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Turkey: Istanbul Nightclub Jihadi Likely Uighur Member of ‘Well-Formed’ Terror Cell

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak told a national television outlet that the yet-unnamed jihadi responsible for killing dozens at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve is likely a member of the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority, which makes its home in China and central Asia.

While authorities have identified the attacker as a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, news reports from the past year indicate that a thriving market exists in falsified Kyrgyz passports, and his Uighur ethnic identity could mean the terrorist came from China.

“The terrorist’s identity has been established by security forces and his potential whereabouts have also been determined,” Kaynak told the television channel A Haber, describing the suspect as probably a member of the Uighur ethnic minority. He also confirmed that authorities believe that the man acted alone, but that he appeared “specially-trained” and was likely a member of a “well-formed” terror cell. The Islamic State has taken credit for the attack, which left 39 people dead.

While officials insist they have evidence that only one attacker executed the attack on Reina, several Turkish newspapers are speculating that a second shooter was involved in the massacre. The reports note that the shooter, in security camera footage, appears to be wearing different colored pants in different camera angles throughout the shooting. Officials have dismissed this, suggesting the man changed clothes in the middle of the attack.

Nonetheless, police have conducted numerous arrests following the attack of suspects allegedly linked to the unnamed assailant. The individuals arrested on Thursday morning, according to the newspaper Hurriyet, are not only believed to be ethnic Uighurs but entered Turkey from Xinjiang, China, the Uighur homeland. Police reportedly found “fake passports and objects used in warzones, including cartridge belts” in the homes of those arrested.

Hurriyet cites the pro-Turkish government newspaper Yeni Safak as having reported that the suspect himself is thought to be hiding in Istanbul, though officials have stated they fear he will successfully attempt to flee Turkey.

The Uighurs are an ethnic Turkic minority who preside mostly in Xinjiang, on the western border of China, though many Uighurs are also spread throughout central Asia; the suspect in question has been identified as a Kyrgyz national. An August 2016 report in The Diplomat notes, however, that criminal rings operating in China have been falsifying Kyrgyz passports, to be sold to Chinese Uighurs seeking to move to Turkey for as much as $20,000 apiece. “In May, 98 Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang were arrested at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport carrying Kyrgyz passports. The group was attempting to make a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia,” The Diplomat noted.

Most Uighurs are Muslim, and Xinjiang is home to a Muslim separatist terror group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). In addition to these militants, the Islamic State has recruited within Xinjiang for years.

In 2014, Beijing warned that it had evidence that up to 300 Chinese citizens, most from Xinjiang, had joined the Islamic State. Subsequent studies of known Islamic State recruits found that Uighur jihadists tended to be older and heads of families, unlike the teen and twenty-something men who are most likely to join the Islamic State from Europe and the Middle East. Many have been persuaded to join the cause following a crackdown on Islamic practices in the region — including publicly keeping the Ramadan fast and wearing Islamic clothing on public transportation — by Beijing.

Most Uighur extremists are friendly towards Turkey, however, which considers itself a home to all Turkic people. Following Beijing’s new ordinances against public Islamic behavior, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lodged a complaint, accusing China of “genocide” against Uighurs, while the Turkish government issued a separate statement expressing “deep concern” over the measures. Erdogan has subsequently issued a repudiation of ETIM, however, in the context of Chinese-Turkish economic talks.

While the suggestion that a Uighur national may have ties to a more sophisticated terror cell may point to the ETIM or Chinese Islamic State factions as the culprits, the Turkish government has floated yet another theory: Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş told Hurriyet on Wednesday that he suspects “foreign intelligence services” of potentially having ties to the attack. “It seems like a secret service thing,” he told the newspaper without elaborating.

The aforementioned Turkish government-supporting newspaper Yeni Safak blamed the CIA and the “American State of Terror” directly for the Istanbul attack earlier this week.

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