehand as a tea girl by the group to let the killers into the building, escaped to Belgium after the attack where, Turkish officials claim, she received legal protection against extradition by citing the state of human rights in Turkey. She was tried in Belgium, where she was only held under house arrest, and escaped shortly before her conviction. The topic remains a sore point in Turkish-Belgian ties.
The fact that Sanli’s identity was established within hours of his attack on the US Embassy from his finger print, and a mole on his severed head, indicates that information on him was available and easily accessible. His criminal record, on the other hand, stretches back 20 year and includes highly publicized RPG attacks on a military facility and the police headquarters in Istanbul in August 1997.
Sanli was also know to the public after his face appeared on the front page of the mass circulation daily Hurriyet, following his arrest for involvement in those attacks. The media is reporting that Sanli, who was born in 1973 in the Black Sea city of Ordu, joined the DHKP-C in 1996 and received training to become an active member of the urban terrorist group’s so-called “Armed Propaganda Unit.”
After his arrest for the 1997 attacks, he joined the hunger strike by scores of inmates in 2000, most of who had been convicted under anti-terrorism legislation for being members of radical leftist groups. In 2001 he was diagnosed with the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a chronic memory disorder caused by severe deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B-1), while still on hunger strike, and released conditionally, under a partial amnesty.
Sanli is said to have escaped to Germany via Syria shortly after his release and reportedly lived there until returning to Turkey only recently to carry out the attack against the US Embassy. Sanli’s suicide bombing came only a few days after a massive operation by security forces against the DHKP-C. The police are investigating if there is a link between these two events.
Some, however, are questioning whether the recent operation against the group in Turkey was done in cooperation with Interpol, Europol and national security organizations in various European countries, given that the DHKP-C is known to have senior members and activists living in Europe, where they not only recruit new members from among the Turkish communities, but also engage in fund raising activities. The suggestion is that such cooperation could have brought about Sanli’s capture as he was entering Turkey with false documents.
The Turkish media said on Saturday that the Turkish foreign ministry is maintaining close contact with the German foreign ministry, as security officials from both countries search to see who Sanli's accomplices in Germany might be, and where he got the logistical support that enabled him to travel to Turkey incognito. The hope is that any lead from Germany will also shed light on who sheltered him in Turkey, and provided him with 6 kilograms of TNT, as well as the hand grenade, which was found later unexploded, after his attack.
Meanwhile, in a statement after the attack, the DHKP-C claimed responsibility, saying that the target was “America and the collaborationist Turkish government which has turned the country into an American and NATO base.”
Three people were detained in Ankara and Istanbul on Saturday for questioning in connection with the attack, as the police investigation, said to also involve CIA personnel stationed in Ankara, goes on in Turkey, in Germany and other countries in Europe where DHKP-C members are known to reside.
Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English language Hurriyet Daily News.