Reason behind Topkapı attack by Libyan remains mystery
The motive of the Libyan attacker who opened fire in one of the courtyards of Topkapı Palace, one of İstanbul's most frequently visited tourist attractions, still remains unclear, but investigators say some progress has been made in the probe.
The assailant, identified as Samir Salem Ali Elmadhavri, was shot dead at the end of a one-and-a-half-hour-long clash with police after wounding three people inside the courtyard behind the main entrance of Topkapı Palace in the city's Sultanahmet neighborhood on Wednesday. Two soldiers and a private security officer were wounded in the attack. Security footage shows him yelling in Arabic, “This will be a massacre like in Norway.” Indeed, the intervention of a non-commissioned officer who was able to stall him for 45 minutes before the police arrived is now seen as the only reason that stopped the gunman from proceeding further into the palace, visited by hundreds of tourists every day.
His motives remain unclear in spite of many details that have emerged since Wednesday, including footage showing the gunman at a nearby cafe before the attack. Investigators have established that Elmadhavri was a 36-year-old businessman and co-owned a construction company in Libya. He was also carrying a passport given to businessmen by the Libyan government. The man walked into the scene with a pump-action rifle and a hunter’s rifle, but also seized an MP5 rifle from a soldier. A total of 301 cases from the hunter rifle and 66 cases from the MP5 were found near the columns of the St. Irene Museum. A Libyan passport, a hotel room keycard and a mobile phone were found on his body.
Investigators have established that he arrived in İstanbul on Nov. 27 on a Turkish Airlines (THY) flight from Benghazi. This was his first visit to Turkey, where he stayed at Hotel Crystal in Taksim. No evidence of prior plans to stage a shooting were found in his hotel room.
Thirteen people have testified in the investigation so far. Police have established that the assailant bought the pump-action rifle for TL 200 and the hunting rifle for TL 300 on Nov. 28, sparking a debate on the laxness of rules for buying firearms for foreigners. One person, who was detained after witnesses claims he had had a meeting with the gunman, was released after testifying to police. Both police and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) are conducting an investigation to establish his motive.
On the day of the attack, the assailant first entered a café near Topkapı Palace before climbing upstairs while taking his two rifles with him to the café’s restroom, and walked out after strapping the rifles onto his body. He then went into another cafe, ordered a cup of coffee, paid for it but left without having taken a sip.
The police haven’t ruled out the possibility that he might be linked to Libyan officials, İstanbul Governor Hüseyni Avni Mutlu said.
There are also other possibilities. Some have claimed that he was just a mad man seeking revenge for an overpriced entertainment facility in Taksim. Witnesses say he walked into a bar in Taksim with a person whom he’d reportedly just met, but was upset with the bill, which appeared to be inflated.
Heavy bag he carried
Footage from the two cafés the assailant visited before the attack show him wearing a baseball hat hiding most of his face and a box to carry the rifles, as well as a black plastic bag and a knapsack. He stayed in this first cafeteria for nearly two minutes, and walked out without looking at the security camera at all and holding his head down. The owner of the first café, Orhan Güngör, said he had to move the box and the bag in the man’s hand out of the way after he went to the bathroom. “The knapsack was really heavy, so I left it. The box was also hefty. I wanted to look inside for a minute, but then I changed my mind. He came downstairs after a short while. I asked him where he was from. He told me he was Libyan. He didn’t want to talk much. I gave him a brochure. He took it and left.”
Meanwhile, security in Topkapı Palace was tightened significantly after the attack, with a metal detector being placed at the main entrance, the Bab-ı Hümayün. Previously, there were no security checks at the front gate.
The palace walls, trees and signs in the courtyard still bear the traces of the terrifying one-and-a-half hours of the Libyan gunman’s terrorism. There are bullet holes everywhere, including on a door and marble columns in the court yard. Tourists visiting the palace stopped to take pictures of the damage on Friday.
Gunman’s father in Libya
In related developments, the assailant’s 72-year-old father, Salim Elmadhavri, visited the Turkish Embassy in Benghazi on Wednesday, and apologized for the incident. “Officials [at the embassy] were nice to me. I want his body to be returned to Libya,” he said, according to a report in the Haber Türk daily on Friday. He also apologized and claimed that his son had psychological issues. “We apologize a thousand times to Turkey and the Turkish nation. His mental health wasn’t very good. Do not take this as an attack on Turkey.”
The Umut Foundation, an anti-gun civil society organization, has said the attack, which could have had devastating results, was the consequence of Turkey’s lax gun sale policies for foreigners. Any foreigner who walks in with his or her passport can obtain a hunting rifle without a permit. Meanwhile, store owners said they had received orders from officials to stop all firearm sales to foreigners until further notice.
The Umut Foundation, however, says it is also fairly easy for Turkish citizens to obtain a gun. Acquiring a permit only takes about 10 days, and there is insufficient oversight of the process. Annually, about 3,000 people are killed in Turkey by firearms.