Turkey’s Crippled Counterterrorism Capacity: How Domestic Purges Represent A Major International Threat To Europe’s Security

There is a good chance that Turkey might become the next battleground for ISIS.
03/02/2017 03:23 PM ET
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Updated Mar 06, 2017

Turkey has been suffering from terrorism for a long time, losing over 40,000 people in the last 40 years. When the Syrian uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in 2011, statistically, Turkey was enjoying a peaceful era with the least causalities lost to terrorism in its recent history. However, this new less-violent period quickly started to deteriorate due to newly establishing regional conflicts and Turkey’s flawed domestic and international policies. Turkish leaders considered the Syrian uprising as an opportunity by taking advantage of the situation to further their interests in the region, basically promoting a prompt regime change in Syria by supporting different radical Salafist Jihadist groups in Syria and Turkey. As a result of these flawed policies, the number of terrorist attacks and people killed in Turkey by Salafi-jihadi attacks has skyrocketed after 2014, a surge more than four hundred percent compared to recent years.

More recently, on New Year’s Eve, an ISIS terrorist attacked the Reina Night Club in Istanbul, Turkey, killing 39 and wounding 71[1]. The Reina Club[2] is one of Turkey’s most well-known and prominent nightlife venues, located on the Bosphorus by the sea in the heart of Istanbul and frequented by celebrities and tourists. The attacker fled the scene after the attack. Soon after the attack, Islamic State (ISIS) made a claim of responsibility for the attack. Their followers in different social media mediums praised the attack, calling the attacker a “lion of the caliphate” and publicizing a selfie of the attacker along with a video he had taken in the Taksim district of Istanbul[3]. The attacker, later identified as Abdulgadir Masharipov (code name Muhammed Horasani), from Uzbekistan, was finally captured alive on January 16, 2017, in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. He was detained and interrogated until February 11, 2017, for 25 days until his arrest by a judge.

To understand the context of the Radical Salafist Jihadi terrorism in Turkey, it is important to understand the history of support for terrorism in the region.

ISIS and Other Radical Terrorist Organizations in Turkey

To understand the context of the Radical Salafist Jihadi terrorism in Turkey, it is important to understand the history of support for terrorism in the region. In mid-2011, as the Syrian civil uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began[4], Turkish leaders decided it was in their best interest to support various jihadi opposition groups, hoping for a swift and prompt regime change in Syria. The foundations of the opposition initially involved the Free Syrian Army, with the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat-al Nusra and groups like Ahrar us-Sham eventually joining.

During this period, I was the Police Chief of the counterterrorism and operations department in Sanliurfa, Turkey, a city of 2 million on the Turkish-Syrian border in the South of Turkey. I witnessed these developments firsthand. At the time, Turkey’s southern borders were wide open, and all Syrian refugees ― almost 3 million ― regardless of their background and mostly without any entry controls, were welcomed[5]. In fact, the influx of refugees was so overwhelming that it became a major security concern for border cities; Sanliurfa alone received over 400,000 refugees in just 20 months. Meanwhile, the flows of logistical support, arms, and explosives continued to move into Syria to different jihadist groups. ISIS became one of the primary beneficiaries of Turkish support[6], both before and after declaration the (Islamic State) Caliphate at the end of June 2014[7], as they had begun to control major border areas and therefore the transportation of material and foreign fighter movements back and forth across borders. Turkey was the only country geographically in close proximity.

In the interim, Turkish politicians thought that not only would ISIS guarantee the defeat of Bashar Assad, but also it would put a final blow to Turkey’s decades-old PKK problem, as ISIS had started to fight with both entities. With these outcomes in mind, Turkey’s full-fledged open support to ISIS, Jabhat-al Nusra, Ahrar us-Sham and Free Syrian Army continued. For example, as noted in European Union-funded Conflict Armament Research (CAR) reports, almost all of ISIS’ IEDs were produced with explosives, chemicals, electronics and other parts[8] brought in from Turkey. CAR reports also argue the majority of the weapons used or produced by ISIS were sourced from Turkey[9]. Similarly, thousands of ISIS and other jihadist fighters, including one of the deputies of Al-Baghdadi, Ahmet El H, received medical treatment free of charge in Sanliurfa and other Turkish cities[10]. Throughout this period of assistance, Turkey’s open policy was to not stop or interrupt the flow of foreign fighters going back and forth across Turkish borders[11], resulting in over 30,000 foreign fighters[12] joining ISIS’ ranks.

In contrast to several other opposition groups in Syria, ISIS managed to recruit around 3,000 active Turkish fighters and established a vast and sustainable network within Turkey, through the involvement of mostly Turkish, but also some of foreign, members[13]. That network is involved in recruitment activities, arranging and providing logistical support to ISIS operations, financial operations, and the establishment of numerous terrorist cells inside Turkey. For example, through this network, ISIS established a factory where it produced over 60,000 uniforms for its fighters[14] and hundreds of suicide vests[15], ensuring the uninterrupted flow of materials they needed.

