On December 19, 2016, Andrei Karlov, who had been the Russian Ambassador to Turkey since 2013, was murdered by off-duty police officer Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş at an art exhibition in the Turkish capital of Ankara.
After gunning down Karlov, Altıntaş was heard saying “Do not forget Aleppo, do not forget Syria” and “We die in Aleppo, you die here.” This was in reference to the November–December 2016 operation by the Syrian Army and its allies, including Russia, to liberate jihadist-held areas of southern and eastern Aleppo.
Turkey claimed that FETÖ, an Islamic movement led by Fetullah Gülen who was a former ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but now turned enemy, was to blame for the murder. Ankara’s prosecution office claimed that Altıntaş had ties to FETÖ and wanted to push Russia and Turkey to “the brink of war.”
Russo-Turkish relations rapidly deteriorated when on November 24, 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian military jet in Syrian airspace, resulting in the death of a pilot. A Russian soldier was also killed during the operation to rescue the second pilot. Although Turkey did not shy away from taking full responsibility for the incident, Russian Academy of Sciences senior official Ruslan Kurbanov claimed the order to down the Russian plane was given by a Gülenist Turkish Colonel in the NATO-controlled Incirlik Air Base in southeast Turkey. Other high-profile Russians made the same claim.
For most of 2016, Russia showed its intention to restore relations with Turkey, with Putin even calling Erdoğan to show solidarity following the 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish president. Putin did this even before any NATO member heads did. Relations were not only returning to normalcy in 2016 between Moscow and Ankara, but rather accelerating into unprecedented levels. It is for this reason that Erdoğan said following Karlov’s murder that “Turkey-Russia relations are vital for the region and those who aimed to harm ties were not going to achieve their goals,” adding that both he and Putin “agreed the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Ankara by a gunman was an act of provocation by those looking to harm relations of our countries.” Putin stated he believes “a crime has been committed and it was without doubt a provocation aimed at spoiling the normalization of Russo-Turkish relations.”
For nearly four years Erdoğan has led Russia to believe that Gülen was behind Karlov’s murder. However, damning new evidence has emerged that it probably was not FETÖ behind the murder, but rather more likely an element within Erdoğan’s own administration.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Gülenist journalist who fled to Sweden following Erdoğan’s post-coup purges, was out of work when Today’s Zaman newspaper was shutdown on July 20, 2016, only five days after the military coup attempt. This was on orders from the Turkish president. He has continued his work as a journalist in Sweden, establishing Nordic Monitor. In the short time Nordic Monitor has existed, it has specialised in uncovering wiretaps and Turkish government documents, revealing how the Turkish military planned to exterminate Christians in Turkey, how Turkey backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and how Erdoğan hushed up a probe into hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid to the al-Shabab terrorist organization in Somalia. However, the personal file of Altıntaş, which was obtained by Nordic Monitor, shows how the murderer was given a huge amount in monetary bonuses within a very short period of time.
The obtained file shows that Erdoğan’s government awarded Altıntaş 34 bonuses in a two-year period. As Nordic Monitor highlights, “the government trained him in June 2016 on how to spot, identify and intercept suspicious people and vehicles, training that he made use of to blend in among the guests at the art gallery event” where he murdered Karlov.
Along with the many bonuses, Altıntaş’ probationary period as a police officer ended on August 5, 2015, just a bit over two weeks from the coup attempt against Erdoğan and well into the time that the purges began where over 100,000 people were either arrested or lost their jobs on allegations of being Gülenist’s. In the midst of the anti-Gülen purges, Altıntaş not only passed his probation without raising suspicions of being a Gülenist, but on eight occasions since the July 15 coup he was part of Erdoğan’s security team after attaining a job at Turkey’s Security General Directorate.
It is known that Altıntaş attended the lectures of Nurettin Yıldız, a preacher who advocates violent jihad and often speaks at events organised by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party youth branches, as well as at events hosted by the Erdoğan family run Turkey Youth Foundation. None of the preachers, including Yıldız, who helped radicalise Altıntaş and are on the Turkish government’s payroll, were ever named as suspects in the murder case or charged with any crime. Altıntaş was also found to be sending money indirectly to a pro-Erdoğan foundation that Russia said at the UN Security Council was gunrunning for ISIS on behalf of the Turkish intelligence agency.
Although it is unlikely that Erdoğan called for the murder of Karlov, it is also very unlikely that Altıntaş was a Gülenist like the Turkish president claims. At a time when Gülenist’s were being persecuted in their thousands, Altıntaş not only passed his police probationary period without raising any alarms, but was also on the security team to protect Erdoğan on eight separate occasion after the coup attempt. Notwithstanding, he also received many bonuses for his services from the Turkish government. It is likely that either Altıntaş acted alone or an element within Erdoğan’s administration or close to it was discontent with Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey and wanted to provoke a new crisis between the two countries. Either way, Erdoğan has attempted to scapegoat the Gülen movement without sufficient evidence and has not told the truth about the murder of a Russian ambassador.