Who was responsible for the assassination of Russian ambassador Karlov? al-Nusra, Gulen or the West?
Political assassinations are common enough, especially in some parts of the world, but it is very rare to see one in action. Unfortunately on Monday the world got to witness one when Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş walked up behind his prey and unloaded round after round into the back of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey. As Karlov lay motionless and dying on the floor and amid the screams of the audience, Altıntaş delivered his message, yelling among other things, “We die in Aleppo, you die here.” The entirety of this shocking scene was recorded on video and can be found on youtube.1
By all accounts Karlov was an experienced and well respected diplomat and a decent man. A practicing Orthodox Christian, while ambassador to North Korea he was successful in establishing an Orthodox church there, one of only four in the country.2 Putin, who knew him personally, described Karlov as “a good hearted person.”3 The sadness of seeing such a man murdered was further compounded by images of his wife, who was present during the assassination and saw her husband die, crying over his flag draped coffin.
Of course such scenes do not move every one, as American liberal columnist Gersh Kuntzman wrote “I, for one, am shedding no tears for Andrei Karlov. Frankly, I’m surprised his murder didn’t come months ago … justice has been served.”4 And I always was told that the denizens of the left were loving and tolerant people, but it seems that their love and tolerance is selective and does not apply to evil Russia.
Motivation behind the assassination
Beyond the tragic nature of Karlov’s murder and the callousness of some towards it, one may wonder what motivated Altıntaş to carry out his martydom mission (he was later killed by police and also shouted during his tirade “Only death will take me away from here”5)? If we are to take seriously Altıntaş’ own forthright statements, such as “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria! As long as our brothers are not safe, you will not enjoy safety. Whoever has a share in this oppression will pay for it one by one,”5 then clearly he was not pleased with Russia’s role in Syria and their recent success in Aleppo from where the rebels were ousted, and decided to take revenge by killing a prominent Russian official.
Beyond this personal motivation, many also agree that Karlov’s assassination was intended to destabilize improving relations between Russia and Turkey, and drive a wedge between the two countries. It is probably no coincidence that Karlov was killed while giving a speech at an Ankaran art gallery presenting a photo exhibition titled “Russia as seen by Turks.”
This explanation was also shared by Putin himself who said “this murder is clearly a provocation aimed at undermining the improvement and normalization of Russian Turkish relations, as well as undermining the peace process in Syria promoted by Russia, Turkey, Iran and other countries interested in settling this conflict in Syria.”3 Erdoğan concurred, “We agree with (Vladimir) Putin that this is a provocation, there is no split of opinion about this.”6
If this was the grander intention of Altıntaş then he does not appear to have succeeded. Obviously, having already experienced a deleterious breakdown in relations with Russia, Erdoğan does not want such a situation to re-occur. Hence his immediate contacting of Putin to explain the situation to him. According to Erdoğan during his conversation with Putin they both “agreed on empowering our solidarity.”6
Putin himself also reaffirmed that good relations will be maintained with Turkey. He stated:7
“Will it [Karlov’s murder] damage Russian-Turkish relations? No, it will not because we understand the importance of bilateral ties and we will develop them in every possible way. … Over the past year, we have been able to normalize relations taking into account Turkey’s interests and Russia’s interests as well. I believe we will continue to find compromises in the future.”
Beyond words Turkey and Russia have taken actions to further strengthen cooperation between themselves. The day after the assassination the two countries, along with Iran, came to a tentative agreement on joint action in Syria.8 Interestingly the US was absent from these talks.
However, there does appear to be some tensions engendered by the assassination, particularly pertaining to the security, or lack thereof, protecting Karlov at the art gallery where the incident occurred. According to Dmitry Peskov the assassination was “certainly a blow to the country’s [Turkey] prestige.”9 Senator Franz Klintsevich wondered “Quite naturally, we have questions to the Turkish side as well, as it failed to ensure security for a foreign diplomat of this high rank. All the more so that this assassination took place after a chain of terrorist acts, and that’s why the appropriate Turkish agencies were obliged to take special precautionary steps.”10
Another Senator Konstantin Kosachev was also unimpressed by the Turkish police response. He questioned:11
“Why wasn’t the murdered killed immediately following the terror act? He just continued to shout his noxious slogans… for couple of minutes. Where were the police at that moment? Did they run away? Run out to make a phone call for reinforcements? Fell down on the floor? Were they at all present…What are the instructions for securing such events involving diplomatic staff?”
