August 23, 2021

IntelBrief: The Turkish Counterterrorism Factsheet Two Decades after 9/11

(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The events of 9/11 encouraged al-Qaeda attacks in Turkey and led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), issues that majorly impacted Ankara’s foreign and security policy. 
  • U.S.-Turkey relations suffered in the post-9/11 era as a result of the power vacuum in northern Iraq, which helped the PKK gain a stronger foothold and divergence over the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
  • The gradual advances of militant Wahhabi-Salafi ideology and the lack of comprehensive repatriation plans for foreign fighters in Turkey’s regional proximity are major issues in the country’s future security agenda. 
  • For Turkey, the diminishing U.S. military presence in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan may engender security and socioeconomic concerns about new waves of refugees, making the issue a Turkish policy priority. 

Of the countries most affected by the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, Turkey quite likely makes the top five. The country not only experienced al-Qaeda-linked attacks and arrests in 9/11’s aftermath, but also dealt with the secondary consequences of the attacks with respect to Turkey’s regional policies; domestic terror incidents; local, regional, and global counterterrorism efforts; and the country’s foreign military and diplomatic engagement. Al-Qaeda’s transformation into a decentralized network, combined with jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s move toward Northern Iraq —where he would sow the seeds of the so-called Islamic State and the export of the al-Qaeda brand to Iraq and Syria —deeply impacted Turkey, both inside and outside its borders.

While U.S.-Turkey relations were initially strong following the 9/11 attacks, a series of events later strained relations between the nations. After 9/11, Turkey was one of the first countries to condemn the attacks and support the discourse and implementation of the so-called Global War on Terror. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Turkey opened its airspace for flights in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and later took over the command of the United Nations-mandated and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military mission in Afghanistan twice. The U.S.-Turkey relationship became strained in 2003 and 2004 following Turkey’s rejection of direct involvement in the U.S. invasion of northern Iraq. This rejection came at a time when Turkey was struggling with an economic crisis, and the Iraq invasion became one of the first and most significant tests of the new Turkish government. Relations continued to suffer as the overall power vacuum in Iraq allowed al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to find safe havens and sanctuary in the region, which was crucial to the PKK’s survival, particularly after its leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999. The public image of the U.S. in Turkey seriously suffered from not only PKK and northern Iraq-related tensions, but also the abuses uncovered from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal.

The Syrian Civil War provided fertile ground for al-Qaeda and ISIS recruitment and operations. Turkey’s domestic and cross-border engagement with ISIS and the spill-over of People’s Protection Units (YPG) and ISIS fighting in Syria resulted in ISIS attacks on Turkish soil. These attacks included but were not limited to the Ankara Train Station attack of late 2015; the mid-2016 attack at the ?stanbul Atatürk Airport; the Gaziantep wedding attack of August 2016; and the mass shooting at an ?stanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017. Additionally, Turkey was forced to deal with hundreds of YPG rocket attacks to its border towns and increased number of PKK attacks. The local, regional, and global dynamics of the Syrian Civil War also had a direct impact on Turkey’s relations with other actors such as Russia and the U.S., as evidenced by the YPG divergence; S-400 purchase and F-35 crisis—of which Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) and NATO-related concerns still prevail—and cross-border operations, during which Turkey experienced varying levels of tension with both Moscow and Washington. Additionally, in order to take advantage of the regional instabilities, Iran’s opportunistic moves to empower its proxies in the region also plagued the two countries’ bilateral relationship and inflamed the rivalry over regional superiority.

Turkey’s counterterrorism portfolio has also expanded and improved since 9/11. Over the past two decades, Turkey has combated a myriad of groups, including the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C), the PKK, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, among others. Accordingly, Turkey has been forced to re-evaluate and upgrade its counterterrorism toolkit. From this toolkit emerged policies and tactics such as stricter border controls, counter-narrative efforts, effective use of Advance Passenger Information (API) data, entry-bans and risk analysis units, intensified domestic law-enforcement efforts, and cross-border operations—all of which Turkey had to devise and implement quickly as the Syrian Civil War erupted across the border. The country has also been an active player in international efforts as the first co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) and a member of the D-ISIS coalition and its Foreign Terrorist Fighters Working Group. Lastly, Turkey proved to be one of the most effective NATO allies on the ground with its several cross-border operations, including Euphrates Shield, which cleared ISIS’s presence on the Turkish border and crippled some of the group’s key strongholds.

The prestige afforded to al-Qaeda and its militant Salafi brand after the 9/11 attacks also impacted Turkey’s interests outside of its regional proximity. For example, the militant Salafi brand spread to the African continent where Turkey had deepened its diplomatic and military engagement. Over the past two decades, Turkey has been forced to grapple not only with al-Qaeda, but also its offshoots and affiliates like ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab. Furthermore, Turkey’s ethnic and religious ties with Central Asia adds an additional front where Wahhabi-Salafi interpretations and their violent manifestations need to be monitored, which has been a concern for Turkey in the Caucasus and the Balkans since at least the 1990s. At the same time, the country must keep an eye on its efforts to absorb and manage the massive refugee influx resulting from the civil wars and insurgencies plaguing its neighbors. Additionally, ongoing global hesitancy concerning the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) has also become a major issue on Turkey’s security agenda.

The diminishing U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria raises concerns that power vacuums could grow and benefit various terrorist groups. Additionally, the U.S. troop withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan will undoubtedly provide opportunities for al-Qaeda due in no small measure to its close links with the Taliban. And since Turkey has been a key destination for Afghan refugees, new refugee waves resulting from a U.S. withdrawal could also raise security concerns and stoke negative social and economic fallout. However, Turkey should prepare itself for the possible mid- to long-term consequences of the return of FTFs or insurgents currently hiding out in Turkey, who offer continuing logistical support to ISIS and against whom arrests have been made almost on a daily basis in the last several years. Given the challenges of collecting accountable battlefield evidence, prison sentences are relatively short, and repatriation of FTFs seems to be the exception rather than the norm, which might well help the next generation of militant Salafi terrorists to rise.

Overall, due to the Wahhabi-Salafi encirclement risk, the direct threat to its soft and hard power instruments from Africa to the Balkans and Caucasus, the migrant flows from Afghanistan, and the fate of FTFs in Iraq and Syria, Turkey will remain at the forefront of the global fight against terrorism. This reality not only requires Turkey’s security structure to consolidate and deepen its active engagement in and out of its borders, it also highlights the importance of the country’s future posture in the international system. It will be important to watch how key players approach Turkey’s fight against terrorism, and how its relations with NATO, the U.S., Russia, and even China, will play out on the global stage.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Goktug Sonmez – Director; Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), Security Studies/ Faculty Member, Necmettin Erbakan University (Turkey) focuses on Radicalization and Terrorism, Non-State Armed Actors, and Turkish Foreign Policy. He publishes, comments, and teaches on those subjects in various national and international outlets and universities.