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Why Terrorist Groups Are Denying Involvement in the Istanbul Bombing

Image credit: Wikimedia

By Max Abrahms and Joseph Mroszczyk

Following the 13 November bombing that killed six Turkish nationals and injured over 80 others on a crowded Istanbul shopping street, the Turkish government placed the blame squarely on Kurdish militants—namely, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syrian-based Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara describes as a PKK offshoot. Authorities swiftly fingered and then arrested Ahlam Albashir as the perpetrator, a Syrian national who allegedly planted the bomb at the behest of the PKK and YPG. A longtime opponent of Kurdish separatism, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attributes almost all terrorist attacks inside Turkey to Kurdish militants. Since the late 1970s, these militants have been fighting against Turkish authorities in a bloody conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives. The PKK is officially designated as a terrorist group not only by Turkey, but also by the United States, European Union, and the United Kingdom.

For this explosion last Sunday, however, the PKK has denied organizational involvement. The leadership posted on its website, “It is out of question for us to target civilians in any way.” The YPG also “categorically denies” any link to the alleged attacker. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which envelops the YPG, likewise proclaims that “our forces have nothing to do with the Istanbul bombing.” These denials may, in fact, be genuine. It is quite possible that the PKK has nothing to do with the bombing. The Islamic State group has perpetrated several mass-casualty attacks in Turkey over the past decade. And the PKK has been exercising more tactical restraint in recent years when it comes to harming civilians. Whether the PKK or the YPG actually carried out the terrorist attack will be the subject of further inquiry and debate.

But these developments raise an interesting question. Why would the PKK withhold taking credit for the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkey in more than five years? The bombing was operationally successful by killing Turks and sowing terror throughout the country. Even if the PKK was not actually involved, it could still take credit in the hopes of attracting attention to the Kurdish cause, demonstrating the ferocity of its supporters, and claiming some form of victory.

This behavior is puzzling for political scientists who have long assumed that terrorism is strategic behavior that works as a violent communication strategy to amplify the grievances of the perpetrators and demonstrate the costs of political non-compliance. In the dominant theoretical paradigm called the Strategic Model of Terrorism, terrorist attacks are an immoral but effective strategy for aggrieved groups to coerce government concessions in order to stave off future civilian pain.

Empirical research on the effects of terrorism has overturned the Strategic Model. Contrary to terrorism theory, attacks on civilians have been found to reduce the likelihood of the perpetrating group obtaining government concessions. Terrorist attacks tend to rally support away from the perpetrators and toward the government, hardening the resolve to defeat the group. As a consequence, terrorism is generally counterproductive by weakening the perpetrators and encouraging the target government to dig in its political heels.

Based on this empirical record of backlash, smart terrorist leaders have adapted their public relations strategy by withholding organizational responsibility when attacks indiscriminately harm civilians. To distance themselves from such counterproductive attacks, Max Abrahms and Justin Conrad discovered in a study of hundreds of terrorist groups around the world that they are significantly more likely to claim credit when the government is targeted rather than civilians, which depress credit claiming rates.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership eagerly assumed responsibility for selective attacks against military and other government targets, but veiled organizational involvement when operatives committed indiscriminate bloodshed. For instance, the Taliban was quick to assume credit when operatives ambushed Mohammad Qasim Fahim, leader of the alliance that toppled the Taliban in 2001, on a road in northern Kunduz in July 2009. Not only does the leadership publicly celebrate such selective attacks, it even claims credit for those committed by other organizations, such as when the Haqqani network struck Afghan or NATO installations in Khost, Paktia, or Paktika.

By contrast, the leadership released the following statement when operatives struck the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jalalabad: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants to clarify to everyone that it was neither behind the May 29th attack on the I.C.R.C. office in Jalalabad city nor does it support such attacks.” Similarly, the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab has been prudent in its credit-claiming, distancing itself from major attacks against civilians while claiming credit for other attacks targeting Somali security forces and other government officials. Groups as diverse as the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Irish Republican Army, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, Maoist insurgents in India, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) have all practiced a “denial of organizational involvement” strategy when members of their group risked undermining it by targeting the population.

The PKK leadership generally follows these “rules for rebels” by exhibiting discretion over which attacks to claim. The organization was quick to claim credit for an attack on a police building in the Mersin province in September but denied any responsibility for a July roadside bomb that killed a Danish cycler in the Kurdistan region.

Terrorists have learned that not all attacks are equal in terms of their effects. Target selection matters. The PKK—and scores of other terrorist groups that recognize the negative effects of civilian violence like over the weekend in Istanbul—understand how to manipulate their image to maximize the odds of political success.

Max Abrahms (@MaxAbrahms) is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. Joseph Mroszczyk is an Assistant Professor at the US Naval War College. 

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor