Turkey Underestimated Extremist Threat
The government has presented the attack in Istanbul as a conspiracy, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying that “secret powers” had used IS as a “subcontractor.”
Turkey, after all, long underestimated the danger presented by Islamist extremists and thus helped their ascent.
When the insurgency in Syria began, Erdogan hoped to finally be able to topple Bashar Assad with the help of Syrian fundamentalists.
He ignored — or perhaps simply accepted — who exactly he was supporting in the effort. And he ignored the fact that IS was becoming ever stronger.
Whereas Jordan’s security services prevented foreigners from traveling onward to Syria, making it unattractive for jihadists, Turkey basically welcomed them.
Jihadists from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the Caucasus and Western Europe were neither intercepted nor prevented from traveling onward to the warzone.
And they weren’t difficult to spot: At the airport of Hatay, a city in southern Turkey, bearded men would check in for their flights home wearing battle fatigues and with mud on their shoes.
For years, IS was able to maintain apartments, warehouses and even military training camps in Turkey.
The group was also able to organize supplies of weapons, munitions, food and medicines via Turkey.
Islamic State sent its fighters to Turkish hospitals near the Syrian border for treatment. Dubious companies issued certificates of employment so that foreign jihadists were able to get year-long residency permits with no trouble at all.
Islamic State was also able to recruit new followers with virtually no fear of interference — and officials simply ignored information provided by Turkish parents whose children had joined the extremists.
As recently as 2014, IS was able to openly recruit new followers in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities.
Young men and women from around the world only had to visit the teahouses neighboring certain mosques to join the group, while shops openly sold IS souvenirs, such as banners, stickers and flags.
This laissez-faire approach was slowly replaced by concern in 2014, but by then it was too late.
So many IS supporters and fighters were active in Turkey that they had become a danger to the country’s security.
Yet instead of doing something about it, the decision was apparently made to avoid putting pressure on them in the hopes that Turkey wouldn’t become a target as well.
An unofficial member of the Turkish secret service MIT said in mid-2014 that he had never seen officials so nervous.
“They are really afraid of IS because they know that their cells are everywhere in the country and could perpetrate attacks,” he said.
Initially, though, the jihadists refrained from carrying out attacks so as not to endanger their bridgeheads elsewhere in the world.
That changed last summer with the attack on Suruc, which is thought to have been carried out by IS, likely to fan the flames of Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds.
The Kurds, after all, are Islamic State’s largest and most powerful enemy in both Syria and Iraq.
The shock over the 34 people killed in the attack — in addition to added pressure from the US and Europe and the negative headlines about their lax approach to IS — moved Turkey to finally intensify its pursuit of the jihadists.
Checks at borders and airports were increased and suspects were arrested — more than 400 of them in 2015, according to the think tank Crisis Group.
After initial hesitation, Ankara joined the international coalition against the terror militia and provided the Americans with access to military bases.
At least since then, Islamic State has seen Turkey as an enemy.
In an IS propaganda video, Erdogan was cursed as the “devil” and calls were made for the “conquer of Istanbul.”
Recently, IS issued warnings in Turkish-language videos of an impending attack.
The Turkish daily Hürriyet also reported on two tips that Turkey’s MIT intelligence service allegedly passed along on Dec. 17 and Jan. 4.
In its tips, the intelligence service reportedly warned that suicide attackers in Ankara and Istanbul were awaiting deployment.
On New Year’s Eve, two Turks were arrested who had allegedly admitted a short time before they intended to carry out an attack in the capital city.
A Shift in IS’ Strategy
Whereas previous attacks had targeted Kurds, Washington-based terrorism expert Aaron Stein argues the latest attack indicates a shift in IS strategy, showing it now seeks to inflict damage on the Turkish economy by attacking tourists.
Terrorism researcher Peter Neumann of King’s College in London believes the Istanbul attacker was part of IS and that he was not acting alone.
Neumann says he is unaware of any case in which someone has built a suicide belt of their own accord and then successfully deployed it.
In addition, IS supporters cheered the attack in social media and the group still has an excellent infrastructure in Turkey.
Even if Turkey has stepped up its fight against IS, the terror militia is still active in the country.
Only a short time ago, IS murdered two Syrian journalists in Sanliurfa, a city in southeastern Turkey.
And just to the west, in Gaziantep, a Syrian documentary filmmaker was shot dead in front of a shopping center.
Plus, figures circulated by the Turkish government claiming 3,000 arrests in connection with anti-IS operations should also be viewed critically, warns a German intelligence source.
Few of those arrested remain in detention, the source says, with the majority getting released quickly afterward.
Turkey’s MIT secret service plays a particularly ambivalent role in anti-terror efforts.
There are some indications suggesting MIT may have worked together with IS — at least in the past.
A weapons delivery in 2014 also raised suspicions that MIT may have been providing Syrian extremists with direct support.
At the time, an informant alerted Turkish security forces about a weapons delivery heading for Syria and a public prosecutor had the transport — which was being accompanied by MIT agents — searched.
The Turkish government banned any news coverage and spoke of an “aid delivery” to Turkmen in the northwest of Syria.
Video recordings, however, suggest they were carrying munitions. Government critics claim they were being sent to IS, but there is no evidence to prove that.
Can Turkey Be Trusted?
This puts Western intelligence services in a difficult position: Can the Turks be trusted?
Still, European diplomats in Turkey take information provided by MIT about potential IS terrorists seriously.
For example, MIT has provided concrete information about possible terrorist attackers who are making their way to Europe or are already there.