Possibly in response to such criticisms, Burhan Kuzu, an adviser to Erdoğan, had his own criticisms of the Russians asky why they did not have any of their own private security protecting Karlov.12 While both the Russian and Turkish sides have been somewhat critical of each other, these issues have thus far in no tangible way adversely affected relations between the two countries.
Who was behind Altıntaş?
It seems accurate and reasonable to surmise that Altıntaş did in fact want to derail relations between Turkey and Russia, but even if this is true, there is still one important question to be resolved. Was Altıntaş acting alone or was he apart of a larger operation? As Putin remarked “We have to know who organized the killing, who gave orders to the assassin.”3
Based on the nature of incident, it seems clear to me that this was no random act of of lone wolf terrorism, in which Altıntaş was sitting at home listening to news coverage of the battle of Aleppo, and out of the blue decided to seek retribution by murdering Karlov. The precise planning and timing of the killing all suggest a very well thought out operation. Most likely someone or some group gave Altıntaş orders to take out Karlov. The only question that remains is who?
There are four possibilities as to who ordered the hit. Either Turkey, FETÖ, the West or Syrian Islamists did so. As for the first possibility, I think it to be highly unlikely that Turkey organized the killing of Karlov. It is clear that Erdoğan wants rapprochement with Russia, at least in the short term, and if Russia were to ever find out about such involvement, then this would be an act of war, more serious than the November 2015 downing of the Su-24, and open conflict between Russia and Turkey would be likely. Erdoğan may be rather crazy, and he may be up to no good, but I do not think he is this insane to do something like this at this time. So we are left with the other three possibilities.
Is it FETÖ?
Lets start with FETÖ, the subversive ‘terrorist’ group of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist spiritual leader and, if we are to believe the Turkish government, the brains behind the July 15 attempted coup in Turkey. It seems that in Turkey everything that goes wrong is blamed on Gülen or the Gülenists, so much so that Deputy PM Tuğrul Türkeş once quipped “When the shock absorber of your car is broken, they put blame on people with ties to FETO.”13
However, it is clear that Gülen is currently no fan of Erdoğan or of Putin, as Gülenist schools are banned from operating in Russia,14 so it may not be completely absurd to argue that Gülen or his followers would in fact what to destabilize Russian Turkish relations by killing Karlov. On the other hand, Turkey needs a scapegoat for the incident and who better than the boogeyman Gülen.
With all this in mind it is not surprising that Turkish officials and pro-goverment media are making the case that the Gülenists are to blame for the assassination and are focusing their investigation in that direction.15 To Erdoğan there is little doubt over this matter as he stated “The assassin of the Russian ambassador is obviously a member of FETÖ. There is no need to hide it. Where he grew up, and all connections reveal this.”16
Thus far the evidence implicating Altıntaş to FETÖ is rather circumstantial.17 Basically we are being told that Altıntaş went to a FETÖ-linked school, a claim his mother denies,18 and that many people he knows are FETÖ members, such as his uncle (who advised him to become a police officer), a friend and a man who paid for him to go to police school. He ‘conveniently’ took a leave of absence just before the July 15 coup and it is reported that he attended Gülenist meetings in İzmir.19
While I cannot rule out that Altıntaş was a Gülenist or that he was order by FETÖ to do the assassination, as the evidence supporting such claims seems to be circumstantial at best, I think this possibility is unlikely. If Altıntaş was in fact a Gülenist why didn’t the post July 15 purge identify him and detain him? After all, tens of thousands of soldiers, police officers and bureaucrats have been fired and many imprisoned on suspicions of Gülenist links, so does it make sense to argue that Altıntaş some how slipped through the cracks? Furthermore, Altıntaş at one time also provided security for Erdoğan himself.20 You would think that anyone tasked with protecting Erdoğan would be properly vetted. So either Turkey did a poor job with their post-coup purge or Altıntaş is not a Gülenist. I will let you decide.
Is it the West?
