It wasn’t ISIL that attacked US sailors in Turkey. That’s good… and bad

Is it safe for Americans?
Is it safe for Americans?
Image: Reuters/Murad Sezer
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As silver linings go, this one’s pretty faint: The men who attacked three US Navy sailors in Istanbul on Nov. 12 were not extreme-Islamist sympathizers of ISIL (a.k.a. the Islamic State or ISIS). Had they been, they might not have settled for (briefly) putting plastic bags over the heads of the Americans and chanting anti-US slogans.

Brave as the sailors were—and incredibly composed in the face of the harassment they received—they were unarmed and unarmored. One shudders to think how much worse things could have got had they encountered wannabe ISIL mujahideen.

Such an encounter is not implausible. Turkey has long been the staging ground for those traveling from all over the the world to join ISIL in Syria. The terrorist group may even have some active cells in Turkish cities close to the Syrian border. It is reportedly recruiting in poor Istanbul neighborhoods.

So it is something of a relief to learn that the men who pounced on the American sailors were from a group from the opposite end of the political spectrum: unreconstituted leftists belonging to the Turkey Youth Union. (Even the slogans they chanted were a throwback to the old left of Latin America: “Yanqui Go Home.”)

In recent years, the Union has held several anti-American demonstrations; it has been fingered for at least one other attack against a US soldier in the southwestern city of Bodrum in 2011. Then, too, they put a sack over the soldier’s head, apparently to echo an incident in the 2003, when US troops hooded and detained a group of Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq.

The Union is an odd group: ultra-nationalist, anti-Islamist, and anti-West. It is bitterly opposed to the Islam-inflected politics of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, but equally suspicious of European and American influences.

Even more peculiar, the Union sees itself as Kemalist: One of the men attacking the US sailors brandished a poster with the face of Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. While Ataturk had a deep hatred of Islamist ideology, he had no time for leftists, either.

(In another bizarre twist, the Union seems to have received congratulations from a Twitter account purportedly operated by ISIL. This should be treated with skepticism: Islamist extremists have long regarded socialism and nationalism as manifestations of Western wickedness. And any ardent fan of Ataturk would likely be denounced as an idolator by the mujahideen.)

But while it is easier to dismiss the Union as a fringe organization, the latest attack suggests its ambitions have grown. The men evidently staked out the location and ambushed the sailors. That they brought the sacks and the banner (not to mention the video camera) indicates a high degree of planning. That they did nothing to conceal their own identities—there’s every expectation the police will catch them—is a disturbing sign of bravado.

What this means is that US service personnel in Turkey—home to several NATO bases—must now be on guard for attacks, not only from ISIL and its acolytes but also from secular ultra-nationalist students. Already on edge because of the war next door, this is the last thing Turkey needed.