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How and why ISIS-K has resurged in Turkey

The latest attack on an Istanbul church signals the militant group’s resurgence in Turkey.
An ambulance leaves from Santa Maria Church as anti-riot police officers block the street after an attack in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 28, 2024.

The Islamic State’s first attack in Turkey after seven years of calm was carried out by strong collaboration of the terror group’s Khorasan branch — ISIS-K — which has been intensifying threats against Turkey while becoming more visible in the region through bloody attacks.

Two armed militants stormed the Roman Catholic Santa Maria Church in Istanbul Jan. 28, killing one Turkish citizen who tried to confront them before fleeing the scene. Hamza Amirjon Kholikov and David Tanduev, from Tajikistan and Russian-Central Asian background, respectively, were subsequently tracked down and arrested. The ensuing crackdown on the group’s network saw the detainment of more than 45 people over suspected links to the jihadi organization. While ISIS’ "Turkey province" claimed the attack, many hints suggest that the group’s branch in Afghanistan was actually responsible for planning the operation. Among them, the presence of the Central Asian militants suspected to be involved in the attack’s planning stands out as a chief indication of the involvement of ISIS-K.

While Central Asian fighters’ involvement in ISIS attacks in Turkey is not new — several of the jihadi group’s deadly attacks in the country in the past were carried out also by Central Asian militants — ISIS-K’s quest for an attack against Turkey has become more visible over the past two years.

The recent Istanbul church attack marked the first ISIS assault in Turkey since an attack in Istanbul on Jan. 1, 2017, where a mass shooting at a fancy Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve killed 39. It was the latest of a string of bloody attacks the jihadi group carried out through Central Asian militants in the country in 2016, including the attack on Istanbul’s international airport. ISIS attacks in Turkey between 2014 to 2017 claimed hundreds of lives. 

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