| The family of British Consul-General Roger Short, killed in Thursday’s attack on the British consulate, leave the Anglican Church service in Istanbul on Sunday. (Reuters)
Istanbul, Nov. 23: The devastating suicide bombings in Istanbul last week were planned in an internet cafe in the remote eastern Turkish town of Bingol and co-ordinated with the al Qaida.
Turkish police seized equipment from the Bingol Internet Merkezi cafe owned by the family of Gokhan Elaltintas, believed to have been one of two suicide bombers who attacked synagogues in Istanbul nine days ago.
Police have named Azad Ekinci and Feridun Ugurlu — also from Bingol — as prime suspects in the attack on the British consulate and the HSBC bank offices last Thursday that killed 32 people and injured more than 400.
The four bombers — natives of a town that is connected to the rest of Turkey by one treacherous road — had travelled across West Asia and South Asia before returning home to form a terrorist cell which was activated this month. They are believed to have received weapons training in Pakistan and at al Qaida camps in Afghanistan.
Security officials told the Turkish National Security Council on Friday night that as many as 1,000 Turks have trained in Islamist terrorist camps in the past decade.
Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, has said that the two suspects in the latest bombings had visited Afghanistan, while Turkish media reported that one trained in Iran in 2001. US intelligence officials said both men trained in al Qaida camps in Afghanistan, and returned to Turkey in 2001.
Bingol’s proximity to Iran and Syria, which have become havens for al Qaida since the Taliban regime was overthrown in Afghanistan, made it attractive as a base for plotting the terror attacks. Al Qaida operatives are believed to have made their way to Turkey to help design the bombs and fuses, picking the targets and planning the missions. They also taught Turkish cells how to communicate via encrypted messages on the internet.
The Merkezi internet cafe remains open, but prominent on its wall is an official notice stating: “It is definitely banned to enter sites targeting the state, country and its inseparable integrity and constitutional order.”
Elaltintas’ uncle, Hassan Aktash, said that his nephew was a quiet young man who rarely left Bingol before his move to Istanbul. The second synagogue bomber, Mesut Cabuk, was an acquaintance, the uncle said. His nephew was also a lifelong friend of Azad Ekinci, whose brother opened the internet cafe with Elaltintas’ father two years ago.
Bingol is an ethnically divided town, split between hardline Turks and militant Kurds. Its population increased over the past decade as the army forcibly relocated villagers into the main towns of the province and provided incentives for Turks to move there to balance its population.
The town has a reputation as a hotbed of fundamentalism. Islamic groups emerged there in the 1980s, tolerated by an army fighting against the violent Kurdish PKK terrorist group in the region.
Police officials said 18 people had been arrested in connection with the bombings, including printers who had sold the men false identity papers and car dealers who provided the vehicles used in the attacks.