Argument

Turkey Did Nothing About the Jihadists in Its Midst — Until It Was Too Late

For years, Ankara was focused on Assad instead of the jihadist networks operating on its soil. Now those cells are focused on destroying Turkey.

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The Islamic State has waged a yearlong military campaign in Turkey that includes suicide bombings, unguided rockets fired from Syria into Turkish border towns, and the assassination of Syrian journalists living there. The June 28 attack on Istanbul’s main airport by three non-Turkish suicide bombers that left 44 people dead and over 200 people injured is its latest blow in its war against Turkey. It was the 10th Islamic State-linked bomb attack, a spree that claimed the lives of 233 people since January 2015.

The Turkish government has cracked down on the jihadist group, detaining hundreds of its members since March 2015. But despite Ankara’s efforts, the Islamic State retains the ability to continue its terror attacks – and has developed a strategy designed to destabilize the country and silence its enemies.

The Islamic State’s goals are to undermine the Turkish economy, increase ethnic and political polarization in the country, assassinate Syrian voices critical of the group, and punish Turkey for supporting Arab opposition groups hostile to it. This strategy is not a response to a single event — like recent Islamic State losses or Turkey’s outreach to Israel — but rather a carefully conceived plan to terrorize the Turkish population and destabilize the country.

The Islamic State’s network in Turkey is built on an older and well-established network of Turkish Salafists. A small subset of this population has links to international jihad and, for about three years after the beginning of Syria’s civil war, operated relatively openly in numerous Turkish cities despite being under surveillance by Turkish intelligence for suspected links to al Qaeda.

At the moment, it is unclear how or if the three attackers at the Istanbul airport fit into this network. The men reportedly entered Turkey a month ago, and Turkish officials suspect they were sent directly from Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital city, with the explosive belts and weapons used during the attack. The three men, who are foreign nationals, allegedly rented an apartment in Istanbul’s Fatih district before taking a taxi to the airport before the attack. This information suggests that they received help on the Turkish side of the border, but as of yet there is no public information on the support network they relied upon to carry out the attack.

The history of al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Turkey — and the networks supporting previous Islamic State attackers there — is well documented. Many Turkish recruiters for al Qaeda and the Islamic State spent time in Afghanistan, either fighting the Soviets in the 1980s or the United States in the 2000s before returning to Turkish cities and towns. Turkey has long been a key transit hub for foreign jihadists intent on traveling from their home countries to wage jihad in Chechnya and Dagestan against Russian forces, or against U.S. forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

Gaziantep, a large border city 60 miles north of Syria’s Aleppo, emerged as an important route for foreign fighters traveling via Syria to Iraq to fight the United States. Louai Sakka, a Syrian Kurd from Aleppo, was a key player in this network and had extensive links to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Islamic State’s previous incarnation, al Qaeda in Iraq. Sakka also fought against the United States in Fallujah in 2004 and has been linked to the 2003 al Qaeda bombings of Jewish and Western targets in Istanbul. He was arrested in the Turkish city of Antalya in 2006 as he was planning an attack against targets related to Israel.

Sakka was just one figure in a much broader network operating on Turkish soil on behalf of Syrian jihadist groups. His Turkish lawyer, Osman Karahan, was killed in Syria fighting with the Nusra Front in 2013. Osman’s brother, Sinan, is also a lawyer and represents HISADER, an Islamist NGO previously based in Istanbul’s Gungoren neighborhood that is accused of recruiting for the Islamic State. Turkish authorities closed HISADER in 2015, but at least one man connected to the NGO, Huseyin Peri, fought with the Islamic State against the Syrian Kurdish YPG near Tel Abyad in 2015. Peri, in turn, is linked to at least 35 other Islamic State members previously based in the southeastern Turkish city of Adiyaman.

Turkey was aware of these networks from the early days of the Syrian conflict. In 2012, Turkish police began to electronically monitor suspected Turkish al Qaeda members but did little to disrupt their networks. Turkish intelligence officials privately suggested that they were more interested in mapping the network and seeing where the information led them rather than endlessly arresting low-level recruits.

The Turkish government had also concluded that the Syrian conflict would be a short one, estimating that President Bashar al-Assad would be forced from power in six months. It viewed Syria’s jihadist problem as secondary to that of the Syrian regime and was focused on the immediate task of defeating Assad. The jihadist threat, many Turkish officials argued, was linked to Assad’s brutality. They made the case that the regime had to be removed before a long-lasting solution to a group like the Islamic State could be pursued.

But as Ankara focused on Assad, the jihadists concentrated on expanding their influence on Turkish soil. Turkish jihadists operated in much the same way as the Islamic State in Iraq, establishing cells embedded within hierarchical networks. These cells, like in Iraq, sought to use the media for propaganda. In Turkey, the leader of one al Qaeda cell, Ilham Bali, worked closely with Abdulkadir Polat, the editor of the Turkish language Takva Haber. This suggests that a more senior, Syria-based, Islamic State leader helped to shape Takva Haber’s editorial content.

The leaked transcripts clearly show that the Turkish government was monitoring these networks. The decision not to crack down on them at the outset of the Syrian conflict backfired badly on Ankara: As the war continued in Syria, al Qaeda and Islamic State recruiters tried to persuade Turkish youth and other Turks who worked in Syria with Islamist NGOs to join their ranks.

