Welcome to the most vulnerable country to terrorism

As long as the Turkish government does not attach priority to the fight against IS, Turkey will remain the most vulnerable country in the world.

al-monitor Employees at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport attend a ceremony on June 30, 2016, at the international departure terminal for friends killed in the June 28 attack at the Turkish airport. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.
Cengiz Candar

Cengiz Candar


Topics covered

turkish-syrian border, terrorist organizations, terror attacks, pyd, pkk, justice and development party, jihadists, is

Jul 1, 2016

They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind. For many, this saying applies to the shocking terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. The usual suspect — although it did not declare any formal responsibility — is naturally the Islamic State (IS). The three suicide bombers who blew themselves up June 28, inflicting a devastating blow to Turkish public spirits, to the authority of the government and to the weight of the country in the international political scene, have been identified and point toward IS involvement.

There have been a series of mini-massacres known to be perpetrated by IS during the last year with hundreds of lives lost and more than 1,000 wounded, but all of these were not sufficient to make IS the No. 1 terrorist threat to Turkey.

In the Istanbul airport attack, the culprits belong to the lands, and presumably the Muslim societies, of the former Soviet Union. One is Chechen or Daghestani from the Northern Caucasus, and the other two are from the Turkic republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. At the time of this writing, the names of two of the three, Vadim Osmanov and Rakim Bulgarov, both carrying Russian passports, were officially announced by Turkish authorities.

Osmanov and Rakim were known to be active IS members. Turkish security officials are not competent in terms of intelligence gathering to thwart such terror attacks, but they are quite efficient in terms of tracking the culprits after the fact.

For a few years now, Turkey has been the “jihadi highway,” and its porous long frontier with Syria has been an easy passage for all sorts of Salafi opposition groups under the support of Ankara, Riyadh and Qatar, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra and IS participants.

It is an open secret that IS has many sleeper cells in Turkey. Under the favorable umbrella of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for all sorts of Islamist activities, IS found an affectionate bosom to entrench, expand and stay relatively safe within the territory of Turkey.

The Turkish security agencies tasked with supporting anti-Bashar al-Assad Salafi opposition groups consequently established contacts with many Salafists, most of them residing in the refugee camps along the border or in the Turkish border towns. Thus, they accumulated a lot of precious information about “who is who” in the “jihadi highway.”

Why then is there an intelligence lapse?

It is mainly because of the laxity of the AKP political rule in the assessment of terrorism. For a long time, Turkish authorities refrained from affixing the label of terrorist to IS, but it easily stuck the label on the Syrian Kurdish groups fighting the Turkish government.

The pro-Sunni Islamist rule of the AKP under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in an increasingly sectarian fight in Syria. Its priority is to thwart Kurdish gains under the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People's Protection Units (YPG) against IS in the Rojava region, a de facto autonomous region of Syria.

Those Kurds under the political flag of the PYD with the YPG turned out to be the most effective fighting force on the ground against IS and proved to be the closest ally for the Americans. This was seen in the very recent campaign to retake the strategic town of Manbij, which is between the Turkish border and Raqqa, IS’ so-called capital in Syria.

Whenever speaking on developments concerning Syria, Erdogan directs his not-very-implicit criticism toward Washington because of its alliance with the PYD and YPG. He has always listed the Kurdistan Workers Party, PYD, YPG and IS in one package of “terrorist organizations,” sometimes omitting the last one but never forgetting to emphasize the first three.

The nuance and the apparent prioritizing of the Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated to the Kurdish “terrorists” by the Turkish authorities did not go unnoticed by IS.

IS, although no longer enjoying its previous freedom in crossing the Turkey-Syria border, not only sees where the priority of the current Turkish government lies when it comes to its Syrian policy, but also recognizes Turkey as the weakest link in the anti-IS coalition.

Hitting Turkey devastatingly could have several benefits for IS. One is to deter Ankara from more effective cooperation in the anti-IS coalition, which could also serve as a deterrent for a number of Western countries that might see that IS terror is not waning and therefore would not like to invite it to their own territory.

It is also a very strong signal to potential IS recruits all over the world that the organization, despite some losses in Iraq and Syria, is still alive and kicking.

Two weeks ago, CIA Director John Brennan said that the campaign against IS has not “reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” The Istanbul airport attack may have validated that prediction.

After the Istanbul attack, Brennan made another assessment carried extensively by Turkish social media that Turkey is vulnerable to more terrorist attacks.

A passport policeman at the Istanbul airport, only hours after the attack, looked at me with a sad and a bit puzzled expression, made a reference to that assessment and, fishing for a more optimistic prediction, asked my opinion: “Do you think,” he asked, “there could be a worse terrorist attack than this one?”

“Let us pray,” I responded, “not to have one like this anymore.”

The worries are even more augmented with Ankara’s new flirtation with Israel and Russia. With those in the helm in Ankara changing the track so dramatically and the public unsure of where Turkey is navigating, the new attempts at rapprochement with Israel and Moscow may serve as a recipe for IS sleeper cells to commit further terrorist attacks in Turkey.

The terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport underlines that Turkey is, at this juncture, the most vulnerable country in Eurasia.

As long as the Turkish government does not attach priority to the fight against IS, anybody who steps into Ataturk Airport faces an unwritten message: Welcome to the most vulnerable country of the world.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings