ISIS claims responsibility for Istanbul nightclub attack

The Islamic State called the gunman who killed 39 people in the New Year’s Day attack a “hero"
A gunman dressed in a Santa Claus costume fired into a crowd of about 700 people at Istanbul’s club Reina
A gunman dressed in a Santa Claus costume fired into a crowd of about 700 people at Istanbul’s club Reina

The Islamic State issued a rare claim of responsibility Monday for the New Year’s Day attack on an Istanbul nightclub that killed at least 39 people, describing the gunman who carried out the assault — and who has not been identified or captured — as “a hero soldier of the caliphate.”

Authorities are still searching for the gunman, who killed a police officer guarding the club before going on a shooting rampage with a rapid-fire rifle at the Reina nightclub, leaving 39 dead, but the state news media reported that eight suspects had been detained in connection with the attack.

The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported Monday that the gunman might be from Kyrgyzstan or elsewhere in Central Asia. The Russian news agency Interfax quoted Aiymkan Kulukeyeva, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Kyrgyzstan, as saying, “According to preliminary information, this information is doubtful, but we are checking all the same.”

The Islamic State asserted in a statement that the attack had been carried out “in continuation of the blessed operations that the Islamic State is conducting against Turkey, the protector of the cross.”

“A hero soldier of the caliphate attacked one of the most famous nightclubs, where Christians celebrated their pagan holiday,” read the statement from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “They used hand grenades and a machine gun and transformed their celebration to mourning.”

In an apparent reference to Turkey’s role in the conflict in Syria, the statement warned that “the government of Turkey should know that the blood of Muslims, which it is targeting with its planes and its guns, will cause a fire in its home by God’s will.”

The statement did not name the assailant, and it was not clear whether the Islamic State had organized the attack or had merely inspired the gunman. But the shooting came just days after a pro-Islamic State group called the Nashir Media Foundation published the latest in a series of messages calling for attacks on clubs, markets and movie theaters.

The Islamic State’s claim of responsibility came after years of complex relations between the Turkish state and the jihadi group operating across its southern border. Several terrorist attacks in Turkey over the past year have been attributed to the Islamic State, but the militant group rarely claims responsibility for major attacks in the country.

A rare exception came in November, when the group claimed to be behind a deadly car bombing in southeastern Turkey.

Analysts said that the Islamic State has, so far, walked a fine line in Turkey, trying to balance its goal of destabilizing the country without antagonizing the government to the extent that it would crack down heavily.

For years, Turkey looked the other way, according to analysts and regional diplomats, as jihadi groups moved fighters and supplies across the border, establishing deep networks in Turkish border towns.

Committed to supporting the uprising against President Bashar Assad of Syria, Turkey felt the jihadis could be managed while they fought with forces loyal to the Syrian government.

But that policy ultimately changed, as Turkey worked to secure its borders, under pressure from its allies as it took in millions of Syrian refugees and as terrorist attacks rocked the country.

Turkey launched a military intervention in northern Syria in August that put its forces on the front lines against Kurdish militants as well as Islamic State fighters. This turned the jihadis decidedly against Turkey, prompting their leaders to call for attacks there.

The Turkish military said on Monday that it had struck Islamic State targets in Syria, killing at least 22 militants.

U.S. intelligence officials had recently expressed concern about a possible attack in Turkey, warning in a statement on Dec. 22 that extremist groups were “continuing aggressive efforts to conduct attacks throughout Turkey” in areas where U.S. citizens and expatriates lived or visited.

That warning came three days after a gunman, described by Turkish officials as a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, assassinated Andrey G. Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in the capital, Ankara. The gunman shouted “God is great!” and “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” during the attack, which was captured on video.

The state-run Anadolu news agency said that 38 of the 39 people who died in the attack on Sunday had been identified, The Associated Press reported.

According to the Anadolu report, which cited an unidentified Justice Ministry official, 27 of the victims were foreigners, 11 were Turkish and one had dual Turkish and Belgian citizenship.

Seven victims came from Saudi Arabia; Iraq and Lebanon each had three citizens among the dead; India, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia each had two; and Canada, Israel, Kuwait, Russia and Syria each had one.

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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