Police in Turkey concluded a massive manhunt Thursday when they caught a fugitive gunman suspected of taking part in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, a private news agency reported.
A police officer in Istanbul confirmed the report but refused to give details. He refused to give his name because Turkish law bars civil servants from speaking to journalists without prior authorization. An Interior Ministry spokesman did not immediately answer calls.
The private Dogan news agency said the man, who was not named, was caught soon after his getaway car was reported found in the city. He was being interrogated by anti-terrorism police, the news agency said.
Police had set up roadblocks around Istanbul on Thursday and were stopping cars to check IDs in an effort to find the man, who managed to flee the scene around the consulate amid the chaos.
Increased security following attack
Wednesday's attack on the consulate ignited a fire-fight that killed three policemen and three assailants and prompted Turkey to increase security at all U.S. diplomatic missions in the country.
Four other suspects were detained as officials investigated their ties to slain attackers, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said Thursday. One suspect with possible links to the assailants was picked up near the Armenian border hours after the attack, when authorities established that he had been in frequent telephone contact with the assailants, the Dogan news agency reported. The rest were detained in Istanbul.
Police suspect the attackers had ties to al-Qaida but say they have no proof of a link yet.
Meanwhile, one attacker's possible tie to al-Qaida in Afghanistan intrigued investigators.
Erkan Kargin, one of the three attackers killed, had previously traveled to Afghanistan, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Dozens of militants from Turkey have had military training in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and some have fought and died in al-Qaida ranks in Iraq, Turkish officials say.
All three of the slain attackers — Kargin, Raif Topcil and Bulent Cinar — lived with their families in the low-income Istanbul neighborhood of Kucukcekmece, Dogan reported. The suspected fourth attacker, the man who was at large, is also believed to be from Kucukcekmece.
Cinar's family said he had not been particularly pious until he became friends with Kargin and Topcil about a month ago.
"The boy who never prayed suddenly started to pray," Dogan quoted Cemal Oz, his uncle, as saying. "He would tend chickens. He wouldn't kill anyone. He was not that kind of a boy. They brainwashed him."
Topcil's father, Muhsin, had served three months in prison in 1996 for membership in the local Kurdish Islamic militant group, Hezbollah, which takes its name from the better-known Lebanon-based Hezbollah but has no formal links to it, Dogan reported.
The attackers' families apparently migrated from Turkey's poor and impoverished Kurdish-dominated southeast for a better life in Istanbul.
The Hurriyet newspaper suggested the attack on the consulate could have been launched in revenge for the death of an al-Qaida militant, Abdul Fettah, reportedly killed in Afghanistan by a U.S. bombing.
Fettah, Kargin and Topcil's families are all from the same southeastern province of Bitlis, a Kurdish-dominated region where radical Islam has long had a stronghold. There was also speculation that Kargin might have met Fettah in Afghanistan.
The Radikal newspaper said Kargin crossed into Iran in September 2006 and returned to Turkey eight months later. NTV television said Kargin is thought to have undergone military training in Afghanistan.
If Kargin's suspected relationship with al-Qaida is confirmed, police are likely to label the attackers as militants linked to al-Qaida in Turkey, said Emin Demirel, a Turkish terrorism expert.
Radical Muslim groups
There are several homegrown radical Muslim groups in Turkey, but al-Qaida's austere and violent interpretation of Islam receives little public backing. However, some radical Muslims regard Turkey's friendship with Israel, the United States and Britain — as well as its efforts to join the European Union — as tantamount to treason.
That makes Turkey a high-profile target for Islamists who subscribe to al-Qaida's world view.
Turkey has been vigilant against homegrown Islamic militants since al-Qaida-linked suicide bombers killed 58 people in 2003. It has also been cracking down on ultranationalists who have attacked Christians, and Kurdish rebels, two groups officials deem a threat to the country's security.
Yet Turkish efforts to infiltrate mosques, monitor underground Web sites and investigate Islamic front charities have largely failed to penetrate al-Qaida's tight-knit cells, where family ties and close personal relationships hold sway.
Some said Wednesday's consulate attack didn't match a typical al-Qaida operation that uses suicide bombers and focuses on mass casualties and could have been done just for its media impact.
"There is nothing more sensational than attacking the U.S. consulate for an Islamic militant," said Demirel, author of a book titled "Al-Qaida Elements in Turkey."