A “Black Widow” Comes to Istanbul?

On 6 January, a woman walked into a police station in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, claiming – in English – that she lost her wallet. Moments later she detonated explosives hidden under her coat, fatally wounding one policeman and seriously wounding another. Turkish left-wing militant group Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Partisi/Cephesi (DHKP/C) posted a message on their website claiming responsibility. One week prior, on 1 January, DHKP-C attacked a police station near the prime minister’s Dolmabahçe Palace. That attack, which failed to cause any casualties or damage, was said to be in response to Turkish police killing 15 year old Berkan Elvan, an anti-government protester. Elvan was hit in the head with a teargas canister in June 2013 and later died in March 2014. In their statement about the suicide bombing, DHKP-C mentioned Elvan again. They also identified the bomber as Elif Sultan Kalsen, saying she committed an act of sacrifice. 

Kalsen is known to Turkish authorities as a known member of DHKP-C. In 2010, she was convicted of being a member of the group, and served two years in prison. She was subsequently named as someone who could be planning future attacks for the group. However, when Kalsen’s mother went to identify the body, she claimed is was not her daughter. So who was the suicide bomber?

Without mentioning sources, a Turkish news agency reported that the suicide bomber was in fact Diana Ramazova. They reported that Ramazova had foreign phone numbers in her phone, and that she spoke Russian to a taxi driver. Russian media outlet Kavkazpress has since reported that Ramazova was a Russian citizen from Dagestan who was living in Turkey with her husband and children, and was a radicalized Wahhabist. She entered the country in June 2014 as a tourist. Kavkazpress also reported that Russian authorities were conducting an investigation in Dagestan following the attack.  Since it was revealed that it was Ramazova responsible for the attack, DHKP-C has since taken down their statement. No other group has claimed responsibility, but Turkish police are looking into whether Ramazova had any connections to Islamic State or al Qaeda.

What was a Dagastani woman doing blowing herself up in Istanbul? Details are limited at this time. Turkish police aren’t talking. This bombing doesn’t fit with past suicide bombings by women from the Caucasus. Those attacks generally target Russian interests. In December, Russia announced they would build a natural gas pipeline to Turkey, but attacking a Turkish police station in protest of a Russian-Turkish partnership doesn’t make sense.

It may be as simple as Ramzova sympathized with the DHKP-C message. But where did she get the explosive belt? Did she or her husband have a connection to a terrorist group? Turkey has been somewhat ambivalent in regards to terrorists using the country as an entry point into Syria, but they have been helping train Kurdish Peshmerga to fight IS. Unlikely, given the target was a police station.

Until more details emerge, it is mere speculation. As they do, I will update this space as needed.

UPDATE (16Jan2014): In the week since the suicide bombings, details have been slowly emerging. Three persons of Dagestani origin had been arrested in the days after the attack, but no details have been released. Turkish authorities have said that Ramazova was a Russian citizen – Dagestani – but the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) has denied that she ever held a Russian passport or that ‘Ramazova’ is even a Chechen surname. Just this morning, The Guardian reported that Ramazova’s husband – Abu Aluevitsj Edelbijev – was a Norwegian citizen of Chechen origin, who was recently killed in Syria. The newspaper also claims that the couple had traveled to Syria in Summer 2014. After her husband was killed, and she returned to Istanbul, Ramazova met with an unknown Russian woman shortly before the attack. No one has yet to claim credit for sending Diana Ramazova to blow herself up at the Istanbul police station, but the Jamestown Foundation offers a possible explanation to why, and why this attack may be just the beginning:

For the entire period of the existence of the Caucasus Emirate, none of its members considered attacking Turkey, since all the institutions of the Caucasus Emirate, such as its media, finance and representative offices, are all located on Turkish soil. IS members, however, are likely to strike at Turkey, and to portray the attacks as having been carried out by the Caucasus Emirate.

The Istanbul suicide attack by the Islamic State was a warning to Turkish authorities, who are blocking IS efforts to collect funds in local mosques and recruit young militants to fight in Syria. The main aim of the attack, however, was to displace the people who are working for the Caucasus Emirate in Turkey.

It bears repeating that within the last two months, six North Caucasus commanders switched allegiance from Caucasus Emirate leader Ali Abu Mukhammed to ISIL leader Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi, possibly signaling a schism in the CE.

 

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