July 21, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Terrorism in Turkey

• On July 20, over 30 students were killed in a bomb attack in southern Turkey

• Despite the suspicions expressed by some Kurds, the likely culprit of the bombing is the Islamic State

• The attack follows a clampdown on the Islamic State in Turkey, with multiple arrests

• Turkey may have decided that its tolerance of the Islamic State is providing diminishing returns, and that a change in policy is now due.


The bomb attack yesterday on the Amara Cultural Center in Suruç, a Turkish town close to the Syrian border, left more than 30 dead and many more injured, some seriously. The attack targeted a group of approximately 300 members of various student bodies from across Turkey who had gathered to support the reconstruction of Kobani, which is just across the Syrian border to the south. Kobani remains largely in ruins after four months of close quarters fighting between Kurdish militias and the so-called Islamic State.

The Islamic State certainly had strong motivation to conduct such an attack, and with the report of the attacker being an 18 year-old woman, suspicion immediately fell on the group. The group lost well over 2,000 fighters in its attempt to take and hold Kobani between October of last year and the end of January, and its defeat was widely seen as clear evidence of its vulnerability, particularly to allied airstrikes. It also led to further defeats along the Turkish border and a loss of important resupply routes. This clearly rankled in the Islamic State; less than a month ago, the group's fighters attacked Kobani with three car bombs and shot dead a number of civilians in a cold-blooded massacre that appeared to have more to do with revenge than any tactical move to retake the area. More significantly, at much the same time as the attack on Suruç, the Islamic State launched another suicide bombing in Kobani.

But there was finger-pointing elsewhere as well. Suruç is a primarily Kurdish town run by the Democratic Peoples Party (DHP), which did surprisingly well in the Turkish elections in early June, effectively preventing President Erdogan from commanding a sufficient majority in Parliament to secure changes to the constitution that would have enhanced his powers. Without directly accusing Erdogan of complicity, DHP leaders were sharply critical of the president and of the Ankara establishment more generally for its hostility towards the Kurds. Other voices have been more direct in accusing the Turkish state of being behind the bombing.

Although the Kurdish issue has become more toxic in Turkey recently, a more noticeable and significant trend has been a clampdown by the Turkish authorities on the Islamic State, which provides further reason for the group to have attacked in Suruç. Until recently, the group had been relatively untroubled in Turkey, but over the last two weeks, there have been multiple arrests and a crackdown on pro-Islamic State websites. This is in marked contrast to the past when Turkish authorities chose to turn a blind eye to the recruiters and facilitators active in Istanbul and Ankara. Although some 500 foreigners have been turned back from the border this year on suspicion that they intended to join the fighting in Syria, many others have gotten through, as have supplies and weapons. This may now change.

There appear to be several reasons for the change in Turkish policy towards the Islamic State. First, Turkey had seen the terror organization as a useful force against the Kurds, but the animosity between the two groups has led paradoxically to a strengthening of the Kurds as U.S. support has allowed them to make significant gains against the Islamic State as well as increase their arms supplies. Second, Turkey had hoped that the group would be an effective force against the Assad regime, which Erdogan is determined to see removed from power. But apart from the assault on Palmyra, the capture of military bases near Raqqa and Deir Ezzour, and skirmishes on the outskirts of Hassakah, the Islamic State has largely ignored Syrian government forces in favor of attacking other rebel groups, some directly supported by Turkey. This is not in Turkey’s interests. Third, through discussion with the U.S. and other NATO partners—most recently during Gen. John Allen’s visit to Ankara in early July—Turkey has come to appreciate how important the defeat of the Islamic State is to its allies and has realized the political and military advantages of joining in. Furthermore, the threat posed by the Islamic State to Turkey’s own security grows as the group becomes more established and manages to recruit more Turks to join its ranks. Already the official estimate of Turkish fighters in Syria is approximately 1,400, and those who survive the fighting will find it relatively easy to get back home.

A Pew survey published last week suggested that only about 19% of Turks were ‘very concerned’ about the threat from ‘Islamic extremism’, compared to over 50% of Americans, but the attack in Suruç may bump this number up. Turkey has lived with terrorism for many years—and has built up a certain resilience—but a new wave of attacks at a time when so much of its regional neighborhood is in trouble, would be concerning indeed.


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