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“Dreadful Year” of Attacks in Turkey Capped by 39 Dead in Istanbul Nightclub Attack

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Police in Turkey have launched a series of raids across Istanbul as they search for a man who opened fire inside a nightclub during a New Year’s celebration, killing 39 people. ISIS has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack on the Reina nightclub. On Monday, Turkish authorities released two photographs of the suspected gunman. Officials say the Turkish military also attacked ISIS targets in Syria on Monday, killing at least 22 people. We go to Istanbul to speak with Koray Çaliskan, associate professor of political science at Bogaziçi University, and are also joined by Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In Turkey, police have launched a series of raids across Istanbul, arresting at least 12 people as police continue to search for a man who opened fire inside a nightclub during a New Year’s celebration, killing 39 people. ISIS militants have claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack on the Reina nightclub, where hundreds of Turks and foreigners were celebrating early in the morning. The attack killed 11 Turkish citizens and more than two dozen tourists from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, India, Morocco and other countries. This is Younis Tuerq, who was inside the nightclub during the attack.

YOUNIS TUERQ: [translated] Actually, I didn’t see him. As soon as he entered the club, he started firing, and he didn’t stop. He fired nonstop for 20 minutes at least. We thought that there were several of them because it just didn’t stop. And there was some kind of bomb, as well; he threw some explosives. We managed to hide ourselves, and, luckily, he didn’t go out on the terrace. He stayed inside. He didn’t go out on the terrace.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Turkish authorities released two photographs of the suspected gunman. Officials say the Turkish military also attacked ISIS targets in Syria Monday, killing at least 22 people.

For more, we’re going to Istanbul, where we’re joined by Koray Çaliskan. He’s associate professor of political science at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go first to Istanbul. Koray Çaliskan, explain what you understand took place and now what is taking place in the aftermath.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: Good morning, Amy.

What happened was following: Before the attack, there had been two wings of discussion in the country. The head of the Directorate for Religious Affairs called New Year’s celebrations illegitimate. Directly reporting to the prime minister, it said public office paid—whose salaries were paid by Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists—every citizen in the secular country—and he called those celebrations illegitimate. The second wing of discussions were around Santa Claus. There were people in Nazilli who put a gun on a Santa Claus and threatened him to leave the country. It happened. Only two days later, an ISIS terrorist attacked a nightclub, the most famous international nightclub of this country, populated by around 800 people celebrating the new year.

What happened afterwards was unbelievable. So, there had been open intelligence in the country regarding a possible attack of ISIS on touristic destinations in Istanbul. So, when you’re talking about touristic destinations in New York, the first place you understand would be Times Square, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Mm-hmm.

KORAY ÇALISKAN: All right? So, if something like this happens, so you would expect the governor’s office to take responsibility and secure Times Square. You don’t find people, all your police force, in Tompkins Square Park, would you? You wouldn’t. So, in Istanbul, around a square mile, you have four very popular clubs, the most important clubs, and the top club is Reina. And Reina is protected by one policeman, 23-year-old kid with a light gun. I can’t explain this to myself. I can’t explain this to myself. Plus, there is a police precinct very close to Reina. It is also very close. And then the guy enters the place, machine guns 800 people, killing 39 of them, leaves the place. And he’s still free in Istanbul. I can’t understand that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he was wearing a Santa Claus outfit, speaking Arabic, which suggests he wasn’t Turkish?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: No, he was not wearing a Santa Claus outfit. There were people who were wearing Santa Claus outfits in this—outfits in this club, like any New Year celebration. He was wearing a regular bomber jacket. And we don’t know his name yet, but his picture is everywhere. He’s not from Turkey, but he’s not from an Arab country, either. He’s like a part of the ISIS international terrorist organization. But what is worse is that this was—this came at a time when a jihadi terrorist had been attacking people of secular lifestyles, and the government ordered the arrest of a number of youth leaders who were protesting against increasing radicalism in the country and calling for strengthening of secular. The government had had secular young people who demonstrate on the streets and—

AMY GOODMAN: Koray, we’re going to try to fix the audio on our transmission and, meanwhile, bring in Kani Xulam, who is director of the Kurdish—of the American Kurdish Information Network based in Washington, D.C. Kani, your take on what took place and the government’s response in Turkey?

KANI XULAM: You know, this was the textbook case of chickens coming home to roost, or if you sleep with the dogs, you will wake up with the fleas. Turkey, as a country, has a high fever. If it were a human being, the doctors would say, you know, rest and relax, take a vacation. But what has taken vacation in Turkey is common sense. We have a prime minister—a president who wants to hold onto power at any cost. And in the meantime, he wants to, you know, work with these ISIS types, when they were going to Syria, and also work with the West. You know, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too. And when the West knows or informs him that these killers are in his midst, he arrests them. And when the West doesn’t know they’re in his midst, then he lets them, you know, go to Syria and be trained. And now that they’re losing in Syria, they’re coming back to him, and they’re telling him, “You are now siding with two infidels: with the U.S. and with Russia.” And what you have is mayhem. It’s a country going towards chaos, going towards instability, going towards, you know, just utter chaos.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the government, of Erdogan?

KANI XULAM: Well, the response has been, for example, Mr. Çaliskan pointed out that 12 people have been arrested. What hasn’t been noticed or reported is that today, this morning, also a member of Parliament was arrested. He was a member of the HDP, Peoples’ Democracy Party. Turkey has a Kurdish minority. They are the third-largest party in the Parliament. And 59 of their members—13 of them now are in jail. And the rest—for example, there are 100 cities that are run by Kurdish mayors. About 40 of them, their mayors have been arrested. They are run by, you know, one mayor, one man, one woman. They have co-mayorships.