On September 23, 2016, the world learned of another reason behind Turkey’s explicit support to ISIS, through the hacking and subsequent release of emails belonging to Berat Albayrak, President Erdogan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources. The so-called “RedHack” emails revealed the fact that previous allegations about the Erdoğan family’s involvement in transferring and selling ISIS oil, was, in fact, true[16], making it a little bit clearer as to why ISIS was enjoying so much freedom in Turkey.

Until the beginning of 2016, the Turkish government avoided labeling ISIS a terrorist organization. President Erdogan did not publically state ISIS was a terrorist organization until the beginning of 2016. Similarly, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to ISIS as a “bunch of frustrated young guys[17]”, again not labeling them as terrorists, and almost openly legitimizing the group in public speeches[18]. Furthermore, since 2014, all ongoing radical Salafist jihadist counterterrorism operations were halted by the new administration and there was not any single planned counterterrorism operation anywhere in Turkey during 2014 and 2015. The operations in 2016 were mostly reactionary operations and also troubling is that Salafist jihadist detainees were released swiftly. This attitude led to broader support and a warmer approach towards ISIS, especially among the young supporters of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP. In 2015, PEW public opinion research found eight percent of the Turkish population had a favorable opinion regarding ISIS, accounting for six million people[19] in Turkey.

Until the beginning of 2016, the Turkish government avoided labeling ISIS a terrorist organization.

It was also very common during this period to witness ISIS supporters to openly cheering following attacks in the West, parading openly and without hesitation in different cities. More disturbingly, there were gatherings of hundreds of people for special assemblies where ISIS was openly supported in front of the media[20]. Further, several Islamist NGOs close to Jihadist terrorist organizations became more active and richer as a result of different contributions and campaigns. This includes organizations such as the IHH, which was subject to prosecution due to its ties to al-Qaeda, and associations like Bülbülzade Vakfı, which opened private clinics in Gaziantep, Turkey to provide medical care for wounded terrorists, including ISIS members fighting in Syria. Despite their terrorist ties, these NGOs became attractive for the Turkish bureaucracy and politicians: Bülbülzade Vakfı’s Gaziantep branch was visited by the Prime Minister Davutoglu when he was in Gaziantep, as well as several other ministers, despite the police already knowing the NGO had direct ties with ISIS and al-Qaeda militants.

Police and Intelligence Purges and the Rise of the Islamic State

On December 17, 2013, Turkey woke up to news a scandalous corruption operation against Erdogan’s son and close circles had been carried out by the Istanbul Police Department. Erdogan appeared furious about the operation, claiming the operation was, in fact, a coup against him, with phony and fabricated evidence, and that the suspects were innocent. Instead of allowing the prosecutor’s office and the police to continue with the investigations, Erdogan immediately began firing and purging the officers involved, eventually closing all the investigations[21]. A similar investigation was later opened in New York by the United States Justice Department, leading to the March 19, 2016 arrest of Reza Zarrab ― who was also a suspect in the Istanbul Police investigation ― for conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, money laundering and bank fraud,[22] demonstrating the validity of the Istanbul operations.

Following the events of December 2013, Erdogan started to dismantle the Police and Judiciary. Initially, almost all of the police chiefs and officers who were involved with the corruption operations were purged, then arrested. Similarly, the prosecutors managing the case and the judges who issued warrants were also purged[23]. The incident became a turning point for the Turkish National Police. Initially, all officers in counterterrorism, intelligence and organized crime divisions in Istanbul Police Department were fired and replaced with new officers and chiefs[24]. Unfortunately, the new officers and police chiefs were inexperienced and not trained to deal with the complicated cases and threats involved in terrorism and organized crime activities, which are often interrelated. Also, with this shift in personnel, the priorities of the police moved from protecting the public to protecting Erdogan.

On January 19, 2014, after receiving a tip about three trucks carrying weapons to Syrian terrorists, the Adana prosecutor ordered the Gendarmerie and the Police to stop and search those trucks on Adana highway[25]. As the trucks were stopped, the passengers in the trucks resisted the searches, claiming the cargo belonged to the Turkish National Intelligence (MIT) and could not be searched. When the prosecutor was informed, he insisted the search of the trucks be carried out with the provided search warrant. As the trucks’ cargo was opened, the officers first saw a layer of medicine boxes on the top of the cargo. Underneath those boxes, they found military-grade weapons and ammunition, including missiles. This incident quickly became a national crisis, and Prime Minister Erdogan ordered the release of the trucks in contravention of the prosecutor’s orders[26]. Later on, a prominent journalist, Can Dundar, produced an investigative news article that included pictures and videos of the cargo[27]. Erdogan, however, openly blamed Dundar, claiming espionage and added that he (Dundar) “would pay dearly [28]”. Eventually, any officer involved with the stop and search of the trucks, including the prosecutors, judges, police and gendarmerie officers, as well as the journalists, indeed paid a heavy price, first fired and then arrested[29].

