ISTANBUL — ISIS has claimed responsibility Monday for a mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people, most of them foreign tourists from Muslim countries who were ringing in the new year. It was the first claim of its kind for ISIS in Turkey.
The group said Christian revelers were targeted in response to Turkish military operations against ISIS in northern Syria. The claim came after an ISIS propaganda video urging attacks on Turkey, which is home to an airbase used in the U.S.-led effort against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Turkish authorities never confirmed the authenticity of the Dec. 22 video that purported to show Turkish soldiers who were burned alive, but access to social media was temporarily restricted in what appeared to be an effort to curb its circulation.
The nightclub assailant, armed with a long-barreled weapon, killed a policeman and a civilian early Sunday outside the Reina club before entering and firing at some of the estimated 600 people inside. The establishment is frequented by famous locals, including singers, actors and athletes.
ISIS boasts of having cells in Turkey, regularly issues propaganda in Turkish and is believed to have hundreds of Turks in its ranks. But until now, the main act of aggression it had claimed in Turkey was the March 2016 killing of a Syrian journalist and an attack on riot police in the province of Diyarbakir, which Kurdish militants also claimed.
For some analysts, the claim of responsibility signaled a shift in ISIS strategy in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation.
“It’s a new phase,” security analyst Michael Horowitz said. “What we saw before was an undeclared war, and now we’re entering an open war.”
ISIS’ claim said only that the attacker was a “soldier of the caliphate” who struck to “let infidel Turkey know that the blood of Muslims that is being shed by its airstrikes and artillery shelling will turn into fire on its territories.”
Early Turkish media reports suggested the Istanbul nightclub gunman was probably from either Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan and may have been part of the same cell that staged the airport attack.
Authorities obtained the fingerprints and a basic description of the gunman and are close to identifying him, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Monday after a weekly cabinet meeting. He confirmed eight people have been detained in connection to the attack.
By attacking as the nation was celebrating the new year, the group indicated that it intends to continue being a “scourge” against Turkey in 2017, Kurtulmus said.
Many analysts also see ISIS latest attack on Turkey as a sign of growing desperation.
The group has been threatened in al-Bab, Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq and “needs to reassert itself,” said Horowitz, director at the intelligence analysis firm Prime Source.
The aggression on Turkey, he added, is in line with the group’s practice of equating mass-casualty terrorism attacks with heavy bombings and airstrikes on ISIS-held territories.
In its claim, ISIS said the nightclub attack was aimed at Christians celebrating a pagan holiday, suggesting a symbolic choice of target that can be justified to radical Sunni Muslim supporters as punishment of sinners. But in reality, many of the victims hailed from majority-Muslim nations in the Middle East.
Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University political scientist, said ISIS understands that civilian attacks can be counterproductive in countries where it has abundant support and has avoided conflict with authorities in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. To him, the change of tact in Turkey reflects that ISIS is “desperate” in the wake of losses in Syria and Iraq.
“There’s no question that Islamic State is suffering in an irreversible way,” Abrahms said. So the group “is keen to commit as many attacks as possible these days and is much more likely to claim credit for them in order to signal that it has continued capability to mount operations around the world.”
Also Monday, Anadolu said more than 100 Islamic State targets in Syria have been hit by Turkey and Russia in separate operations. Last week, Turkey and Russia brokered a cease-fire for Syria that excludes the ISIS and other groups considered to be terrorist organizations.