And so, the government, you know, yes, it has arrested some people and says it wants to crack down on this and address this issue, but, you know, the day before this horrible tragedy happened, as Mr. Çaliskan pointed out, 84,000 mosques in Turkey were given a khutbah, which means the preaching, the—what to tell the believers. And they were told that, you know, this is a pagan holiday; it shouldn’t be celebrated. So there’s this, you know, government-cultivated hatred of others. And then, as a result, you have this chaos, this bombing, this tragedy of monumental proportions.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the Obama administration’s relationship with Erdogan, and how do you expect that to change under Donald Trump?

KANI XULAM: Well, Obama administration initially—his first trip to Europe included Turkey. And he, you know, wanted to work with Erdogan, and he thought Erdogan was—could be a model moderate Muslim leader, a country that accepts, you know, democracy, but also is pious, if you will, respects the separation, the wall of separation between the mosque and the state. And for a while, relations were good. Erdogan was the most popular caller of President Obama, in terms of when he was calling foreign heads of states, consulting foreign heads of states. But then something called Arab Spring came about, and then Turkey turned into a jihadi highway. You know, 31,000 foreign fighters, from Southeast Asia, from Central Asia, from Europe, from North Africa, from Latin America, from North America, went to Turkey, and Erdogan looked the other way. You know, there’s something called, if you live in a glass house, you don’t throw rocks at others. Turkey has massive internal problems: the Kurdish issue, the seculars who are now being threatened. And these foreign fighters then went into Syria, and now the chaos that Syria is. And Erdogan—the U.S.—President Obama then decided to have—you know, he felt like Erdogan was cheating him.

And Trump administration, for example, on the Kurdish issue, they have—he says that they’re good fighters, they should be supported. On the—when the coup took place in Turkey last July, Trump called President Erdogan and told him that, you know, he was with him. The problem is, Erdogan is not with his people. Erdogan is not democratic. Erdogan—when the king of Saudi Arabia died, Erdogan declared a national mourning day, which means, you know, his proclivities are towards an Islamic identity, an Islamic state, an Islamic country. This is what he wants to create.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes not long after, Koray Çaliskan, the killing of the Russian ambassador in Turkey. Can you comment on what happened there and, overall, what The Guardian newspaper headlined—headlined the New Year’s Eve attack—headlined “Istanbul nightclub attack caps off dreadful year for Turkey”?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: It is a dreadful year, actually. It’s very sad. We have been dealing with two sources of terror. The first is PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organization who have been attacking and bombing central Istanbul, which claimed dozens of lives. And the other is ISIS, which had been attacking innocent people and lifestyles in the country. This has been happening since two Junes ago. In 2014, Amy, we had zero attacks and zero deaths. In 2015, we had four attacks; 150 people died. 2016, 12 attacks, and 320 people died. And now, the first day of the year, the first 90 minutes of the year, one attack, and 39 people died. This is terrible.

And this is happening mostly as a result of two reasons. First, the central state power in Iraq and Syria was destroyed. You can’t have democracy without state. You can’t have democracy without rule of law. When everyone applies his own understanding of justice, like PKK, like ISIS, like Assad, and no one resorts to universal understanding of justice, you can’t foster democracy. So, the West, including Erdogan, thought that to get rid of Assad and build democracy, one could support anyone who was going to Syria. The end result? We don’t have a working border with Syria right now. The longest border between Turkey and Syria is not patrolled now. The terrorist who killed 39 people a few days ago entered Turkey from Syria. He was an ISIS fighter there. And no one asked his passport. No one asked for a visa. And they are within us in Istanbul right now. Unfortunately, the government is not providing its citizens with security. And worse still, Amy, a policeman, who had security clearance, kills the Russian ambassador in Ankara. This is a failed state.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Koray Çaliskan, professor of political science at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul, and Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. Now, you both disagree on whether the United States should support the PYD, the Syrian wing of the PKK, in its fight against ISIS. Kani Xulam, your take on this?

KANI XULAM: PYD is the most effective boots on the ground against ISIS. They are the only ones who have seen the ISIS’s backs, if you will. They have fought them. They have chased them out of Kobani. And they’re fighting them now in Mosul, in terms of Peshmerga in Iraq, and YPG, as part of Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa. Islamic State is the most regressive force on the face of the Earth, the most misogynistic force on the face of the Earth. And it should be wiped out. And YPG is the only one that is fighting effectively. And anybody who calls himself a lover of humanity, a friend of human race, should support YPG to wipe out this cancer from the midst of the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to that, Professor Çaliskan?

KORAY ÇALISKAN: I don’t agree with him, for a number of reasons. When you call yourself with different letters, what you do doesn’t cease to be terror. If PKK called itself ABC in the United States, would it be a nonterrorist organization? I don’t think so. And all organizations can do things that may look acceptable to democratic powers. And when they do this, this doesn’t take them out from a network of terror. Terror should not be tolerated, whether it takes place in Syria against ISIS or whether it takes place against Turks at the center of Istanbul. PKK attacks Turks the same way they attack ISIS. Democratic polity has to use one way: rule of law, through United Nations. Right? You can’t just arm a wing of PKK, hoping that they’re going to get rid of a terrorist organization, and then hope them to act like a democratic political organization. This would be a mistake. And a NATO member, United States, supplying arms to PKK in Syria and then calling it a terrorist organization in Turkey is very difficult to understand in Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being here, Koray Çaliskan, speaking to us from Istanbul, professor of political science at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul, and Kani Xulam, speaking to us from Washington, D.C., director of the American Kurdish Information Network. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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