Inside an al-Qaeda-Linked Terrorist Attack
Wednesday, February 14, 2007; 11:00 AM
Transcripts of suspect interrogations following deadly bombings in Turkey have provided a detailed window on how an al-Qaeda-aligned terror cell formed, developed a plot and carried out its attack.
Washington Post reporter Karl Vick was online Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 11 a.m. ET to answer readers questions about his article on the group, whose Istanbul bombings killed 58 and wounded 750.
Al-Qaeda's Hand In Istanbul Plot (Post, Feb. 13)
The transcript follows.
Karl Vick: Good morning. And it's still the shank of the day here in California, where I find myself today, and where the sun is shining on a good deal less snow and ice than certain other places. Thanks for the attention, and let's get to the questions.
washingtonpost.com: Did al-Qaeda provide the Istanbul cell with any aid other than advice and money (logistical support, materials, etc.)? Had any of the participants worked with al-Qaeda operatives before as mujaheddin in prior conflicts?
Karl Vick: I think the article laid out as much as we know of the assistance al-Qaeda made available to the Istanbul cell: money, bomb-making expertise (apparently gained at the training camps in Afghanistan) and apparently some logistical help, perhaps through Sakka, who during several years in Turkey was an expert key provider of fake passports and other help. His job then was to facilitate the movement of young men passing through Turkey on their way to fight in Bosnia or Chechnya.
Turkish officials pretty much turned a blind eye to that, according to lawyers and diplomats -- at least until 9/11, when the Americans put pressure on Turkey to intercept possible al-Qaeda transiting its borders. Some believe this change in behavior by the Turks played a role in the Istanbul bombings. Until then, Turkey had never been a target of this group, despite having a secular government that offends many Islamist militants.
washingtonpost.com: What have been the results of Turkey's investigation into the bombings? Have many of those detained been convicted, or for that matter released?
Karl Vick: The Turks have about 70 people still on trial in Istanbul on charges related to the bombings. About half of the 70 appear to be on the periphery of the alleged plot, indeed some on the far, far fringe.
About a year ago the Istanbul prosecutors prepared a document summarizing the evidence against each of the accused and recommending either the charge be dropped or the case pushed forward. In a bunch of cases the recommendation was for dismissing the charge. That did not happen, however. There was talk among lawyers involved in the case that the Americans, whose consulate originally was supposed to be a target in the plot, or the British, whose consulate was hit instead because it was easier to get to, urged the Turks to press on.
This was about the time Mr. Sakka was captured in southeast Turkey and added to the roster of defendants. No one has been convicted yet. The trial is due to convene on Thursday and Friday in a very small, rather grubby little courtroom beside the Bosporous Strait. The modesty of the building just may say something about the regard Turkey has for its own justice system.. I'm told it's possible there will be a verdict Friday, but no one knows. Judgment will be by judges; there's no jury involved.
Arlington, Va.: From your article it seems that al-Qaeda was always against Israel and not as an afterthought as has been widely mentioned in the news. Is this an accepted view these days? Thanks.
Karl Vick: Oh, I think any of the groups that identify themselves as militant and Muslim will pretty reliably run those words together -- "Israel and America." Bin Laden, when he first announced the formation of the group that became known as al-Qaeda, may have been the odd sock for focusing as intently as he did on the United States, but then his issue was a pretty specific one, cheesed as he was at the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil since the 1991 Gulf War.
In the Istanbul plot, the original plan was to target an Israeli cruise ship, the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, plus the American military presence at the Incirlik base in Southeast Turkey, near Adana.
The plan changed when the consulates proved too hard to reach with truck bombs -- the Israelis keep themselves buttoned-up in a high rise, while the Americans had just moved out of a wonderful old wreck in downtown Istanbul and into a spanking new consulate perched on a hill like a castle (or a minimum security prison). The air base was, of course, well-protected, and the cruise ship didn't show up when the bombers expected.
At the very last minute, the whole plot in fact was pushed back a week while a suicide bomber drove back to Istanbul from the Turkish coast, where he'd gone to detonate dockside.
Arlington, Va.: Stories like this make me wonder, how in the world did you acquire such detail, like exact quotes of who said what during the plotting? It's not that I doubt your journalistic credibility, I just can't imagine how it's possible, so I give you and other journalists and nonfiction authors credit for being able to nail down such detail.
Karl Vick: That's an entirely natural and quite good question. We tried to address the question of attribution in the story, but you're right, this level of detail makes the reader wonder.
The lion's share of the material came from transcripts of police interrogations. These transcripts were entered into the court record, and we made copies. They are incredibly detailed.
