Conspiracy theories promoted by media figures known to be closely affiliated with the AKP government have proliferated in Turkey concerning the New Year’s Eve mass shooting at the Reina night club in Istanbul that killed 39 people. Ömer Turan, who has close to 100K Twitter followers and frequently appears on AKP-aligned TV channels, has recently suggested that an American tourist wounded in the massacre is a CIA spy who had a role in the attack.
According to Turan, the Reina massacre wa a CIA operation to send a message to the Turkish government. Turan claims that the American tourist, Jake Raak, was at the Reina nightclub that night in order to finger certain Saudi and Jordanian businessmen who were killed in the attack. Other government-aligned journalists and analysts have made similar assertions, and even Orhan Bursali, a journalist for the prominent secular newspaper, Cumhuriyet, shared his suspicions about Raak, linking to popular online discussion forum Ekşi Sözlük.
Thousands of Turkish social media users shared similar speculations about the now-famous “American tourist.” To support their assertions, some have pointed to Raak’s LinkedIn profile, stating that he works in Pennsylvania for a manufacturer of military equipment. (“Pennsylvania” has become a code word in Turkey, because Fethullah Gülen, the controversial Turkish Islamic cleric who left Turkey in 1999, whose followers the Turkish government blames for the July 15, 2016 attempted coup, lives in rural Pennsylvania. Although ISIS has claimed responsibility for the terror attack, apparently, many Turks and pro-government journalists prefer to believe that Jake Raak was the one of its organizers.
Facts, please. William Jacob Raak, 35, from Greenville, Delaware, was at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul to celebrate his birthday and the new year. He was with a group of nine, seven of whom were among the 65 people injured in the shooting. Raak told NBC that when he first was told there was a gunman in the club he didn’t believe it:
“When he shot me, I didn’t move — I just let him shoot me,” he said. “I was shot when I was already on the ground. He was shooting people that he had already shot.”
Raak was shot in the hip, and the bullet traveled to his knee. He added that he didn’t move or make any sound even after he was hit, fearful that the gunman might realize he was alive.
Raak was also interviewed twice by Turkish media, the first time as he was being carried on a stretcher in front of the night club, the second time in the airport as he was returning to the U.S. After these interviews, many Turks, including the AKP mayor of an Istanbul suburb, began questioning his account on social media.
Some Turks found his attitude suspicious because he was talking “confidently” which they called “unusual.” But then the Twitter detectives pounced on a major clue: Raak’s hat bore the ominous words, “Quiet Storm.” This, some surmised, must refer to an “Operation Quiet Storm”; others suggested that “quiet storm” is a specific term used in intelligence activities. (According to this reasoning, wearers of “London Fog” raincoats must be British agents charged with spreading disinformation.)
Tens of videos containing such claims have been uploaded to YouTube by Turkish users and seen by tens, even hundreds of thousands of viewers. Despite the absence of credible evidence, some people see Raak’s “confident speaking”, his hat, and his workplace sufficient proof of these conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories having neither a rational basis nor supporting evidence are probably common in many countries. But in Turkey, these theories are not only more popular than elsewhere, but have become widespread, even “mainstream” among pro-government media personalities, who continually promote these suspicions on social media and pro-government ‘news’ programs.
Since Turkey first became a NATO member, marginal ideological groups have seen the U.S as a “prime suspect” behind troubles in the country. Currently, since the Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, pro-government conservative media have accused the U.S. of being behind every undesirable and unexpected incident in Turkey. Even top-level government officials, including President Erdoğan, have expressed similar conspiracy theories backed with little or no evidence without being challenged. This has become accepted in Turkish media and as a script for public officials after dramatic and catastrophic events.
Although primarily intended for a domestic audience, Turkish conspiracy theory-based hostility against the U.S. inevitably affects relations between the two governments. Last week Turkish government officials made public accusations against the U.S based on a fabricated translation of a statement by retired U.S. General Wesley Clark. Although the U.S has largely ignored such accusations in the past, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby said from his Twitter account:
“Incendiary & false accusations about the U.S. in Turkish media are offensive and could endanger our citizens. Must stop.”
Editor: Kevin Snapp