Ala also revealed that the three attackers, all of whom have been captured, are of Albanian and Kosovar origin but speak Arabic, raising the possibility that they might be some of the foreign fighters who have flocked into Syria in recent years to help opposition groups fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“This is a terrorist act. According to the information we have, [the perpetrators] belong to some of the groups operating in Syria. But as to which group [they belong to], efforts are still under way to determine it,” Ala told reporters in the eastern province of Erzurum. He earlier said the attackers had been carrying guns, ammunition and hand grenades.
One police officer and a gendarme were killed, along with a Turkish civilian, when attackers opened fire on security forces manning a checkpoint in the Ulukışla district of the central Anatolian province of Niğde. The attackers, identified as 18-year-old Albanians E.S. and E.A. and 23-year-old Kosovar Ç.R., were reportedly traveling from the southern province of Hatay, on the Syrian border, to İstanbul when they were stopped by security forces. The attack has raised questions about whether Syrian groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates, might be responsible. The prospect of a Syrian connection has caused concerns for further political instability in the run-up to the local elections slated for March 30.
The state-run Anadolu News Agency (AA) reported on Friday that the attackers might have been members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which first emerged as a powerful al-Qaeda affiliate but was later disavowed by the al-Qaeda leadership. Al-Qaeda recognizes another group, the al-Nusra Front, as its affiliate in Syria, while most foreign fighters traveling to Syria to fight against the Syrian regime join the ranks of ISIL.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed unspecified “terrorists” for the attack, while Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay talked of Syrian involvement and said it might be an attempt to foment tension ahead of the elections. “This is very serious. They might be trying to heat up the election atmosphere," Atalay said on Thursday.
Turkey is heading into the elections amid political tensions over corruption allegations implicating close allies of Erdoğan. The prime minister has dismissed the accusations, saying the investigation is a plot against his government by domestic and foreign conspirators.
The Niğde incident came after a Turkish threat that it would retaliate if a tomb, located in northern Syria but considered sovereign Turkish territory, were to come under attack from any side in the conflict. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said last week that Turkey would retaliate in the event of an attack on the tomb of Süleyman Şah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, irrespective of where the attack might come from.
Concerns over a possible Turkish military intervention in Syria to protect the tomb of Süleyman Şah emerged following news of clashes between ISIL and other Syrian opposition groups in the area, even though no side has threatened to attack the tomb so far. “Any attack, whether it comes from the regime, radical groups or any others, will face retaliation,” Davutoğlu said.
Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warned earlier this week against any pre-election “provocation” that would allow the government to launch an attack inside Syria in the name of protecting the tomb.
“I would like to call on the chief of general staff: Do not send Turkey on such an adventure, especially at a time when it is ruled by a suspect prime minister,” said Kılıçdaroğlu.