One diplomat, an expert on security issues, notes that Turkey maintains a “network of informants in Syria and Iraq that should not be underestimated.”
Few other intelligence agencies have such good sources in the region.
The source says the Turkish government has in fact “perceptibly increased” its efforts to combat IS during the last six months. Still, the source adds, doubts persist when it comes to Ankara’s political agenda.
“There’s always a residual risk about whether Ankara is truly interested in fighting IS, or if it actually has secret sympathies — either because it wants to use it as a means to weaken Assad or because, they feel closer to their fellow believers for religious reasons (as predominantly Sunni Muslims),” the source says.
Other experts draw a less flattering comparison to Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service.
With ISI, too, they say, you never know which side it is actually on — whether it is combatting or supporting the Taliban or doing both at the same time.
European diplomats also find it problematic that MIT was given additional responsibilities in 2014 such that it can now be used as a “domestic policy instrument.”
The secret service now has much greater access to data from companies, banks and their customers.
“It is making life difficult for all people who are unpopular with the government,” the diplomat says.
He says this has also resulted in further incursions into press freedoms.
Journalists who report on the intelligence agency’s activities can now be subject to prosecution and stiff prison sentences because it can be claimed that they threaten security.
A Country with Ubiquitous Challenges
On top of all this is the fact that Turkey is simply overwhelmed.
In southeastern Turkey, the army is fighting what is essentially a civil war against members of the Kurdish opposition and the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has attacked and killed security forces multiple times.
The country has taken in millions of refugees from Syria.
It is participating in the international alliance against IS.
It has a 900-kilometer (559-mile) long border to Syria it has to guard.
Add to all this the fact that it has to observe hundreds and perhaps even thousands of jihadists inside its own borders.
If it didn’t sound so cynical, one could almost say: What has happened was inevitable. And those who wanted to could have seen it coming long ago.
A little over a year ago, political scientist Behlül Özkan of Istanbul’s Marmara University predicted rather precisely what might happen in the event of an attack.
“A few tourists die and that’s the end of tourism, one of the most important pillars of our economy,” he said.
At the time, he was warning of the possibility of a single bombing attack at a hotel along the Mediterranean coast.
Now, in winter, it appears that Istanbul’s historical center made a more suitable place for targeting foreign tourists.
Turkey is dependent on tourism.
Last year, the industry had just under $31 billion in revenues, with the greatest numbers of visitors coming from Russia and Germany.
If vacationers were to avoid the country in the future, in addition to harming the tourism industry, it could also create tumult for a Turkish economy that is already experiencing difficulties.
Which helps explain why the country is now doing all it can to demonstrate strength.
The army has begun shelling dozens of IS positions in Syria and Iraq with tanks and artillery, and it has arrested 74 suspected Islamic State members in Turkey.
But swift success against the terrorist militia is unlikely.
Security forces carried out raids against IS supporters right after the attack in Ankara as well.
The state succeeded in disrupting the group’s operations, but it didn’t manage to destroy its structures.
“After years in which IS was able to build up a network in Turkey unhindered, the confrontation now will be protracted and difficult,” predicts Turkey expert Stein.
Security expert Mete Yarar attributed the ineffectiveness of Turkey’s State Intelligence Agency (MIT) to its inability to obtain intelligence data on terrorist activity in Syria.
The interview came after three Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) terrorist blasts ripped through Istanbul Ataturk Airport earlier this week, leaving at least 44 people dead and 239 more injured. Ataturk Airport serves a hub connecting Turkey and the rest of the Middle East with Europe; according to Airports Council International, Ataturk is the second-busiest airport in the Middle East after Dubai International, and the second-busiest airport in continental Europe after Paris-Charles de Gaulle.
“We talk about the almost complete absence of the security system rather than the weak points of this system. MIT’s efforts are focused on and limited to Turkish borders, and it has no resources for conducting operations in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
He pointed to the fact that the MIT is also unable to provide preventive security, which Yarar said deals with measures taken to neutralize the groups planning to commit a terrorist attack.
“If the security forces managed to prevent terrorists from entering the territory of their country, it means that preventive intelligence coped with their task,” he said.
Additionally, Yarar drew attention to the fact that only 17 percent of the three million refugees, who arrived in Turkey, submitted their personal data to the country’s migration services.
“Turkey was not prepared to receive so many migrants and no doubt, the lack of control on this issue continues to complicate the work of intelligence services,” he pointed out.
Turkey has served as the country from which most foreign Daesh terrorists have entered Syria.
However, the corridor in Syria’s Aleppo Province linking Turkey with most of the territory of the self-proclaimed caliphate has narrowed thanks to a recent push by the mainly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and anti-government opposition groups.
Earlier, Turkey had unequivocally insisted that Kurdish troops refrain from crossing the Euphrates into the Daesh-held corridor.
Yarar added that “in order to stem the wave of Daesh terrorist attacks in Turkey, it’s necessary to deal with the purpose and the reason for these actions.”
“The main thing is to understand what force is behind the organization of these explosions, and why it is Daesh that claims responsibility for the blasts,” he said.
On Friday, Turkish media reported that two of the three suicide bombers were thought to have Russian passports.
Earlier, it was reported that Turkish security experts believe that the decision to attack the Istanbul airport was made by Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and that Osman Vadinov, a Chechen who joined Daesh two years ago, was ordered to organize the attack.
In March 2016, at least 37 people were killed and 125 more injured in a suicide bombing in central Ankara, the fifth such attack in Turkey in the past few months, media reports said at the time.