While there were a few additional similar incidents, by the beginning of 2014 Erdogan had realized that he could not continue his Syria operations unless the judiciary and police were transformed and that he could not trust the judiciary and police with his personal and family dealings. This sparked a massive firing and arrest wave throughout the country, mostly involving the police chiefs and officers working in the counterterrorism and intelligence divisions and the prosecutors managing their operations. This first wave of national purges resulted in over 10,000 experienced police officers being fired or arrested, basically gutting and eliminating Turkey’s counterterrorism and intelligence capacity and brainpower. The newly assigned replacement officers generally had no experience with counterterrorism and had never received special training on the different aspects of the fight against terrorism. Furthermore, the new chiefs were promptly ordered to not carry out operations against radical jihadist terrorist organizations, and to close any ongoing investigations, which are called planned counterterrorism operations and which usually last at least a year, with wiretappings and surveillance operations along with another extensive evidence gathering. This initiative also ensured that ISIS and other Salafist Jihadist terrorist organizations abruptly became untouchable and suddenly started to enjoy a degree of freedom they had only dreamed before 2014. This situation lasted until the beginning of 2016. In the years 2014 and 2015, there was not a single planned counterterrorism operation in all of Turkey against ISIS or any other jihadist terrorist organization. There were a few operations carried out as reactionary operations after specific incidents, or instances where the police had to arrest terrorists due to specific circumstances, but in most cases, the suspects in those operations were released immediately[30][31].

For example, Halis Bayancuk, one of the prominent ISIS supporters in Turkey, who used to openly preach for ISIS, was released from prison during this period and he continued supporting ISIS for a long time on social media and during sermons. He remains free in Turkey[32].

On July 15, 2016, Turkey was shocked by an unsuccessful coup attempt, giving President Erdogan the leverage and justification to reshape the country as he wished. Following the coup, Erdogan immediately started a massive and unprecedented purge and arrest campaign. Over 140,000 government officials, including military officers, police officers, academics, doctors and anyone else who were deemed as opposing Erdogan was fired and purged[33]. In addition, over 85,000 officials were detained and almost 45,000 were arrested. The Turkish National Police took the largest blow, losing over 30,000 officers in this period, including police chiefs and officers who had spent years in the field fighting against terrorism; they were either fired or, in most cases, arrested. Similarly, the Turkish Military also paid a huge price, losing over half of its active duty generals and two-thirds of its F16 pilots. Additionally, the judiciary was also a particular target, with a third of prosecutors and judges being fired and/or arrested, a number well over 4,000.

A year from now, the severely crippled and unprepared Turkish National Police and military will certainly not be able to counter the increasingly emerging terrorist threat as they used to in the past.

Conclusions and the Future

These events have resulted in two important outcomes. The first is that Turkey has lost its most experienced manpower and a great deal of wisdom in the fight against terrorism, as the newly appointed replacement officers, have never worked in counterterrorism-related jobs, lack experience and are not specially trained. In the past, it would take at least 15 years in the field of counterterrorism, with ongoing internal training, to become a trusted and reliable counterterrorism police chief. Similarly, officers working for counterterrorism departments would be experienced officers and would also receive ongoing internal training. Additionally, the Erdogan government’s approach towards ISIS and other jihadist terrorist organizations ensured that within the Turkish bureaucracy, everybody understood, perhaps up until the al-Bab campaign at the end of 2016, that the jihadists were untouchable and if you would like to keep your job, you would not interfere with their activities. These dramatic and troubling policy changes yielded today’s security problems as ISIS has already established a dangerous and strong network of terrorist cells all over Turkey.

In the last ISIS operations after the Reina Club attack, around 100 ISIS safe havens were uncovered alone, a surprisingly large number which does not reflect the safe havens believed to exist but are undiscovered. Additionally, more than 50 terrorists were arrested due to their ties to the Reina attack, and the police took legal action against 168 foreigners in a larger net. Turkey first ignored, allowed and then supported ISIS, assuming that it would keep the Kurdish militias in check and would never come back and bite its protector. However, as one counter-terrorism expert quipped, “When you invite cannibals to dinner you can expect to end up as the main course.”

As the coalition forces advance in Mosul and start their Raqqa operation, there is no doubt that many ISIS members fleeing from these cities will end up in Turkey. Many ISIS defectors we interviewed during our ISIS Defectors Interview project[i] clearly indicated that ISIS commanders have been discussing about this issue and have already ordered to their fighters that in the worst scenario they would shave their beards and cut their hair to blend into the societies in the close proximities, Turkey being one of the first target countries. Therefore, as Mosul and Raqqa fall in the near future, it would be very naïve not to expect a somewhat steady and swarming flow of foreign and local ISIS fighters into Turkey, and certainly from Turkey to Europe, which would considerably increase the likelihood of future attacks and establishment of new terrorist cells in Europe.

