Assassination of Andrei Karlov

Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş
Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş

Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, was fatally shot by an off-duty Turkish police officer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, on the evening of 19 December 2016 at an art exhibition in Ankara, Turkey. The assassination took place after several days of protests in Turkey over Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War and the battle over Aleppo.

Background

The assassination took place after a long period of highly polarized and incited political atmosphere in Turkey, and after several days of protests by Islamist Turks against Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War and in particular the battle over Aleppo. Russian and Turkish officials held talks on brokering a ceasefire in Syria during the evacuation of Aleppo. Russia, Turkey and Iran planned to meet to negotiate a settlement over the Syrian Civil War.

Motivation

The assassin shouted “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic, then “Do not forget Aleppo, do not forget Syria” in Turkish. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the shooting was designed to disrupt the warming Russia–Turkey relations. The New York Times suggested a possible motive was revenge for the Russian Air Force’s targeting of rebel-held areas in Aleppo.

Although seemingly an act of revenge against Russian military involvement in Aleppo as part of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, some have suspected Islamic extremism or anti-Russian sentiment to be the cause of the attack. President-elect of the United States Donald Trump accused the assassin of being “a radical Islamic terrorist”, and the Russian State Duma said that “The culprits in this monstrous provocation, both the executors and those who guided the terrorist’s hand by instigating Russophobia, ethnic, religious and confessional hatred, extremism and fanaticism, must face their deserved punishment”.

Allegations of NATO involvement have circulated among government officials and commentators, as well as involvement by the jihadist movements of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Al-Nusra Front/al-Qaeda in Syria) – two groups which Turkey has been accused of supporting in the past – have been made. Turkish authorities are reportedly investigating Aydintas’ links to the Gülen movement; in a speech, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that the perpetrator was a member of “FETÖ”. The attack was praised by ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliated accounts on social media. The words spoken by the assassin are similar to the unofficial anthem of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

Assassination

Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, had been invited to deliver a speech at the opening of an exhibition of Turkish photography of the Russian countryside. The exhibition, “Russia through Turks’ eyes”, was being held at the Cagdas Sanat Merkezi centre for modern arts in Ankara’s Çankaya district.

Mevlüt Altıntaş entered the hall using police identification, leading gallery attendees to believe he was one of Karlov’s personal bodyguards. Karlov had begun his speech when Altıntaş fired several shots at the Russian ambassador from the back, fatally wounding him and injuring several other people.

After shooting Karlov, Altıntaş circled the room, smashing pictures that were on display and shouting in Arabic and Turkish: “Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest). We are the descendants of those who supported the Prophet Muhammad, for jihad. Do not forget Aleppo, do not forget Syria” and “We die in Aleppo, you die here”. Altıntaş was killed by Turkish security forces. Karlov was taken to hospital, but died from his injuries.

Victim

Born in Moscow in 1954, Andrei Gennadyevich Karlov was educated at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and the Diplomatic Academy. He began his career with the government at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR in 1976. Karlov went on to hold various diplomatic positions at the Russian embassy to North Korea. He had been Russian ambassador to Turkey since July 2013.

Andrei Karlov
Andrei Karlov

Andrei Karlov is the fourth Russian diplomat to have died in the line of duty, after Alexander Griboyedov, Vatslav Vorovsky and Pyotr Voykov, a Soviet envoy to Poland.

Perpetrator

The assassin was identified as Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş (Turkish: [ˈmevlyt ˈmæɾt ˈɑɫtɯntɑʃ]; 24 June 1994 – 19 December 2016), an off-duty Turkish riot police officer.

Altıntaş grew up in a secular family from the town Söke of Aydın Province in the Aegean region of western Turkey. Although Söke is one of the most secular regions of Turkey, in Celtikci (the Söke neighborhood where the Altıntaş family live) nationalism, often Islamist in nature, is rife. Slogans such as “God should be bestowed upon Turks” and “Islam is the only way” are commonplace graffiti in the region.

After being rejected from university twice, he graduated from İzmir Police School in 2014. His sister was quoted as saying that “he started to perform prayer five times a day in police school”. He served on an elite Ankara riot police unit for two and a half years, and had been part of the security detail for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on eight occasions since July 2016.

A Turkish newspaper reported that Altıntaş had been suspended in early October 2016 for suspected involvement in the 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt, but returned to duty in mid-November.

Altintas had visited Qatar several times and what he did while in Qatar was being investigated after he killed the ambassador.

Altintas’ body was rejected by his family; his parents stated that “We are ashamed of him because of the murder and we will not claim the body of a traitor.” His body is buried in a cemetery for unidentified and unclaimed corpses.

Aftermath

The day after the killing, Turkish authorities arrested a number of Altıntaş’ family members in his home province of Aydin, as well as his flatmate in Ankara, holding the family members for one day. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also confirmed that a Russian investigative team was scheduled to arrive in Turkey on 20 December to assist with the investigation.

Reactions

Many governments and heads of state condemned the attack and offered condolences to the family of Karlov and other victims of the shooting, as well as to the Russian people.

While ISIL has not claimed responsibility for the assassination, it has been celebrated by its supporters. The Islamist Jaish al-Fatah coalition, which includes the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), claimed responsibility for the assassination, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabea.

A Qatari journalist, Elham Badar, said the shooting was a ‘human’ response to ‘Russian barbarism’ in Aleppo and elsewhere in the conflict. New York Daily News columnist Gersh Kuntzman attracted criticism when he compared Karlov’s murder to the assassination of Nazi German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Jewish student Herschel Grynszpan, saying “justice has been served.” The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs later demanded an apology from the New York Daily News following the article’s publication. Ukrainian MP Volodymyr Parasiuk, famous for his Euromaidan speech, has called the Russian ambassador’s assassin a “hero”.

The “Al Risalah” Magazine’s 4th issue by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda praised the assassination of Andrei Karlov.

Turkish reaction

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a video message that “Turkey-Russia relations are vital for the region and those who aimed to harm ties were not going to achieve their goals”, after having spoken to Russian president Vladimir Putin, adding that they “both agreed the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Ankara by a gunman was an act of provocation by those looking to harm relations of our countries.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry pledged to spare no effort to not let “this attack cast a shadow on the Turkish-Russian friendship.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that the street in which the Russian embassy is located would be named after the ambassador.

Russian reaction

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “Terrorism will not pass. We will fight it decisively.” President Vladimir Putin stated he believes “a crime has been committed and it was without doubt a provocation aimed at spoiling the normalization of Russo-Turkish relations and spoiling the Syrian peace process which is being actively pushed by Russia, Turkey, Iran and others”. He also ordered heightening of security measures at Russian embassies worldwide, and stated that “we need to know who guided the hand of the murderer”.

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