Islamic State Networks in Turkey – a report published recently by Merve Tahiroglu and Jonathan Schanzer of Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD) based in Washington D.C. The report reveals not only the Islamic State networks in Turkey but it also analyses radical understanding of Islam in Turkey before the Islamic State, Ankara’s sectarian foreign policy before the Syrian war, Turkey’s role in Syrian civil war, and as well as presence of the jihadists on social media platforms in Turkey. Vocal Europe conducts an interview below with the authors of the report.
Vocal Europe: What was the idea behind publishing this detailed report on that particular time?
Schanzer: We’ve been closely monitoring the Islamic State (ISIS)’s activities in and around Turkey for a long time. For years, Ankara allowed jihadists fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime to exploit Turkey’s 550-mile Syrian frontier and establish territorial control in most of northern Syria. From 2014 onwards, ISIS also used that border to smuggle fighters and materials into its Syrian territories, as well as to establish its networks inside Turkey.
Tahiroglu: In the last year, several major security-related issues – including the attempted coup d’état, Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, and terror attacks by Kurdish militants against Turks – have understandably taken precedence over Turkey’s ISIS problem in Turkish and foreign media coverage of the country. But while ISIS has been cleared off of the Turkish-Syrian border since last year, and Ankara’s efforts to secure the frontier have greatly improved, we remain deeply concerned about the group’s ability to threaten Turkey from within. The ISIS attack on Istanbul’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve was only the latest reminder of that threat. As tragic as the mass-shooting was, it was also unsurprising. We hope this report will compel the Turkish government to take stronger measures against ISIS networks inside Turkey.
Schanzer: We also wanted to remind Washington of Turkey’s ISIS problem as the new administration lays out a new foreign policy and finalize its counter-ISIS strategy in Syria. The timing could not have been better, at least in our view, since the report’s publication coincided with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first diplomatic visit to Turkey. We hope that the report can help the new administration make well-informed decisions as it considers its options in Syria.
Vocal Europe: What kind of reactions have you so far received from Turkish authorities and relevant stakeholders vis-a-vis the report?
Schanzer: The Turkish government has not engaged us on this, although it has certainly created something of a stir on Turkish social media. The U.S. government, both in the legislative and executive branch, has expressed some interest in the broader issue of Turkish counterterrorism. We hope to be able to continue to engage on this crucial issue.
Vocal Europe: One can argue that mainstream Turkish Islam is unaccustomed to violent-extremist Salafi tendencies. On that basis, how could you explain the motivation of many Turks joining ISIS since 2012? You stated in the report that Turkish nationals have joined groups like the Islamic State to battle the PKK and its affiliates. However, PKK has been a long-known reality in Turkey. What might have been the breaking point radicalizing and militarizing individuals?
Tahiroglu: It’s true that Turks have largely been spared the sort of violent religious zeal found elsewhere in the region. This is a fact generally attributed to Turkey’s adoption of secularism, as well as to the Hanafi school of Islam that a majority of Turkish citizens follow, which has historically opposed the purist religious doctrine of the Salafists. But neither Turkey’s secular tradition nor its predominant, moderate Islamic theology has made Turkish citizens immune to radicalization. In fact, modern Turkish history has produced several violent Islamist organizations, some of which have been linked to global jihadist networks like al-Qaeda. Members of these groups have served as foreign fighters in the Afghan war among others. Turkish jihadists have also been identified in Iraq since 2003. The jihad being waged against the Assad regime similarly appears to animate Turkish citizens crossing the border to joining the war. Turkey’s renewed war with the PKK since July 2015 appears to be an additional source of motivation for ultranationalist Turks to join the jihad in part to fight the PKK. The PKK is not only a Kurdish-nationalist organization, but is also largely viewed as an atheist group due to its Marxist-Leninist founding ideology. This element seems to motivate Turkey’s radical-Islamist Kurdish citizens into joining ISIS as well. In short, ISIS has been exploiting Turkey’s ethnic-nationalist as well as secular-religious divides to recruit both Turkish and Kurdish members.
Vocal Europe: How might the recent crackdown on security units, intelligence service and military affect the fight against the ISIS networks in Turkey?
Tahiroglu: The coup attempt and the ensuing purges have had major implications for Turkey’s security intelligence services, particularly for the elite units of the military tasked with fighting terror inside and outside of the country. Ankara purged nearly 40 percent of all Turkish generals and replaced them with colonels unqualified for the promotion. This has surely factored in to the difficulties Turkey’s Euphrates Shield forces appeared to have faced in their various missions in Syria.
Schanzer: Thousands of police officers and dozens of intelligence officials have also been fired since July. Even before the purges, when Turkey’s security services were much stronger than they are now, ISIS was able to carry out the deadliest terror attack in Turkish history in Ankara, as well as three large-scale suicide bombings in Istanbul. These purges have only weakened Turkey’s law enforcement, making the country vulnerable to further attacks by terror groups.
Vocal Europe: After the attempted coup in July last year, nearly 50 000 individuals in Turkey were arrested due to their alleged links to Gülen Movement, which is a religious community promoting religious and secular education in more than 120 countries according to German Intelligence (BND), that the Turkish government holds responsible for the attempted coup. Contrastingly, most people related to ISIS who were arrested in various Turkish cities have been released after a short detention period. Considering this, how would you evaluate Turkey’s definition of terrorism in relation to the expansion of ISIS networks in Turkey?
Tahiroglu: Ankara has considered the Gulen movement its top enemy since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen have had a fall out in late 2013. Ankara had already declared the movement as a terror organization and accused it of trying to topple the government long before the failed putsch in July. This was because the group opposed Erdogan’s policies. What is important to note here is that Turkey’s domestic repression is much more effective than its anti-ISIS measures. Consider that 13 members of Turkey’s second largest opposition party HDP are in jail today, along with 148 journalists. This is compared to only ISIS 28 convictions to date. It is clear that Erdogan is more concerned about opposition to his power than about the lives of Turkish citizens.
Vocal Europe: Turkey has recently announced that Operation Euphrates Shield officially ended and it was successful. In the light of your report, what is your take on this operation? Was the operation successful enough to curb the mobilization of ISIS networks both from Turkey to Syria and Iraq and vice-versa?
Tahiroglu: Operation Euphrates Shield was successful in clearing ISIS from the Syrian town of Jarabulus, the group’s last remaining stronghold along the Turkish border. Operations against the group there and in the surrounding regions considerably weakened ISIS by cutting off its key supply lines. But the Turkish army also faced significant challenges along the way, particularly in trying to capture the strategic Syrian city of al-Bab from the jihadists. The offensive took months to complete and cost the Turkish army 67 casualties. If, as many analysts argue, Euphrates Shield was launched in part to establish Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies as an effective ground force and a desirable partner for the U.S. in Syria, it failed to convince observers that it could be a viable alternative to Washington’s Kurdish partners.