The ISIS terrorist group claimed responsibility on Monday for the New Year’s attack at a packed Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people and wounded scores of others, including many foreigners as well as Turks.
Turkey’s anti-terrorism squads meanwhile detained eight people in connection to the attack but were still hunting for the lone gunman who disappeared amid the chaos of the attack.
The ISIS-linked Aamaq News Agency said the attack was carried out by a “heroic soldier of the caliphate” who attacked the nightclub “where Christians were celebrating their pagan feast.”
It said the man fired an automatic rifle and also detonated hand grenades in “revenge for God’s religion and in response to the orders” of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The group described Turkey as “the servant of the cross” and also suggested it was in retaliation for Turkish military offensives against the ISIS group in Syria and Iraq.
“The apostate Turkish government should know that the blood of Muslims shed with airplanes and artillery fire will, with God’s permission, ignite a fire in their own land,” the ISIS declaration said.
There was no immediate comment from Turkish officials.
The gunman killed a policeman and another man outside the Reina club in the early hours of 2017 before entering and firing with an automatic rifle at an estimated 600 people partying inside. Witnesses said he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest).
Some at the club jumped into the Bosphorus after the attacker began shooting at random. Witnesses described diving under tables as he walked around spraying bullets.
Citing Justice Ministry officials, Anadolu reported that 38 of the 39 dead have been identified. The report said 11 of them were Turkish nationals, and one was a Turkish-Belgian dual citizen.
The report says seven victims were from Saudi Arabia; three each were from Lebanon and Iraq; two each were from Tunisia, India, Morocco and Jordan. Kuwait, Canada, Israel, Syria and Russia each lost one citizen.
Relatives of the victims and embassy personal were seen walking into an Istanbul morgue to claim the bodies.
Turkish officials haven’t released the names of those identified.
Police distributed a hazy black-and-white photo of the alleged gunman taken from security footage.
The jihadist group has been blamed for at least half a dozen attacks on civilian targets in Turkey over the past 18 months but, other than targeted assassinations, this is the first time it has directly claimed any of them. It made the statement on one of its Telegram channels, a method used after attacks elsewhere.
NATO member Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and launched an incursion into neighboring Syria in August to drive extremists from its borders, sending in tanks and special forces backed by fighter jets.
The authorities believe the attacker may be from a Central Asian nation and suspect he had links to ISIS, the Hurriyet newspaper said. It said he may be from the same cell responsible for a gun-and-bomb attack on Istanbul’s main airport in June, in which 45 people were killed and hundreds wounded.
The attack at Reina, popular with Turkish celebrities and wealthy visitors, shook Turkey as it tries to recover from a failed July coup and a series of deadly bombings in Istanbul and elsewhere, some blamed on ISIS, others claimed by Kurdish militants.
Security services had been on alert across Europe for new year celebrations following an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin that killed 12 people. Only days ago, an online message from a pro-ISIS group called for attacks by “lone wolves” on “celebrations, gatherings and clubs”.
In a statement hours after the shooting, President Tayyip Erdogan said such attacks aimed to create chaos and destabilize the country.
Turkey has seen repeated attacks in recent weeks. On Dec. 10, two bombs claimed by Kurdish militants exploded outside a soccer stadium in Istanbul, killing 44 people. A security guard who survived that attack was killed at Reina.
A car bomb killed at least 13 soldiers and wounded 56 when it ripped through a bus carrying off-duty military personnel in the central city of Kayseri a week later, an attack Erdogan also blamed on Kurdish militants.
ISIS’ Amaq website said the group was behind a car bomb attack that killed 11 people and wounded 100 in the city of Diyarbakir in November, but Turkish authorities denied this and said Kurdish militants carried out the attack.
The Russian ambassador to Turkey was shot dead as he gave a speech in Ankara on Dec. 19 by an off-duty police officer who shouted “Don’t forget Aleppo” and “Allahu Akbar”.