"I know Habib Aktas. He's about 180 centimeters, about 80 kilograms, dark hair, brown eyes, mustache; he speaks Arabic," says the one in front of me now, signed by a defendant named Osman Eken, who married the main plotter's sister. "I got to know him at Asrin Sports Hall about a year ago. We became friends there. At that time I was thinking about getting married and I told him that I would like to get married if he found a girl with a nice character and ethics."
We went through dozens, maybe hundreds of pages of this stuff. By we I mean my translator and I. She read aloud from her desk; I typed at mine. The story took months to put together.
Princeton, N.J.: Is it true that al-Qaeda's original two objectives were to get U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia and to overthrow secular Arab Rulers? If so, how could we ever believe that they would cooperate with Saddam? Once Osama bin Laden learned his trade in Afghanistan fighting the USSR, and saw how a small group of fanatics could defeat a major power (and indeed contribute to the fall of that power), don't you believe he is pleased that he has suckered the U.S. into two similar wars? Perhaps the above two comments explain why he has not attacked the U.S. Why rock the boat when you are winning?
Karl Vick: Those two objectives certainly were the stated goals as the group formed. I suppose there might be some quarrel over whether the objection to the Arab rulers was their secular orientation. What bin Laden and others usually condemn them for is for doing the bidding of the West or for corruption.
In these circles, the US commonly is referred to as the "far enemy"and the corrupt national leader as the "near enemy." It's been widely observed that the war in Iraq brought the "far enemy" near.
No one of course knows whether al-Qaeda -- or people inspired by its example -- do not have the capacity to strike inside the U.S. or simply have chosen not to. There's no question that war in Iraq certainly has fired up a lot of Muslims who previously were dismissive of the likes of al-Qaeda. I've seen that in Turkey, where it's a might hard to be a militant.
washingtonpost.com: As a 47-year-old family man, Ilyas Kuncak seems very different from the disaffected youth we've typically seen participating in these terror cells. Do you have any more background information on him and how he came to be involved in the bombing plot?
Karl Vick: Not much, I'm afraid. The conspiracy as laid out by the Turkish police involves several overlapping networks, and one of those networks is family -- Kuncak was related by marriage to at least one other member of the plot. He ran a nice little shop selling spices and nuts in a working class neighborhood of Istanbul, out near the airport. It was just down the street from a mosque that was filled to capacity for Friday prayers, the neighborhood brimming with families that had moved to Turkey's mega-city from the Anatolian heartland where faith is much more part of the fabric of life than is apparent in the more glamorous parts of Istanbul frequented by tourists.
Fairfax, Va.: What about those new allegedly manufactured by Iran bombs that are extremely powerful that are now being used in Iraq? And is, in fact, Iran supplying arms to al-Qaeda?
Karl Vick: We're a bit off-point here, but the confusion may be instructive. I've of course no idea what Iran might be doing in Iraq, but having spent a lot of time in both places over the past few years I have at least an inkling of what seems logical and what doesn't.
Iran is an overwhelmingly Shiite country. To the extent that its leaders see common cause with the Shia majority in the country next door, it might see an interest in providing weapons or other support to Iraqi militias that are Shiites, and who claim to be protecting the Shiite population.
Protecting them against whom? Well, first and foremost against Sunni extremists such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. I know of no credible person who says Iran is arming both sides in the emerging Iraqi civil war.
That doesn't mean it could not be happening; right before the war, an extremist Sunni group called Ansar al Islam appeared to be getting its spanking-new mortars from Iran, and Iran certainly was letting Ansar fighters transit Iranian territory and border points with impunity. But at the time, Ansar was fighting the secular Kurds of northern Iraq, and Iran evidently saw Ansar as its cats paw in a regional game aimed at keeping the Kurdish party off balance.
The situation is of another whole order of magnitude now that the Sunni-Shia tensions across Iraq are threatening to spread across the entire Middle East. Just much, much higher stakes and scrutiny.
Utrecht, Netherlands: As I recall, their primary targets were American and Israeli buildings. Besides being a London-based bank, was there any reason to specifically attack the HSBC building, and not another Western bank? For example was there any connection between the HSBC attack and the British support for EU membership of Turkey?
Karl Vick: Not that I know of. I don't think the EU stuff was a factor at all in any of this; in fact I don't recall seeing those two letters in any of the transcripts.
I gather the bank was simply a symbolic target. It's actually quite hard to find either an Anglo or American logo or commercial presence in Istanbul, and certainly no easier since the bombings....
Karl Vick: That's all we have time for today. Thanks much, and watch your step.
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