As New Year’s Eve approached, Turks were ready to put 2016 behind them: It had been a wretched year for the country, marked by numerous terrorist attacks and often violent political instability. Many wished each other not only a happy, but also a peaceful 2017.
Yet just over an hour into the new year, it became all too clear that Turkey would continue on its violent course, as a gunman stormed into an Istanbul nightclub, killing at least 39 revellers at a New Year’s Eve party.
The unidentified attacker killed a policeman and a civilian standing at the entrance of the Reina nightclub before shooting into the celebrating crowd at random. He managed to flee the scene shortly after as security forces stormed the venue, and was still at large Sunday afternoon local time.
At least 16 foreign nationals were among the dead, Turkey’s interior minister Suleyman Soylu said. As of Sunday morning, 18 of the victims had yet to be identified.
The past year has been an especially violent one for Turkey, with renewed insurgency, a failed coup and bombings carried out by the Islamic State or Kurdish militants rocking the country. The most recent, a bomb attack outside the Besiktas football club’s stadium, killed 44 people on Dec. 10.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “fight to the end” against terror in a statement issued after the attack, railing against terrorists “trying to create chaos, demoralize our people, and destabilize our country with abominable attacks which target civilians”.
No one had claimed responsibility for the bombing by Sunday afternoon. The target — a nightclub — would be an unlikely choice for Kurdish militants, whose bombings usually hit security forces and government buildings.
Turkish commentators were quick to compare the manner of the shooting to the Bataclan attack in Paris or the Orlando nightclub shooting in Florida. Yet the Islamic State has avoided killing ordinary Turks in the past, instead targeting Syrian activists, Kurds and tourist infrastructure within Turkey.
Some survivors and media outlets said that there had been two attackers in the club, and that they were wearing a Santa Claus outfit. Traditional Christmas decorations, including Santa hats and trees, have come to be associated with New Year’s Eve in Turkey.
In the run-up to New Year’s Eve, religious activists and ultranationalists had campaigned against the adoption of such imagery in Turkey. In the western province of Aydin, a group of nationalists held a man dressed as Santa at gunpoint in protest “against Christmas celebrations” this week; on Thursday, the Religious Affairs Directorate instructed Turkish mosques to declare New Year’s celebrations as “illegitimate.”
The Reina club attacked early on Sunday is one of Istanbul’s most exclusive venues, popular with the city’s elite and tourists alike. It sits beside the Bosphorus strait that separates Europe from Asia, offering guests a spectacular view across the water.
On Saturday night, some 600 people were celebrating the beginning of the new year. As the gunman opened fire, some party-goers tried to escape by jumping from the club’s waterfront terrace. Police officers pulled several survivors from the Bosphorus, Turkish newspapers reported.
Inside the club, bodies covered the dance floor. “Before I could understand what was happening, my husband fell on top of me,” Sinem Uyanik, one of the guests, told the Associated Press. Her husband was wounded in the attack. “I had to lift several bodies from top of me before I could get out.”
“Just as we were settling down, by the door there was a lot of dust and smoke. Gunshots rang out. When those sounds were heard, many girls fainted,” Sefa Boydas, a football player, told Agence France-Presse. “They say 35 to 40 died but it’s probably more because when I was walking, people were walking on top of people.”
In the past year, such attacks tended to exacerbate Turkey’s deep societal divisions. On Sunday, however, government officials emphasised unity, with Erdogan urging the nation to “stand more closely together”.
The Religious Affairs Directorate said on Sunday morning that a shooting in a nightclub was “no different to it being in a market or place of worship”, while Bekir Bozdag, the minister of justice, wrote on Twitter that terror would not “destroy our unity, or eradicate our fraternity or weaken Turkey’s effective fight against terror”.
The White House also condemned the attack and said President Barack Obama had offered help to the Turkish authorities. The U.S. embassy in Ankara issued an emergency message after the shooting, warning that extremists were continuing “aggressive efforts to conduct attacks in areas where U.S. citizens and expatriates reside or frequent”.
Mehmet Kocarslan, Reina’s owner, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that the club had also increased its security after U.S. intelligence reports suggested the venue could be a target.
The attacker, Kocarslan told Hurriyet, “raved through the place with Kalashnikovs”. He added: “U.S. intelligence warned over such an attack about one week or 10 days ago and measures have been taken, including on the sea front. And look what has happened then.”
Additional security measures had already been in place on Saturday night, with thousands of police patrolling the streets and squares in major cities, including 17,000 officers on duty in Istanbul. In Ankara, police arrested eight suspected Islamic State militants said to plan a New Year’s Eve attack.