It is also being argued that the West, (i.e. NATO, the US and by extension the Sunni Arabs) is behind the assassination.21 For instance retired Russian Col. Igor Korotchenko said “I am not accusing anyone outright. I do not have any such information. I am jut telling you who benefits from it. First of all, the Obama administration benefits from it. Qatar benefits from it, and so do other players. Obviously, it is not a random political assassination, as it has already been recognized as a terror attack.”22 Vladimir Zhirinovski tweeted a similar veiled accusation “The murder of our ambassador in Turkey is a provocation. The West fears the friendship between Russia and Turkey.”11
The president of the Institute of the Middle East, Yevgeny Satanovsky was a bit more overt implicating the Saudis. He stated “those who ordered the assassination could only be the Saudis, more specifically a concrete heir to [Saudi Defense Minister] Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for whom the defeat in Aleppo is a catastrophe along the way to the throne.” So it is clear that there are some in Russia, and some in Turkey such as Ibrahim Karagul,23 who suspect the West and the Sunni Arabs are involved in the plot.
It is also interesting to go back to a State Department briefing in which John Kirby warned:24
“The consequences are that the civil war will continue in Syria, that extremists, extremist groups, will continue to exploit the vacuums that are there in syria to expand their operations. Which will include, no question, attacks against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities, and Russia will continue to send troops home in body bags. And they will continue to lose resources, even perhaps more air crafts. The stability they claim they seek in Syria will be ever more elusive.”
Some people considered these statements to be a threat against Russia by the US, in which the latter would begin directly and clandestinely targeting Russian assets in the Syria and the surrounding region.
Of course the US is denying any such involvement. According to Kirby “any notion that the United States was in any way supportive of this or behind this or even indirectly involved is absolutely ridiculous.” John Kerry was also concerned with “some of the rhetoric coming out of Turkey with respect to American involvement or support, tacit or otherwise, for this unspeakable assassination yesterday because of the presence of Mr. Gulen here in the United States.”
I must admit although it is in the interest of the US to disrupt Russian Turkish relations, and even though the American demonization of Russia continues to reach new unprecedented heights, relating to the Russia’s supposed rigging of the US election, I think it unlikely that they plotted the assassination of Karlov. Ultimately, while the US has shown itself to be inept under the leadership of Obama, I have trouble believing they are this reckless and crazy as to assassination a Russian ambassador. But may be I am wrong and they are. As for the Arabs, maybe they were involved via Islamist proxies in Syria, which brings us to our final suspect.
Is it the Syrian Islamists?
At face value, based on what Altıntaş said, the most likely suspect for the plotting of the assassination was one of the myriad of Sunni Islamist rebel groups operating in Syria. Furthermore, Jaish al-Fatah a rebel umbrella group encompassing Jabat al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) claimed responsibility for the assassination.26
Consistent with this claim was DEBKAfile’s analysis that Altıntaş recited parts of al-Nusra’s anthem.27 According to Al-Arabiya he also quoted Osama bin Laden saying “you will not have security, even in your dreams until we live it in reality in our countries.”28 Walid Shoebat had a slightly different take, although one which I believe is consistent with the al-Nusra connection, that Altıntaş was reciting Muslim Brotherhood hymns.29 Clearly at the very least Altıntaş was inspired by Islamist ideology and it is not too much of a stretch to presume that he was working for one of these groups.
In my view this seems like the most plausible explanation. With the rebels such as al-Nusra experiencing a crushing defeat in Aleppo, one in which they may never recover from, it makes sense that they would launch a terrorist attack against Russia, which played an important role in the battle of Aleppo, to enact revenge. What better way than to kill an ambassador, especially one that was poorly protected by Turkish and Russian security. Furthermore there is also a possibility that by killing Karlov, Russian Turkish relations may be adversely affected and this would be a benefit to Islamist groups such as al-Nusra.
Although there are many questions that remain unanswered in this assassination, and although there are many groups that could reap benefits from it, to me it seems that the most obvious explanation, is most likely the correct one. Karlov was killed by brutal Islamists out for revenge and destabilization.
 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/ankara-focuses-gulen-links-karlov-assasination-161219202204832.html , https://www.turkishminute.com/2016/12/19/pro-erdogan-media-immediately-blames-gulen-movement-murder-russian-ambassador/
 http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/12/21/500786/US-State-Department-Kirby-Russia-Turkey , https://www.turkishminute.com/2016/12/21/state-department-us-concerned-rhetoric-turkey-russian-envoy-killing/