ISTANBUL: Long before al-Qaida, when the Cold War gripped the world, leftist terrorists staged spectacular attacks in a doomed campaign to overthrow governments and impose their vision of a socialist utopia. The bulk of these extremist groups eventually drifted into oblivion, gutted by police pressure, internal rifts and an ideology undercut by communism’s fall.
In Turkey, one cult-like group didn’t get the memo.
Decades on, a band of outlaws wedded to this antique brand of militancy has been blamed for a suicide bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara that also killed a Turkish guard and seriously wounded a television journalist, the latest in a grim sequence of bombings and assassinations that failed, over and over, to bring the triggermen closer to their revolutionary goals.
Some analysts have speculated that the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, or DHKP-C, carried out Friday’s attack in anger at NATO member Turkey’s cooperation with Washington, the old “imperialist” nemesis of leftist radicals everywhere, in efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. The consensus is that the group is a throwback, deaf to historical shifts and political nuance, almost a novelty if it weren’t so deadly.
Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in the United States, said the group is trapped in an “ideological time warp” and falls “outside of our comfortable narratives,” meaning actions such as the embassy bombing might have only a glancing connection with wider, contemporary events and trends.
“They’ve cut themselves off from the wider society and they’re talking to each other in a soundproof box that allows them to think of themselves as having more connections” to public aspirations, Eissenstat said. He wryly observed that the group’s clunky name and Turkish acronym, rather a mouthful, are emblematic of just how out of touch it is with the modern, message-conscious world.
The group’s flags include the hammer and sickle and red star designs, which date from the Russian revolutionary era in the early 20th century. The DHKP-C claimed responsibility for the embassy attack in a release posted on a website linked to the group, saying the bomber carried out the act of “self-sacrifice.”
The group called itself “immortal” and said, “Down with imperialism and the collaborating oligarchy.” But it gave no reason for attacking the U.S. Embassy.
How is it that groups like Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades of Italy became extinct while the DHKP-C clung to its quixotic mission, even if it has been relatively quiet in recent years? The reason may lie in Turkey’s polarized history: big battles between left- and right-wing cadres in the 1970s that subsided after a military coup, virulent anti-Americanism that reached a peak around the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the loose interplay among Kurdish and other militant groups, and lingering suspicions about alleged reactionaries embedded deep in the old state apparatus.
Turkey today is a rising power with a far more stable political landscape, a robust economy that allows it to project soft power beyond its borders and a bid to join the European Union that, while stalled, still represents its outsized ambitions.
“The Turks will take this to some degree as a slap in the face because they’ll feel that things like this shouldn’t happen in their country,” James F. Jeffrey, U.S. ambassador in Turkey between 2008 and 2010, said of the embassy attack.
The bomber, identified as leftist militant Ecevit Sanli, 40, spent several years in prison on terrorism charges but was released on probation after being diagnosed with a hunger strike-related brain disorder, officials said Saturday.