These potential recruits are believed to have been invited to participate in some form of rudimentary military training in Turkey, perhaps in conjunction with religious indoctrination. Yunus Durmaz, the now-deceased “IS emir of Gaziantep,” gathered a group of 19 recruits to simulate combat in paintball matches. At least two attendees, Ismail Gunes and Mehmet Ozturk, later carried out suicide attacks in Gaziantep and Istanbul on behalf of the Islamic State. Another man linked to this group, Talha Gunes, matches the description of a Turkish military trainer, “Ebu Talha,” based in the Syrian town of Tabqa, according to Savas Yildiz, a Turkish member of the Islamic State now in Kurdish custody in Syria. Turkish intelligence reportedly monitored these paintball training sessions and presumably had insights into the indoctrination sessions, according to the Turkish daily Gazetevatan.

The religious indoctrination reportedly went on for nearly four months, and then the youth involved would be asked to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, according to numerous reports in different Turkish dailies describing Islamic State recruitment. Following the pledge, the new Turkish members would be sent to Syria, often using Gaziantep- or Sanliurfa-based smugglers to enter the country. Once inside Syria, these recruits underwent further religious indoctrination and received basic military training in Turkish-speaking units.

Following the split between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in 2013, the Islamic State took complete control of al Qaeda’s smuggling networks into Syria. Yunus Durmaz controlled the Islamic State’s smuggling route through Gaziantep and reportedly assembled suicide vests at warehouses he owned in Gaziantep for attacks in Turkey. Durmaz worked closely with Bali, an Islamic State operative who moved to Gaziantep and then to Syria sometime before March 2015. He reportedly planned five Islamic State-linked attacks in Turkey, all of which were aimed at Kurdish-related targets. The largest of these assaults was the October 2015 bombing of the Ankara train station, amid a rally organized by a Kurdish political party, which killed 103 civilians. A Turkish and foreign national were the bombers.

The Ankara attack was the first to include a joint Turkish and foreign suicide team, suggesting links between Turkish and, presumably, Syrian or Iraqi Islamic State members. It is also the last Islamic State attack focused on a Kurdish-linked target and the start of the group’s latest wave of assaults against the Turkish tourism economy. In January, Nabil Fadli, a 28-year-old Saudi living in Syria, killed 10 tourists in Sultanahmet, a major tourist district in Istanbul. In March, Mehmet Ozturk, a Turkish national born in 1992, detonated a suicide vest on Istanbul’s popular Istiklal Avenue, killing five people. Durmaz is also reported to have helped plan this attack, underscoring his importance to the Islamic State’s network in Turkey.

Turkish security forces appear to be making progress in disrupting this network of Islamic State members. In late December 2015, Turkish police arrested Musa Canoz and Adnan Yildirim while they were en route to Ankara to carry out two suicide attacks at planned New Year’s Eve celebrations. Turkish security forces later arrested numerous Islamic State members, presumably based on intelligence from Canoz’s and Yildirim’s interrogations. Canoz first met Bali in 2012 in Ankara’s Haci Bayram neighborhood, which has a history of Islamic State recruitment.

Following the two arrests, Turkish police raided Durmaz’s Gaziantep residence in May. Yunus detonated a suicide vest, killing himself. But the police managed to retrieve his laptop, which provided considerable intelligence about the Islamic State’s attack plans in Turkey. The laptop included photos of police and military bases and Turkish airports. Other files suggested that the Islamic State’s strategy is to foment ethnic and political strife by attacking targets linked to Kurds and the Alevi religious minority. There is no denying that the jihadist group has accomplished this goal: The political leaders of the Kurdish-majority political party, the HDP, accuse the ruling Justice and Development Party of giving aid to the Islamic State, while Turkish government officials have claimed that the main Syrian Kurdish party is indirectly allied with the Islamic State in Syria.

The latest attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport fits the recent pattern of Islamic State assaults, which increasingly appear aimed at tourism-related targets and foreign nationals in Turkey. Moreover, if Turkish citizens were also involved in the attack, this would be the second recent one that features a multinational unit. The Islamic State has paired this strategy with an effort to kill Turkey-based journalists and activists who report on Islamic State atrocities in Syria.

The Turkish government has taken numerous steps to close the border with Syria since late 2014. In July 2015, Turkey agreed to allow the anti-Islamic State coalition to fly strike missions from Incirlik Air Base, including in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group that includes the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Turkish security personnel have also increased efforts to disrupt and detain Turkish members of the Islamic State. The group, however, still has the capability to smuggle men and material — including explosives — across the border despite Turkey’s efforts to seal it off completely.

Turkey has few options left to escalate its war against the Islamic State, other than using its ground forces to take territory from the group. But Ankara has made it clear that it’s not prepared to commit ground forces in Syria, so it will be left to work through proxies. This suggests that Turkey’s next steps will be more of the same: police raids, near-daily shelling of Islamic State targets in northern Aleppo, continued support for the anti-Islamic State coalition, and greater flexibility about the timetable for the departure of Assad in a potential U.S.- and Russian-backed Syrian peace agreement.

For Turkey, the fight against the Islamic State will continue long after Raqqa is liberated and the group is pushed from its border. The average birth year of Turkish Islamic State fighters is 1990, according to data this author collected. This means that the average Islamic State fighter was just 20 when the war in Syria started. Many of those not killed during the conflict will return to Turkey, with potentially devastating effects for the country’s domestic peace.

The recent history of al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Turkey underscores the importance of identifying key recruiters and taking immediate action to disrupt terrorist networks early on. If allowed to operate – even if the intention is to gain intelligence about the larger network – these groups would metastasize and their reach would grow. The Syrian conflict certainly contributed to the growth of radicalism in Turkey, but the key enablers were present long before the war and will remain after it ends.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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