Those in the small Turkish town of Soke who knew Mevlut Altintas, the smartly dressed, clean-shaven young man who shot dead Russia’s ambassador last week, recall a lonely taciturn boy twice rejected by university before leaving home and joining the police.
Altintas was 22 when he shot Andrei Karlov in the back at an Ankara art gallery before being himself gunned down by police. Few in Soke would have recognised the figure in black suit and tie who stood over the diplomat’s body screaming jihadi slogans. For his family, as for Karlov’s, it was a tragedy.
“I have always admired their son,” said a next-door neighbour, who spoke to Reuters from behind her closed door and from time to time broke down in tears. “He was respectful and calm, a very nice young man. When the police arrived at the door, we assumed he had been killed on duty and they were here to tell the family of his martyrdom. The mother was devastated when she heard,” the neighbour said.
The Dec. 20 killing, for many, illustrated the turmoil in a country that has been transformed under Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has to contend with conflicts across the border in Syria and Iraq, and Kurdish insurrection and attacks by Islamic State at home. The police force Altintas served, as a member of the riot squad, is also in some tumult, its command and rank-and-file purged of what Erdogan calls traitors and terrorists after a failed coup against him in July. The Turkish police has long had secret networks and allegiances in its ranks, both Islamist and nationalist.
Although constitutionally secular, the Turkish state has long relied on the “twin pillars” of Sunni Islam and nationalism, said Halil Karaveli, managing editor of The Turkey Analyst, a policy journal. “The religious element was always very important in the recruitment and the formation of the cadres of the Turkish state, especially in the security services – not in the army – but in the police.”
Erdogan said the assassin was a follower of exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally, who had built a wide network in the police. Gulen denies this. Soke is in one of the most secular regions of Turkey, in the south-west. But Celtikci, the Soke neighbourhood where the Altintas family live, is filled with run-down buildings, where the paint is peeling and the walls are scarred by graffiti, often nationalist or religious.
“Islam is the only way,” reads one, “God should be bestowed upon Turks,” says another. Altintas’ family lives on the fourth floor and laundry could still be seen hanging out on the balcony, two days after police detained them for questioning. Media said they were later released.
His father, Israfil Altintas, said he had spoken to his son by phone on the day of the attack. The young man’s behaviour started changing after he became friends at police academy with a man identified as Sercan B. “As far as I know, he was not a member of any terrorist organisation, religious network or group,” Israfil Altintas told police, according to Turkish broadcaster Haberturk.
“However, he started becoming focused on his prayers, more introverted and silent after he became a policeman.” Israfil said his son had ignored his suggestion that he should remain in Izmir and had gone with Sercan to Ankara, where they lived in the same house.
His mother, Hamidiye Altintas, said she had also called her son on the day of the attack. “He asked, ‘What are you doing, Mom?’, and I told him I was on a visit and would call him when I was available. He then hung up, saying ‘Alright Mom, be in God’s care, give me your blessing’.
“My son was an introverted and silent boy,” she said. Former acquaintances of Altintas recall a distant figure who spent much of his time with his step-sister and grandmother. No-one seemed to know of any open allegiance to Gulen in young adulthood.
“He was always in need of help,” said Bahri Gokciyel, who was from the same neighbourhood and now works at a teahouse in Soke, a lower middle-class town of 117,000 overshadowed by the upscale resorts that dot the Aegean coast. “He was a silent kid who had no friends all through school,” he said, adding that Altintas twice failed to get a place at university.
Whatever his academic shortcomings, Altintas planned the killing meticulously, scouting out the gallery in advance, calling in sick on the day of the attack and using his police ID to bypass security checks and get into the venue with a gun. While the slogans Altintas shouted suggest he was sympathetic to radical Islamist ideology, Gulen preaches interfaith dialogue. Whatever the motive, the killing capped a violent year for Turkey that includes a string of deadly bombings blamed on both Kurdish militants and Islamic State.
Since the attempted coup, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 100,000 people suspected of links to the cleric, and fired 40,000.
Although Altintas lived in Ankara, he came home from time to time and was seen by neighbours. “Mert stayed with his grandmother a lot, and we used to see him on the street when we played games,” said 22-year-old Tolga Tosun, who grew up with Altintas, and now is involved in local politics for the main secular opposition party, the CHP, the dominant party in Soke.
“He never joined, and he never spoke to anyone. He was always alone and silent,” Tosun added. National feeling also runs strong in Soke, with the nationalist opposition also boasting a solid presence.
Tosun said Altintas’ family were affiliated with the nationalist party and relatively pious. However, other neighbours could not confirm that and the local head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said the family were not members.
Altintas’ actions have also raised questions about the potential spillover from the Syrian crisis to Turkey. Some pious Turks, who for years have listened to Erdogan talk about the need to save Syria from President Bashar al-Assad, are now puzzled by his closer ties with Russia, Assad’s main backer.
“Since 2011, the high-pitched government rhetoric on Syria has shaped a Turkish constituency that is very sensitive to the tragedies unfolding in Syria,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe.
“That constituency is becoming very uncertain and almost disillusioned.” But in Soke, some of the locals see the dark hand of Gulen, which the government refers to as the “Gulenist Terror Organisation”. Gokciyel, the former neighbour, said he believed that Altintas used Gulenist connections to enter the police academy. The government has long said Gulen’s followers have used their affiliated schools to infiltrate the civil service and police.
Whatever happens next, the people of Soke, like many Turks, feel things have been irreparably changed by the assassination.
“Killing an ambassador is shameful. Not just for the killer, but also for our country,” said Yurdakos Elgun, an official at the local office of the CHP, the secular opposition. “Our ancestors have always said that no cruelty can be done to guests.”