International Papers

Terrorist Whodunits

Was al-Qaida responsible for the bombings in Istanbul and Riyadh?

Saturday’s Istanbul synagogue bombings in which 24 people were killed, coming so soon after a car-bomb attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were seen by many regional papers as the work of al-Qaida. The Israeli government saw a more pervasive evil, drawing a link between what happened in Turkey and anti-Semitism in the Arab world and Europe.

This attracted the interest of the London-based Al-Hayat, which headlined its story: “Israel Links the Two Attacks in Istanbul to ‘Provocations’ in the Arab and Muslim States.” The paper went on to quote Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom saying, during a visit to Turkey Sunday, that there was a connection between verbal and criminal terrorism. Beirut’s Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, had a different take, arguing that Israel was trying to take advantage of the bombings to improve relations with Turkey. The paper’s Istanbul correspondent wrote that Shalom had met with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, and “called for Israeli-Turkish coordination in fighting terrorism; however his invitation did not provoke much response from Gul, who said the attacks were directed against all Turks, not only Jews.” Significantly, Shalom did not meet Turkey’s prime minister, and while the Beirut paper was too eager to interpret this as an indication of tension between the two countries, the moderate Islamists at the head of the Turkish government have indeed been more ambiguous about Turkish-Israeli relations than their predecessors.

Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the blasts in a statement sent to the London-based Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi that asserted, “the attacks were carried out by ‘the Abu Hafs Masri Brigades,’ ” named for a former associate of Osama Bin Laden’s. According to a senior Israeli political source in Istanbul quoted in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “[I]n recent weeks the Turkish authorities had received forewarning of intentions on the part of terror organizations to mount attacks against Jewish targets in [Turkey,] and that similar information had reached the security services in Israel, including the Mossad.” However, the paper added, “Defense establishment sources … again denied yesterday that the Mossad had relayed a warning to the Turkish authorities regarding possible attacks on synagogues.” Turkish papers also mentioned early warnings of attacks, with the daily Milliyet observing in its Saturday edition: “The first sign of the attacks on the synagogues was seen a month ago. There was an increase in threats against our Jewish citizens.” Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reported that a security camera at one of the synagogues had caught a suicide bomber on film: “Turkish authorities said the video was ‘not clear’ but that intelligence services are working on making an identification.”

Amid all the talk of al-Qaida’s role in the Istanbul incident, it was easy to overlook a front-page piece in Sunday’s Al-Hayat that suggested the terrorist group had nothing to do with the bombing of a housing complex in Riyadh over a week ago. According to the story, al-Qaida issued a statement on a jihadist Web site saying it was behind all the attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, but “we have no ties whatsoever to the operations in Riyadh or the targeting of the Al-Muhaya housing complex.” It is difficult to say how authoritative the statement is, since there are few other obvious culprits in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the notion that al-Qaida has been behind all anti-American attacks in Iraq is ridiculous, particularly with U.S. intelligence agencies increasingly convinced that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein planned the postwar guerrilla campaign before the war began (one such scenario was described in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star last August).

While al-Qaida stole the limelight, Lebanon’s Hezbollah upped the ante on the Israeli government. There has been speculation for weeks that Israel and the Islamist group were about to exchange prisoners and the remains of combatants, and last week Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon managed to get his reluctant Cabinet to approve a swap. Now, because of a last-minute snafu involving a Lebanese prisoner whom Israel refuses to release because he was responsible for the death of Israeli civilians, the deal may collapse. According to  Al-Mustaqbal, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah informed a mediator that he would not agree to any deal without the prisoner. This puts Sharon in a quandary, since he expended a great deal of political capital to see the deal through. However, Nasrallah is also keen to have the prisoners released because he gets many more in the trade than Israel does. The bargaining continues.