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Explosions in Istanbul, Turkey

Aired November 20, 2003 - 06:03   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: On the phone with us right now, we have David Claridge who is a terrorism expert.
Mr. Claridge, are you there?


COSTELLO: Jack Straw said a short time ago that this had all the earmarkings of an al Qaeda attack. Do you agree?

CLARIDGE: Yes, I do, absolutely. It was clearly simultaneous attacks. It appears to have been suicide attacks, more sophisticated, probably, than domestic Turkish Islamic groups would be capable of without some kind of international assistance or guidance. And al Qaeda is clearly the most likely candidate for being able to do that.

COSTELLO: Why did they target British targets?

CLARIDGE: A whole host of reasons. Of course Britain has been the closest ally to the United States during the war on terrorism, has participated actively in the war in Iraq. The U.K. has always been listed in al Qaeda's various statements as being a preferred target. You know there's a sort of general interest in targeting British targets over a long-standing period.

COSTELLO: Yes, I was just wondering...

CLARIDGE: There's also they will see the visit of the president to the U.K. at the moment.

COSTELLO: Sir, I was just wondering about that.

CLARIDGE: So, which may have something there.

COSTELLO: Right. I was just wondering, because there are American interests within Istanbul, but they apparently were not targeted.

CLARIDGE: Yes, and you know this has some significance. And there may be some connection to the presence of President Bush in London today, an attempt to draw attention to that visit and the opposition to war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.

COSTELLO: We just heard from Cuneyt Ozoenimir, our CNN Turk correspondent there, that Turkish workers were killed, and a lot of people within Turkey, of course, Muslim. And we heard from a previous terrorism expert that these terrorists don't seem to care now if they kill Muslims. Might this create a backlash?

CLARIDGE: Well I'm not -- I'm not certain how much populous support, in fact, al Qaeda has in the Islamic world. Osama bin Laden himself has certainly been treated as something of a cult figure. But in terms of intellectual support, I think that there -- that there is already a backlash, if you like, against al Qaeda. The intention of the attack first just is to -- is to agitate and demonstrate that al Qaeda is still active and can still cause destruction. And al Qaeda itself is, you know, fairly unconcerned with large number of civilian casualties, whatever the religion or ethnicity of the civilians concerned.

COSTELLO: Well if there is a backlash, what might be the outcome?

CLARIDGE: Already al Qaeda is under significant pressure from international collaboration in the war on terrorism. We may see the rooting out of Islamic groups that have given rhetorical support, perhaps not active support, across Turkey and perhaps in the wider Muslim world. But this tends to be -- the groups responsible for these kind of acts tend to be very small cells, very anonymous, and consequently, they are able to carry out these attacks. So the backlash is likely to be fairly limited, I would suggest.

COSTELLO: If these types of attacks continues, will it be more likely that Muslim countries would be willing to send troops into Iraq to help out the United States?

CLARIDGE: Possibly. I mean I think that there is a double- edged sword, really. The more that you assist in the -- in Iraq, the more of a target you are likely to become. Clearly if the problems in Iraq could be solved more rapidly, then the whole agenda of al Qaeda in relation to Iraq may go away. So hard decisions will have to be taken. I would suggest that there is probably more like discouragement in countries from participating in Iraq than encouraging them to.

COSTELLO: Well let me ask you the $10,000 question, how can anyone stop these kinds of attacks?

CLARIDGE: All we can do is continue intelligence war gathering information about these groups, trying to understand them, trying to penetrate them, trying to gather as much knowledge as we can about how they operate and who is involved and simultaneously harden our targets. And you know we even see in the -- in the pictures of the British Consulate, it was a very hard target. There was a significant wall there to protect attacks -- to protect against attacks of this sort. And physical measures, I'm afraid at the moment, play a significant part in the security process in protecting important targets.

COSTELLO: It's very difficult to get good intelligence out of this group, though. It's very hard to infiltrate it. How in the world can anyone accomplish that?

CLARIDGE: Really it requires the participation of local intelligence services. I think that it's unrealistic to expect that British and American intelligence agencies will be able to, acting alone, to gather significant intelligence on all of the Islamic groups around the world. So that the -- that sort of building block has to be collaboration with local intelligence agencies and local law enforcement agencies who do understand the local environment in which they operate and the people who participate who -- in these kind of activities.

At the same time, we have to be careful in monitoring the movement of suspicious individuals to give opportunity to perhaps identify patterns ahead of attacks occurring. And it's notable that there has been clearly some general intelligence circulating, especially in the U.K., threat levels have been increased by the counterterrorism community in recent days in anticipation of an attack either in the U.K. or outside. So there is -- there clearly is intelligence circulating which gives general -- a general picture that this is a period of increased intensity. But this...

COSTELLO: Well let's talk about Osama bin Laden for just a second. I mean is it possible that he really is coordinating all of this and does Saddam Hussein have anything to do with this?

CLARIDGE: On your first question, possibly, but only -- I think Osama, for some time, even probably prior to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, did not play an active role in target selection or in the sort of operational side of terrorist activity. His function has been in funding, in setting the broad agenda and perhaps signing off on, if you like, terrorist plots.

But the actual planning of activities has been left to a circle of those around him and the groups which affiliate themselves with al Qaeda and act, perhaps, in its name but who have, perhaps, a more domestic agenda. So the planning process and the carrying out of terrorist activity did not require Osama bin Laden's direct intervention. And I would -- I would suggest that if Osama is indeed still alive, he is playing very little more than a sort of rhetorical role in attacks of this sort.

COSTELLO: And, David, let me interrupt you for just a second, because I'm just getting word, Turkish television is reporting that the government received a phone call from some group claiming responsibility, the same group that blew up the synagogues just a short time ago in Istanbul. This is a Turkish militant group that does have ties to al Qaeda. Can you tell us more about this militant group within Turkey?

CLARIDGE: I think the group you are referring to is called the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front. The Turkish specialists on Islamic groups suggested, up until the point when the attack took place, that this group was not sufficiently sophisticated or in a position to carry out attacks of this scale of the synagogue attacks on Saturday.

It seems likely, or that if this group was responsible and has been involved in these attacks, that it's being supported and sponsored by external forces connected to al Qaeda who have -- who have increased the capability of the group and increased its funding. The group was considered to be on the -- on the back foot, really, with many of its leading figures already in prison. So it's somewhat surprising to see them coming out of the woodwork at this stage.

COSTELLO: Let me bring our audience up to date, for those of you just joining us, as to what you are seeing on our air right now. These are pictures out of Istanbul, Turkey. We have confirmed there have been two massive explosions there, one outside of the British Consulate, the other outside of an international bank with British ties. It's based in London, but they have a big facility in Istanbul.

We have confirmed how many dead now? We were saying three, but we have differing numbers. Christian, do you know? I'm going to -- 15 dead. We have confirmed now 15 were killed and about 320 injured. Of course those figures could change as the morning goes on.

All of this happening as President Bush and Tony Blair are meeting now in London. They are inside 10 Downing Street, by the way, talking. And of course this must be foremost on their agenda right now.

Back to David Claridge, our terrorism expert, right now. We were talking about Osama bin Laden and what effect or, you know, if he was specifically ordering these kinds of attacks from wherever he is hiding out. If coalition forces were able to take out Osama bin Laden, would this lessen such attacks?

We lost our terrorism expert. Hopefully we'll get him back, because, at least to me, that is a fascinating question.


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