The tangled and deteriorating state of global security today is reminiscent of the early 20th century breakdown of the world order. On 28 June 1914, a 19-year-old Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, triggering events that led to the Great War. On 19 December this year, a 22-year-old Muslim identitarian Mevlut Mert Altintas — who bears a striking resemblance to Princip — killed Andrey Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey.
Turkey’s sensitive geographic location between Europe and the Middle East, her hostile relations with Assad’s regime, her support for Syrian Arab and Islamist rebels there, her fight against Kurdish militants, her tense relationship with Russia, her membership of NATO and Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman delusions of grandeur all make Turkey the perfect place to attack, for those desiring to spark the collapse of our world order. This coupled with rising identity-based polarisation across the world, and repeated random and unpredictable mass-casualty attacks — such as the Berlin truck attack that happened on the same day — make conditions ripe for those seeking to trigger a broader war.
The similarities don’t end there, Ferdinand’s killer Princip was a radical, a member of Young Bosnians who were supported by the Yugoslav nationalist Black Hand. Likewise, Altintas — the now dead assassin of Russia’s ambassador — was also radicalised. While it was his service as a Turkish policeman that facilitated how Altintas managed to get so close to Ambassador Karlov, and explains his obvious firearms training, it was his ideological outlook and Muslim sense of outrage that affected his actions. Video that emerged after the killing shows the assassin chanting in Arabic, ”Allahu Akbar, we are the ones who pledged allegiance to Muhammad for Jihad, Allahu Akbar” and then in Turkish “Don’t forget Aleppo, Don’t forget Syria, I will not leave here alive.”
This was an act of terrorism, no doubt. Killing civilians for a political purpose to intimidate people into a change of policy, whether the killer was affiliated to a group or alone, is the basic definition of a terror attack. Shouting “Allah Akbar” does not necessitate jihadist group affiliation, but it certainly implies that Sunni Muslim emotions and identity politics were in the mix. From the video evidence, it is therefore near impossible to avoid the conclusion that this was a case of Islamist radicalisation that occurred inside the Turkish police. And though it is important to note that the radicalised Sunni Muslim assassin Altintas was also killed by other Sunni Muslims in the Turkish police, given his pro-jihad sloganeering, it is near impossible — and in fact rather post-truth — to claim that the attack had “nothing to do with Islam.” It would be fairer to say that just as this had something to do with Aleppo, it had something to do with a radicalised version of Islam, too.
One of the best ways to avoid potential trigger-events such as this being exploited by opportunist leaders to spark further conflict is for all sides to recognise how our own political biases inform our reactions. The left would do well to remember here that “Don’t forget Aleppo” are not the only words the assassin shouted. Likewise, the right should note that pledging allegiance to “Muhammad’s jihad” is not the only thing he declared either. He said both. And by saying both, Altintas confirms that the radicalisation process involves four factors: grievances, recruiters, identity and ideology. To address radicalisation, we must address all four on a non-partisan basis.
Over the last month I have been highly critical of Putin’s Syria policy. The death toll and humanitarian disaster of Aleppo is indeed tragic, while Putin is certainly a despot. But difficult times such as these make it even more incumbent on us not to forget our moral compass. We must not allow our support for Aleppo and our disdain for Putin to sway us into sounding sympathetic to terrorists killing diplomats, just because we don’t like their government’s policies. We didn’t appreciate the same being done after the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 bombings in London and elsewhere, and Turkey doesn’t appreciate the same being done after she is attacked by Kurdish terrorist groups, despite her policy towards some Kurdish groups leaving much to be desired.
With this in mind, all indications are that despite the eerie similarities between Princip and Altintas, we may well be spared a repeat of the Archduke Ferdinand scenario. Turkey’s relations with Russia were on the mend before this killing, and so far Russia seems to be reacting with calm. It is not assassinations in themselves that spark war, but the willingness of world leaders to exploit them. Thankfully, our leaders seem to understand that it’s not helpful for anyone to tempt a repeat of that early 20th century unravelling. But then, nobody thought Archduke Ferdinand’s death would result in such a global conflict either. And before we knew it the ‘civilised’ world had caused over 17 million deaths in that Great War.