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In Turkey, Gunman Remains On The Loose After Deadly Nightclub Shooting


Not so many years ago, Turkey was a shining star of the Middle East, a thriving democracy, a booming economy, a cosmopolitan bridge between Europe and Asia. Istanbul's Reina nightclub was for many a symbol of that Turkey. Sunday's attack on the club, which killed at least 39 people including 25 foreigners, makes it a symbol now of how Turkey is changing. Sinan Ulgen is chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. We reached him shortly after ISIS claimed responsibility for the nightclub attack.

SINAN ULGEN: Well, the reason why we believed even before the Islamic States took ownership of this attack are firstly the nature of the target. A popular nightclub in Istanbul has been targeted. And there's been indiscriminate use of violence, of terror. So in many ways, it did point in the direction of the Islamic State. And this certainly comes in the wake of a change in Turkish policy where Turkish policy became much more hawkish towards the Islamic State. And there's an ongoing cross-border military operation that is targeting the Islamic State territory in Syria.

MARTIN: It has been a brutal year in Turkey. Terrorists attacks have also come from Kurdish groups. Just three weeks ago, a double bombing outside of a soccer stadium killed 38 people. Can you remind us who these Kurdish groups are and what are their objectives?

ULGEN: Indeed so there has been a number of terror attacks in the past year. Some of them have been claimed by the Islamic States. Others have been claimed by Kurdish terrorist entities. The terror campaign really started in June 2015 when the negotiations between the Turkish government and the political representatives of the Kurdish broke down. So that's when we saw really an upscale in this type of terror campaign.

MARTIN: There was an attempted coup on President Erdogan this past summer. Thousands of military personnel, hundreds of thousands of civil servants lost their jobs, along with political dissidents. But how did the coup affect Turkey's ability to engage in counterterrorism efforts, to stop threats like we have seen coming from Kurdish groups or from ISIS?

ULGEN: Well, the fact that after the coup Turkey legitimately, in some cases, tried to cleanse the administration from the influence of the Gulenists who are seen as the entity responsible for this attack against Turkish democracy.

MARTIN: You're talking about Fethullah Gulen. He's the Islamic cleric based in Pennsylvania who Erdogan is blaming for that coup.

ULGEN: Yes, indeed. So once the governments started this large-scale efforts to cleanse the administration from the influence of the Gulen followers, this seemingly affected the ability of some of state structures in law enforcement but also in security overall and because of the difficulty of replacing these administration with competent people at short notice. And this is one key aspect of the ongoing vulnerability of Turkey in terms of trying to provide better security to its own people against this twin threat of terrorism.

MARTIN: As you sit here at the beginning of 2017, what do you see ahead for your country? What truths might it have to confront?

ULGEN: Well, I think two main requirements here. One is that Turkey really needs to downscale the current level of political polarization because that has become very inimical in terms of providing better security for its own citizens. And secondly, in addition to ongoing efforts at counterterrorism, whether it is the Kurdish side and more particularly vis-a-vis the Islamic State, Turkey really needs to develop a more comprehensive framework for counter-radicalization because unless this is really put into place, efforts just to preempt these attacks by focusing solely on counterterrorism is not likely to be sufficient.

MARTIN: What does it feel like in Istanbul today?

ULGEN: It certainly does not feel like a new year. The new year was expected to bring new hope. And we have really started the new year with this tragedy, almost a continuation of the bad moments of 2016 that we were all willing to forget.

MARTIN: Sinan Ulgen is chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. He joined us earlier via Skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUFIT ERDAG'S "OGHLAN OGHLAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.