ISTANBUL – The Islamic State claimed responsibility Monday for a deadly rampage at an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve, an assault by a single gunman that killed dozens of people and served as a brutal reminder of the consequences of Turkey’s expanding war with the jihadists in Syria.
A statement posted online said that a “heroic soldier of the caliphate” had attacked the nightclub with grenades and a rifle in “revenge for God’s religion” and in response to orders from the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who recently urged his followers to attack Turkey.
Baghdadi, in an audio message released in November, denounced Turkey for carrying out military operations against the group, which has lost wide swaths of the once-sprawling “caliphate” it established across the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Monday’s statement was another sign that Turkey is facing a full-blown conflict with the militants who once slipped over Turkey’s border unmolested, in the hopes that they would fight the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Turkey considers a rival.
Now, Turkish troops and warplanes are backing a rebel offensive aimed at ousting the Islamic State from the Turkish border, angering the jihadists who are fighting wars on multiple fronts.
In its statement, the Islamic State said that the New Year’s Eve massacre, which left 39 people dead, was revenge for “Muslim blood spilt” by Turkish “airstrikes and artillery,” an apparent reference to the offensive in Syria. Nearly 40 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the operations since August, including two who were burned alive in a gruesome video released by the jihadists last month.
The Islamic State gunman – who has not yet been identified and remained at large Monday – struck “one of the most famous nightclubs” in the city, the statement said, boasting that it was where “Christians celebrate their pagan holiday.”
The venue, called Reina, is perched on the Bosphorus and is popular with Istanbul’s elite, including musicians and soccer players. Hundreds of revelers were at the club when it was attacked at 1 a.m. Sunday, and patrons later described scenes of horror as bodies crumpled around them and others jumped into freezing water to escape.
Citizens of more than a dozen countries, including Turkey, were killed in the carnage, many of them from the Middle East and North Africa. Russian, Indian, Canadian, German and French nationals also were killed.
One American was wounded in the attack. William Jacob Raak, 35, of Greenville, Delaware, told NBC News that he survived the attack by playing dead and staying silent and motionless, even after being shot, according to The Associated Press.
On Monday, the state-run Anadolu news agency said that eight people had been detained in connection with the attack, although it provided no further details. Also Monday, Turkey’s Interior Ministry announced the detention since Dec. 26 of an additional 147 people with alleged ties to the Islamic State.
The rampage Sunday was the latest in a string of major attacks on civilian and military targets across the country, including by the Islamic State, although it was only the second operation the group has officially claimed inside Turkey.
Kurdish militants battling the Turkish state for autonomy have also staged attacks, killing scores of people.
Analysts say Turkey and the Islamic State avoided direct confrontation until, under pressure from the United States, Turkish forces began to seal the border with Syria, depriving the jihadists of crucial smuggling routes. Since then, the conflict between the two sides has intensified.
Also Monday, the Anadolu agency reported that Turkish jets hit eight Islamic State targets and fired artillery rounds against 103 other positions staked out by the group in the Syrian town of al-Ba, citing the Turkish chief of general staff’s office.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Erin Cunninghan, Heba Habib