Americans seem surprised that the February 1 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, was carried out not by Islamists but by a Marxist—specifically, by a member of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, or DHKP/C. But no one in Turkey was remotely surprised. This diagram suggests why Turks recoil when asked about the hard-left militant groups here. They’re no joke, despite their names, which call to mind nothing so much as the Judean People’s Front scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. For reasons yet to be properly explored, these groups don’t appear to know that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. They are ideologically pickled in aspic, dedicated to a Marxist-Leninist revolution that happened nearly a century ago and failed brutally everywhere.
Many conspiracy theories circulate about these leftist groups. (The reason so many Turks are conspiracy theorists is that there are so many actual conspiracies in Turkey.) Some hold that rogue elements of the state or hostile neighboring countries sustain these organizations so that they can be activated, when needed, to cause chaos. These ideas are neither entirely implausible nor entirely logical, but it is certainly true that European countries have been slow or altogether unwilling to extradite suspected members of these groups, which has done little to dampen Turkish suspicions.
A theory currently making the rounds in Turkey is that the embassy bombing was a warning from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to stay out of Syria’s ongoing revolution. The idea can’t be ruled out, but the history of the DHKP/C suggests that it would need little encouragement from Assad, or from anyone else, to commit this kind of atrocity. They do it, as Dirty Harry would say, because they like it. (Why they like killing themselves in the process—they’re known for suicide bombings—is a larger mystery. They are Marxists, after all, and one presumes that they haven’t been nourished on visions of the 72 collective farms awaiting them in paradise.)
The Turkish state’s workings are opaque, but it was nonetheless clear several weeks ago that something involving the DHKP/C was afoot. On January 18, some 85 alleged members of the group were arrested in predawn raids. Reinforced by anti-terror and special-operations teams, police forces in Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul swooped down by helicopter on dozens of apartments and workplaces, among them the offices of the Contemporary Lawyers Association. The Association is known for supporting leftist victims in some of Turkey’s more disturbing cases involving human-rights abuses. The raids continued throughout the week, sweeping up journalists, magazine publishers, musicians, and theater actors. Human-rights organizations were particularly outraged about the arrest of the lawyers, who had staffed emergency hotlines to report police torture and were best known recently for defending victims of egregious police brutality.
Some of the lawyers had also made headlines, though, for visiting Syria—to explore the possibility, according to SANA, the Syrian state mouthpiece, of bringing “lawsuits before the Turkish judiciary against those who robbed industrial facilities in Aleppo and other Syrian areas and who are committing terrorist acts supported, morally and financially, by the government of Erdoğan and its partners.” Turkish prosecutors charged the lawyers, in turn, with “spying for foreign countries by decoding cosmic information.” No, nothing was lost in translation: that was the charge. This is Turkey, after all.
In other words, a Syrian connection is circumstantially and historically plausible. Bedri Yağan, the Number Two man in the DHKP/C’s precursor organization, Dev-Sol, was dispatched in 1990 to the Bekaa Valley (in eastern Lebanon, near the Syrian border) to receive training in guerrilla warfare, as were many members of the organization.
Nonetheless, the DHKP/C had acquired a taste for blood long before it became proficient at decoding cosmic information. During the 1970s, a faction of Dev Sol managed, in two years, to kill 35 security personnel, 23 members of the military, and 230 civilians. In 1980, it killed former prime minister Nihat Erim and his bodyguard. Dev-Sol murdered an American insurance executive, John Gandy, in 1991, writing anti-American slogans in his blood on the walls of his office. The group was responsible for scores of bombings against Americans that year, including an attack on the American consulate in Adana, an attack on the Turkish-American association in Izmir, two on the Turkish-American association in Adana, and—in one day—13 bombings of businesses associated with Americans. Also in 1991, it assassinated two U.S. military personnel, wounded an Air Force officer, and bombed more than 20 American and NATO military, commercial, and cultural facilities. And again in 1991, the DHKP/C took credit for shooting and killing Andrew Blake, head of the British Commercial Union in Istanbul. In 1996, the DHKP/C assassinated Özdemir Sabancı, a prominent Turkish businessman, and two of his associates. A female suicide bomber accidentally detonated herself in an Ankara restroom in 2003. In 2004, in what is assumed to have been another accidental detonation, Semiran Polat killed himself and three passengers on a bus, injuring many more. A suicide attack on a police station in Istanbul’s Sultangazi district on September 11, 2012, killed a police officer and the attacker. (September 11 is an infamous date in Turkey, too: it was the eve, in 1980, of the overthrow of the civilian government in a military coup commonly believed to have enjoyed American support.)
The list goes on. According to official reports, the DHKP/C committed 2,503 terrorist acts between 1995 and 2006. They kill policemen. They kill judges. They kill tourists. They kill bystanders. As a bonus, they also kill each other. Journalists in Turkey speculate that they killed the victims of the U.S. Embassy bombing because someone wanted to send a message. Perhaps so. But the only message worth taking away is that they are murderers.