Why ISIS still poses a massive threat to Turkey
The suicide bombings and attacks that shook Turkey in 2015 and 2016 have halted but the country faces a monumental struggle to contain its large and expanding cohort of Islamic State (ISIS) extremists.
Last September, hundreds of ISIS defectors were reported as having massed on the border between Idlib and Turkey, attempting to escape north into Turkey. More than 400 suspects were arrested by Turkish police across the country on a single day in February. In March, four people were detained on suspicion of planning an attack on the US Embassy in Ankara. On April 16, 69 ISIS suspects were caught in Istanbul, Hatay and Eskisehir.
On May 5, 51 foreign nationals were detained in Istanbul. Ten days later, 54 ISIS suspects were arrested in Adana. Four ISIS leaders were detained on April 27 while posing as migrants in Izmir. The detained leaders included Kasir al-Haddawi, a former governor of Deir ez-Zor province, who stands accused of war crimes for the slaughter of 700 Shaitat tribe members.
The list of arrests goes on. What’s clear is a trend that speaks for itself: Turkey is struggling to keep a handle on its foreign and homegrown jihadist networks.
The majority — both Turkish and foreign — have been detained at residential addresses. This shows that they, or their contacts, are registered with and integrated into the Turkish infrastructure that requires identity checks in exchange for services. That raises worrying questions: If Turkish intelligence can track extremists, is it complicit or is it ignoring the threat? If the number of arrests is so high, are there thousands more slipping through the net?
Turkey says it has detained more than 5,000 suspects and deported 3,300 foreign extremists. Its military has engaged in operations to oust ISIS from border regions in Syria. Ankara, however, has also tried to deflect blame.
In December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed, without evidence, that many ISIS members fled Syria, not to Turkey but to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In February, Mehdi Eker, a deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, accused the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) of releasing ISIS jihadists to attack Turkish soldiers.
“If you listen to Erdogan’s remarks, you will quickly realise that the real enemy he wants to fight is still the PKK,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Omer Taspinar. “He tries hard after each ISIS attack to create a ‘generic’ threat of terrorism in which all groups are bundled up together without any clear references to ISIS.”
When ISIS was driven from Raqqa, Syria, in October 2017, many jihadists fled for Turkey through Idlib and other border provinces. However, the majority of those in Turkey didn’t enter the country in the days before Raqqa fell to US-backed Kurdish paramilitaries. The individuals threatening the stability of Turkey and by extension of Europe made their way to Turkey beforehand.
Obvious questions arise. Why and how has Turkey become home to so many extremist cells? It’s an open secret that Turkey’s armed interlocutors in Syria during the early years of the civil war morphed into extremists. Many ended up in the ranks of Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Many of them living and are developing strategies from Turkey.
Another reason relates to Ankara’s support for armed ethnic Turkmen communities in northern Syria. Disillusioned by the infighting and weakness of moderate rebel groups in 2012 and 2013, they joined more radical militias while maintaining ties with Turkey.
What solutions can Turkey muster against this security threat?
Successful attacks have, thankfully, been infrequent, which suggests that Turkish intelligence has kept pace with major threats. Questions remain, however. How, for example, did the perpetrators of the Istanbul Ataturk Airport attack, which killed 45 people in June 2016, get their hands on military-grade explosives?
The internal workings of Turkey’s security apparatus have never been clear and it’s hard to say exactly how Ankara perceives ISIS. What we can be sure of, however, is that the arrests — as well as the threat posed by ISIS — will continue.