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Helena Smith in Bingol
Thursday November 27, 2003
The Guardian

Of all the graves dug into the windswept bluff overlooking Bingol, that of Gokhan Elaltuntas is by far the smallest. When, under armed guard, relatives buried the suicide bomber in the middle of the night they had only to lower his casket into a tiny gash in the earth. Now the man who drove his "car of death" into a synagogue in Istanbul lies under a mound of red clay no bigger than a short Turkish rug.
" They couldn't do otherwise because he came with no head or arms or legs," said Harkan Turk Ilmas, a policeman who watched over the ceremony. "It was just his torso that they managed to retrieve."

Across the southern mountain town, in a roadside grave, lies his comrade Mesut Cabuk, who died almost simultaneously in a second synagogue attack. When no one was looking, his family buried him too.

That was last Tuesday. Two days later Azad Ekinci and Feridan Ugurlu followed suit, driving their own "cars of death" into the British consulate and HSBC bank, also in Istanbul.

The first attack, it seems, had given them their cue.

Within hours of the first explosions they were driving out of Bingol. Passing military checkpoints they took the 500-mile route to Turkey's great commercial capital and the heart of their mission: their country's worse ever terrorist attack.

These two men - so good, so calm, say friends - were no strangers to hardship. From early on they had known suffering, first as ethnic Kurds who inhabited the heavily militarised badlands of Turkey, then as Muslim fundamentalists.

Ekinci, who would ram his explosive-laden truck into the British consulate, saw his father, Idris, shot dead by Turkish nationalists when he was two.

"Idris was a good man who led a workers' union at Bingol's town hall, but Turkish nationalists shot him because he was a prominent member of the PKK [the outlawed Kurdish rebel group]," said Ridvan Kizgin, who heads the local Turkish Human Rights Foundation.

"I think his death played a role in making Azad the sort of person he became."

For the rest of his childhood and much of his adult life, Ekinci was kept indoors by an overly protective mother - until he met Mesut, who had a taste for Jean-Paul Sartre and connections with the Islamist guerrilla group Hizbullah. With no work and little else to do, the pair soon became inseparable.

"They were so tight, one couldn't go without the other to the toilet," said Adul Ali Benghizou, a middle-aged man who said he knew the two well.

"Ekinci was a bit isolated, but when he met Mesut he changed. Mesut was obsessed with existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre. Personally, I think he had psychological problems, but he had a great influence on Azad."

Although Ekinci had displayed no particular affection for political Islam, he began patronising the plethora of mosques and Koranic schools in Bingol. Through the charismatic sheikhs who lead underground religious sects, known as tarikats, the pair soon became infused with the militant Islamist views that took them to the battlefields of Bosnia, Afghanistan and Chechnya.

In Bingol, with its population of 60,000, many believe it was the sheikhs who first schooled the suicide bombers in the fundamentals of hate. The four Turkish Kurds reportedly spent years crisscrossing into Iran, Syria, Pakistan and the Gulf states to train in the art of wiring explosives.

Militant Islam specialists in Istanbul say the trips were almost certainly funded by the business-endowed foundations that support the sects.

But the bombers could have come from anywhere in Turkey's remote south east, where most residents only barely scratch a living from the land. "When you have no work and no hope of a job you get angry, and then you look elsewhere for things to do," said Mr Benghizou, a former journalist in Istanbul who returned to Bingol to look after his mother.

"A lot of young people here are so desperate they become nihilists. The only thing Bingol offers them is heroin smuggling from Iran. With nothing to lose, they become open to the spirit of al-Qaida," he said. "When they go to Pakistan they can make money to send back to their families. It's the same with Hizbullah. Once you're in Hizbullah, I hear, they make sure to look after you and your family."

Until 1999, when Kurdish separatists declared a unilateral ceasefire in their fight to create an independent state in the south of Turkey, successive governments in Ankara gave support to Islamic radicals in the region.

For more than two decades Hizbullah received weapons and money from the Turkish security forces to help crush rebels in the PKK. As one of the area's biggest Hizbullah strongholds, some of the most brutal fighting took place around Bingol.

"They were tolerated on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend," said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Sabachi University.

"But when Hizbullah stopped being of use to the government it clamped down on them with a vengeance. According to police databases, it had around 20,000 members, but only 4,000 were caught. So the question is, what happens to the rest?"

Mr Kizgin, the human rights worker, says the answer is obvious. "When the dirty war was over, Hizbullah began looking to radical Islamic groups for support. Unfortunately, it's a repeat of the same story that we saw with the Americans and the Taliban. The Turkish state created Hizbullah and now it is paying the price."

In this climate the movements of Ekinci and his comrades went unchecked. Although there was clear evidence that about 1,000 Turks had gone abroad as religious warrior volunteers, their missions appear to have been dismissed by the Turkish security forces, who preferred to believe that Mossad - rather than Islamists - was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks. Western intelligence services now think the Turkish jihadis acted as intermediaries between local groups such as Hizbullah and networked links to al-Qaida.

The Istanbul bombings have plunged Bingol into a strange form of mourning. The revelation that three of the four suicide bombers came from the town has brought shame to local people, who say they want nothing to do with terrorists.

The mountain-rimmed town, famed for its honey and nuts, had barely recovered from a devastating earthquake which led 167 dead in May.

But as Ankara turns its considerable military might to destroying the menace of terrorism, the residents of Bingol will have to live with the fear that the security forces who have now moved into the town big time will make their lives even harder.

"The whole of Bingol is very upset," said the town's deputy governor, Fikret Zaman. "Even the relatives of the four bombers are very upset. Not at their deaths so much, but that they brought this terrible shame to Bingol. We Turks are not Islamic fundamentalists. We are very proud that we have the Muslim world's only secular state."

But Bingol is also in denial. The suicide bombers were not an isolated group. They were a product of a system that appears to nurture religious inspired hate - as well as the country's failure to address the problem of its 12 million ethnic Kurds.

Few believe that this is the end of the flow of suicide bombers from these areas.

"All the ingredients are in place for several more to come along," said Mr Kizgin. "Turkey has to give us Kurds better basic rights. It has to give us our dignity and a better education. We have to be able to use our own language, have our own names, like people everywhere else in the world. That would be one of the better steps authorities could take to ensuring that no more oddly-sized graves overlook the wild, windswept bluffs of Bingol."


  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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