One blast tore apart the facade of Neve Shalom — Istanbul's
biggest synagogue and the symbolic center of the 25,000-member
Jewish community in this Muslim nation — just as hundreds of people
inside were celebrating a boy's bar mitzvah.
Three miles away in an affluent neighborhood, the other blast hit
the Beth Israel synagogue, where some 300 people were marking the
completion of a remodeled religious school. Six Jews were killed at
Beth Israel and many injured, including Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva and
his son. Fourteen Muslims were also killed — including two security
guards at Beth Israel and one at Neve Shalom.
The bombings targeted a secular-minded nation that is the sole
Muslim member of NATO (news
sites) and a close ally of the United States — at one point
considering sending troops to help in the occupation of neighboring
sites). Turkey also has strong military and economic ties with
Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said police were investigating
whether the blasts were set off by suicide bombers, a timer or
remote control. Aksu earlier said the attacks appeared to be suicide
bombings, but he said police were now checking footage from the
synagogues' security cameras.
Security camera footage shows a driver parking a red Fiat in
front of Neve Shalom, then getting out and walking away from the car
before it explodes, police told the semiofficial Anatolia News
A local Turkish militant group reportedly claimed responsibility
for the blast. But police said the attack was too sophisticated for
such a small group and said they were looking into al-Qaida links.
"It is obvious that this terrorist attack has some international
connections," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said.
Israel sent a police forensics team to help the Turkish
investigation. "This wasn't just an attack against Jews," said
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news
sites). "This is radical Islamic terrorism against humanity."
A senior Israeli government source said the attack must have been
at least coordinated with international terror organizations. The
operation suggests the bombs "were the making of al-Qaida or
Hezbollah," the Lebanese guerrilla movement backed by Syria and
Iran, the source said on condition of anonymity.
Israel Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was headed to Turkey on
Sunday to visit the two synagogues. The two nations have developed
warm relations in the past decade — the Israeli air force regularly
trains over Turkish airspace and the countries' intelligence
services share sensitive information about military developments in
Syria and Iran and Islamic militant groups.
Al-Qaida is suspected in an April 2002 vehicle bombing at a
historic synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba that
killed 21 people, mostly foreign tourists.
President Bush (news
sites) condemned Saturday's attack in the "strongest terms,"
saying its choice of targets "reminds us that our enemy in the war
against terror is without conscience or faith."
Turkey has also raised the ire of some in the Arab world by
offering to send troops to Iraq to bolster U.S. troops. On Oct. 14,
a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle outside the Turkish
Embassy in Baghdad, killing the driver and a bystander and wounding
at least 13
Iraqi leaders came out against any Turkish deployment and Ankara
this month retracted its offer.
Police put the casualty toll at 20 dead and 303 wounded. A crater
as deep as a person was punched into the pavement outside Neve
Shalom. The streets outside each synagogue were covered with charred
debris and shattered cars, as medical teams carried and helped away
bloodied and burned victims.
Up to 80 of the wounded were Jewish. Most of the victims were
passers-by in residents in the neighborhoods of narrow streets and
closely build apartment buildings where many Christian Greeks and
Armenians live alongside Muslims. A mosque just a few doors down
from Neve Shalom — which in Hebrew means "oasis of peace" — also had
its windows blown out.
"Muslim, Christian, Jewish, people are people. Today it's them,
tomorrow it could be me," said Ismail Yilmaz, a shopkeeper looking
for his missing employee Rami Kucuk.
The blast went off outside Neve Shalom just as honored guests had
finished reading a traditional prayer during a bar mitzvah — the
coming-of-age ceremony for a boy's 13th birthday. The boy survived.
Security has been tight at Neve Shalom since a 1986 attack when
gunmen killed 22 worshippers and wounded six during a Sabbath
service. That attack was blamed on the radical Palestinian militant
Abu Nidal. The Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah carried
out a bomb attack against the synagogue in 1992, but no one was
The other blast collapsed Beth Israel's roof.
"We were in the middle of prayers, suddenly there was a big
explosion," chief rabbi Isak Haleva said. "All of the windows were
shattered. I found myself in shock, amid a great cloud of smoke."
"To do something like this when people are praying — this is
truly beyond the pale of human conduct, even animals don't commit
evil like this," he told Israel Radio.
A militant Turkish Islamic group, the Great Eastern Islamic
Raiders' Front, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a phone
call to the Anatolia News Agency.
The Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front, also known as IBDA-C,
which told Anatolia attacks would continue "to prevent the
opposition against Muslims," has been accused in a bombing that
injured 10 people in Istanbul on Dec. 31, 2000.