When the United States Embassy in Ankara was hit this Friday by a suicide bomber, it was widely presumed that this must be yet another al-Qaeda attack on an American target. It soon turned out, however, that the bomber, Ecevit Şanlı, 39, was a member of a radical communist group: The DHKP-C, or the outlawed People's Revolutionary Liberation Army-Front, which is one of Turkey's infamous Marxist-Leninist terror organizations.
This revelation came a few hours after the attack, when Interior Minister Muammer Güler informed the press that the bomber was identified thanks to the security cameras. He added that, unfortunately, the suicide bomber killed not only himself but also Mustafa Akarsu, 47, who was a security guard working at the embassy for 20 years and was hoping to retire soon to move to the United States with his daughters. A female journalist, Didem Tuncay, who just happened to be visiting the embassy at the moment, also got seriously injured.
The authorities later disclosed Ecevit Şanlı’s history of violence. He was first arrested in 1997, for taking part in the terrorist cell that attacked the Military Club in Istanbul with a light anti-armor weapon. He remained in prison until 2001, when he was released due to his Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which was caused by the malnutrition he suffered during the hunger strikes that left-wing groups in Turkish prisons had initiated the year before. Şanlı's father, who was traumatized after Friday's attack, said to the press that his son had not talked to him for 15 years.
And one day after the embassy attack, the DHKP-C claimed the attack with a message on the Internet. The bombing, the message explained, was carried out “for the independence of our homeland, which has become America’s new colony.”
All this might sound a bit unbelievable to the Western ears, for militant communism seems to be passé in the West and indeed much of the world. However, in Turkey, militant Marxist groups have been active since the late '60s. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 surely discouraged many of their comrades, but others swore loyalty to the cause, including some with violent means. The "Dev-Sol" (abbreviation of "Revolutionary Left") was the spearhead of this terrorist line, as the organization carried out assassinations against prominent businessmen ("the bourgeoisie"), American soldiers in Turkey ("the imperialists") and Turkish policemen.
In 1994, Dev-Sol adopted a new name, the DHKP-C of today, whose stated aim has been to abolish the democratic system in Turkey and establish a Marxist-Leninist order. Over the years, the DHKP-C organized various attacks, some in the form of suicide bombings, against police targets in Istanbul. The organization is on the terrorism list of the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
But why did this recent attack on the American Embassy occur and why now? This is still a matter of speculation, because the bomber apparently did not leave any statement or any other clue behind. Yet experts in Turkey offer a few compelling points.
First, while the DHKP-C has always been militantly anti-American, due to the war in Syria this has recently become a more prominent theme for the organization, as was also evident in the Internet message it released after Friday's bombing. Like much of the Turkish left, the DHKP-C sees the Syrian opposition as a pawn of the United States and its “comprador” Arab allies against the left wing and patriotic regime of Bashar al-Assad. The same political line also condemns the Turkish government for joining this “Islamist/capitalist” conspiracy against Syria. The recent installment of patriot missiles near Turkey’s Syrian border by the NATO only further enraged Turkey’s leftists, which certainly include the DHKP-C.
Second, there is a fact about the DHKP-C, and Turkish Marxists groups in general, which is perhaps politically incorrect to say, but a fact nonetheless. The majority of their members come from Turkey’s Alevi minority, which is an unorthodox and largely secular branch of Islam. It is also known that not all but most Alevis in Turkey tend to be sympathetic to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which itself relies on the support of the Alewi minority there. (Turkey’s Alevis and Syria’s Alewites are not identical, but similar.)
Moreover, the DHKP-C has a history of cooperation with the Syrian Mukhabarat, as some captured members of the group had confessed in the past that they were trained in Syria during the '90s, when Damascus was again at odds with Ankara.
A Turkish terrorism expert, Ali Nihat Özcan, points out these nuances in an analysis he wrote on the Ankara bombing. “The historical background, sectarian character and ideological motivation of [the DHKP-C],” he argues, “points to a strong connection to Syrian Intelligence.”
Certainly, new information can shed more light on the event in the near future, but for now two things seem obvious: Firstly, the bomber was a militant communist. Secondly, his vision of the Middle East was not too different from that of the Syrian regime.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, and a columnist for two Turkish newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.