The Islamic State Hits Turkey Where It Hurts
The terror group is ramping up its fight against Ankara. Its latest battleground: the Turkish economy.
ISTANBUL — Turkey has been no stranger to attacks by the Islamic State. The jihadi group committed the single deadliest attack in the country’s history in October, when a pair of suicide bombers killed 102 people in the capital city of Ankara. In July, another suicide attack by a homegrown Islamic State militant killed 33 people near the border with Syria.
However, the Tuesday, Jan. 12, bombing that took the lives of 10 people, all of them German tourists, in the historical center of Istanbul may signal a shift in the Islamic State’s strategy — in Turkey and elsewhere. To the Ankara government, the attack, the first to deliberately target the country’s tourism industry, signals that the group has opened a new front inside Turkey. Paired with attacks that followed only days later in downtown Jakarta, Indonesia, it also suggests that the jihadis are systematically stepping up terrorism operations abroad.
Whether the timing of the Istanbul and Jakarta attacks was coincidental or not, says Gulnur Aybet, of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, is a matter of speculation. Islamic State cells’ heightened activity, however, suggests that the group is more committed than ever to exporting terrorism. “The more they are squeezed in Iraq and Syria,” said Aybet, “the more aggressive they will become on the regional and global front.”
In previous attacks across Turkey, the Islamic State had mostly targeted activists allied with the Kurdish nationalist cause, including sympathizers of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Those attacks stoked the flames of Turkey’s long-running conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country’s southeast. A group linked to the PKK killed two Turkish policemen in what it called retaliation for the July attack near the border with Syria, and the region has spiraled into violence ever since.
In Tuesday’s attack, however, the Islamic State did not target civilians opposed to the current government, but the country’s economy. By killing foreigners under the shadows of the country’s most iconic landmarks, the group has dealt Turkey’s $30 billion-per-year tourism industry a severe blow. The sector, already reeling from the impact of unrelenting clashes in the southeast, last year’s terrorist attacks, and strained relations with Russia, appears poised for further setbacks
Turkey welcomed more than 4 million German visitors last year, more than any other country. Russians trailed closely behind. Those numbers are likely to drop in 2016. Despite assurances by Germany’s interior minister, who advised his compatriots to continue visiting Turkey, some tourists have already begun heading back. Two leading German tour companies have offered clients free cancellations.
The Islamic State appears to have planned other strikes against high-profile targets in Turkey. On the day of the Istanbul bombing, police in Ankara detained 16 suspected militants from the group believed to have been preparing attacks against government buildings. Operations in Izmir, Sanliurfa, Mersin, Kilis, and Adana yielded dozens of other arrests. Overall, roughly 70 people have been detained.
Haldun Solmazturk, director of the 21. Century Turkey Institute, also believes that the Istanbul attack highlights the jihadis’ recognition that Turkey is now serious about clamping down on their activities. “Until recently, the government was sitting on the fence, paying lip service to anti-ISIS operations,” Solmazturk says. “Now it is clearly taking part in the coalition.… ISIS no longer hopes [Turkey] will change its stance.”
Remarkably, however, the Turkish government appears reluctant to hold the extremists directly responsible for Tuesday’s attack.
Speaking on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested that “secret actors” were to blame for the bloodshed in Istanbul. He referred to the Islamic State as a “subcontractor” for another party — and to make sure the allusion was not lost on his audience, he went on to imply that the militants were being provided air cover by Russia.
“Certain foreign powers have an obstructing stance against Turkey’s airstrikes on Daesh targets,” he said, referring to the group by its Arabic acronym.
The recent attack, however, could signal a dangerous new trend for Turkey. According to a brief by the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, the Islamic State appears to be on the verge of a transformation. Facing losses in Syria and Iraq, the brief says, the group is likely to “slowly and painfully shed its proto-state façade and revert to its origins as a terrorist insurgency.”
Attacks against “soft targets,” primarily tourist destinations, are likely to grow increasingly frequent, the group warns. “Turkey, given its shared border with Syria, is particularly vulnerable.”
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