Additionally, the existence of a huge number of current Syrian refugees in Turkey, around 3 million of them, will be an obvious opportunity for the Syrian ISIS members for the reason that they could easily hide among them, and it would be almost impossible for the Turkish security forces to distinguish nonthreatening Syrian refugees from ISIS terrorists. As a result, defeating ISIS on the battleground might be the easier part of the war. A year from now, the severely crippled and unprepared Turkish National Police and Military will certainly not be able to counter the increasingly emerging terrorist threat as they used to in the past.

Consequently, as the war in Syria and Iraq continues against terrorism, there is a good chance that Turkey might become the next battleground for ISIS. Turkey is a bridge between the East and the West, and the threat of Turkey becoming a gateway of terrorism to Europe has to be considered, particularly as a NATO country with a crippled and severely damaged counterterrorism apparatus without an experienced and trained counterterrorism police and military force. While the war against ISIS and other Salafist Jihadi terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq appear to make steady progress, the prospect of Turkey becoming a vast safe haven for retreating terrorists cannot be discounted. Turkey’s counter-terrorism capacity is vital for both the country itself but also for the West, including the European countries, the NATO and even the Unites States. A failed or unsuccessful Turkish counterterrorism apparatus threatens not only Ankara but every European capital as well.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-38486486

[2] https://www.reina.com.tr/

[3] https://twitter.com/ahmetsyayla/status/816037332860149760

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868

[5] http://www.worldpolicy.org/deadly-interactions

[6] http://www.worldpolicy.org/deadly-interactions

[7] http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/447/878

[8] http://www.conflictarm.com/download-file/?report_id=2279&file_id=2284

[9] http://www.conflictarm.com/download-file/?report_id=2454&file_id=2457

[10] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-l-phillips/research-paper-isis-turke_b_6128950.html

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/30/world/middleeast/turkey-a-conduit-for-fighters-joining-isis-begins-to-feel-its-wrath.html

[12] http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf

[13] Turkish National Police intelligence reports.

[14] http://www.gazetevatan.com/savastan-kacan-cocuklar-isid-e-uniforma-dikiyor-953609-gundem/

[15] http://www.cnnturk.com/turkiye/isid-atolye-kurmus-canli-bomba-yelegi-uretmis

[16] http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2016/10/17/hacked-emails-link-turkish-minister-illicit-oil https://www.thepressproject.gr/article/103870/exclusive-wikileaks-documents-relations-erdogan-ISIS-oil-smuggling

[17] http://www.diken.com.tr/davutoglu-iside-yine-terorist-diyemedi-mesrulastirici-laflar-etti/

[18] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z62to0zqRpQ

[19] https://twitter.com/ahmetsyayla/status/816708514391396352

[20] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/57fec114e4b06f314afeacd2?timestamp=1484962760284

[21] http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/06/why-turkeys-mother-of-all-corruption-scandals-refuses-to-go-away/

[22] https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/turkish-national-arrested-conspiring-evade-us-sanctions-against-iran-money-laundering-and

[23] http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2014/12/141212_17_25_aralik_operasyonu_neler_oldu_10_soruda

[24] http://t24.com.tr/haber/iste-17-aralikin-polis-bilancosu,264135

[25] http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2015/11/151127_mit_tirlari_neler_olmustu

[26] http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/krize-yol-acan-tir-in-yuku-devlet-sirri-25489517

[27] http://t24.com.tr/haber/erdem-gul-mit-tirlari-haberini-yayimlamadan-once-mite-not-biraktik-ama-geri-donus-yapmadilar,330469

[28] http://www.milliyet.com.tr/can-dundar-karari-aciklandi-gundem-2240711/

[29] http://www.cnnturk.com/haber/turkiye/adanadaki-mit-tirlari-iddianamesi-kabul-edildi

[30] http://www.birgun.net/haber-detay/yakalanan-isid-liler-serbest-84255.html

[31] http://www.antalyahaberler.com.tr/antalyada-gozaltina-alinan-isidlilerin-tamami-serbest-5263h.htm

[32] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/57fec114e4b06f314afeacd2?timestamp=1484904171644

[33] http://turkeypurge.com/purge-in-numbers

[i] https://www.amazon.com/Isis-Defectors-Stories-Terrorist-Caliphate/dp/1935866710

A shorter version of this article first published in Modern Diplomacy.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is co‐author of the just-released book, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and is also Adjunct Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. He formerly served as Professor and the Chair of the Sociology Department at Harran University in Turkey. He is the former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police with a 20‐year career interviewing terrorists.