ISTANBUL — The Uzbek native accused of killing 39 New Year’s revelers at an Istanbul night club was arrested late Monday with three women and a large stash of money, a scene raising the question whether the Islamic State extremists who claimed credit for the terror attack had taken him on as a hired gun. Turkey’s government has also darkly hinted at a state intelligence service being in cahoots with the mass murderer.
Police arrested Abdulgadir Masharipov, age 33, at an apartment in Esenyurt, on the European side of Istanbul after a 16-day manhunt. The governor of Istanbul, Vasip Sahin, said Masharipov had confessed to responsibility and his fingerprints matched those found at the upscale Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus.
He also said it was clear that Masharipov had staged the attack on behalf of ISIS.
But the arrest raised many questions, for unlike the typical ISIS militant, who’s equipped with a suicide belt and would sooner die than be captured, Masharipov was found hiding under the bed in the apartment.
Four people were arrested with him, an Iraqi man, and three African women. The semi-official Anadolu news agency said they were from Egypt, Somalia and Senegal -- also highly unusual for an ISIS-directed operation as he is known to be married to an Uzbek woman.
Police also found a big stash of money—$197,000—as well as two pistols, two drones and telephone SIM cards. The cash on hand also did not fit the pattern of ISIS’s previous operations in Turkey, a sum that would appear to be more than needed to escape from Turkey’s biggest city.
Even if the three women were Masharipov’s wives, it would be unusual for another man to be hiding in the same apartment under the strict form of Islam practiced by ISIS. Sahin said Masharipov was a well-trained terrorist who spoke four languages, which local news media identified as Chinese, Arabic, Turkish and Russian.
Sahin also said he had been trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIS was just establishing its presence there in early 2016, when Sahin said Masharipov had crossed into Turkey illegally. Thus it would appear that he was trained either by the Taliban or by al-Qaeda, which has never completely left the country despite the U.S. intervention following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
This also adds to the possibility that he was recruited by ISIS from a pool of central Asian “sleepers” inside Turkey.
Turkish authorities were not commenting on whether Masharipov was a hired killer as opposed to an ISIS-trained religious zealot. Masharipov was filmed being led off from the apartment where he’d been hiding, with a black eye, a wound above the eyebrow and blood on his face and shirt.
Local television showed the clothing strewn apartment with food still on the kitchen table, dishes in the sink, and two copies of the Koran, one in a cabinet and the other on a table.
A top government official here said another country’s intelligence organization played a role in the attack, which left 39 dead and 69 injured. Numan Kurtulmus, the Turkish deputy prime minister, said Monday the “extremely well planned and organized act” was not just the work of a terror organization but “also an intelligence organization” was involved. He didn’t name a country, and other Turkish officials said they had no details.
It was just 75 minutes into the New Year when Masharipov is alleged to have struck the Reina nightclub, man of whose patrons come from throughout the Middle East.
He arrived close to the location in Istanbul’s Ortakoy district by taxi, removed semi-automatic rifle stowed in a satchel in the trunk, then approached the nightclub and started shooting—first outside the entrance, then inside, climbing to an upper story. After seven minutes of shooting, he changed his clothes, leaving his weapon behind, then went out into the street and got away by another taxi. First he went to an apartment in the Zeytinburnu district where according to local media accounts, he picked up his four-year-old son and escaped into the night.
Some 2,000 police were involved in the manhunt in Istanbul alone, supplemented by security forces in the town of Konya, where Masharipov had been living until late in 2016, in Hatay, a province along the Syrian border, and in Izmir, a big city on the Aegean coast where the Uzbek man reportedly had relatives. He had moved several times in the past 16 days and was thought to have arrived in Esenyurt last Saturday.
Police were closely watching five different locations when they staged the raid.
Although Turkish officials did not finger a foreign intelligence service, the most plausible implication is that they are referring to Syria’s mukhabarat, which, as The Daily Beast has previously reported, has in the past collaborated with ISIS jihadists.
Two weeks ago, a ranking member of the Syrian parliament in fact boasted that Syrian intelligence had penetrated all the leading extremist groups and was well informed about their terror activities.
“You are asking where is Daesh and the Nusra Front and all those Jihadist revolutionary factions?” Khaled Aboud, the secretary of the Syrian parliament said in an interview on state television. (He was referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic acronym and Jabhat al Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate that has since changed its name.)
“They are on the outskirts of Damascus. Then why have there been no bombings in Damascus? Why are these bombings occurring in Turkish cities instead?” he asked.
“The Syrian security establishment and the Syrian intelligence services have infiltrated and deeply penetrated these networks. They have managed to take control of key structures within. Consequently in my opinion, what is happening in Turkey—no one can stop that without cooperating with the Syrian security establishment.”
He said the Syrian state is “aware of important aspects of what is going on in Jordan and Turkey” but added there was a difference in “knowing about these operations and actually running them.”
The CIA and the U.S. counter-terrorism center had no comment on Aboud’s statement.
—With additional reporting by Duygu Guvenc from Ankara.