Analysis of the Islamic State’s ‘wedding attack’ in Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantep, TurkeySaturday’s suicide bombing, which killed over 50 and injured dozens at a wedding in Gaziantep, Turkey, was without doubt the work of the Islamic State. It was yet another attempt by the militant Sunni group to discourage the Kurds from confronting it in battle, by pointing to the deadly consequences. It was also fueled by the desire for vengeance against a population that has consistently resisted the Islamic State’s ideology. Additionally, if confirmed, the use of a child as a suicide bomber by the Islamic State may form a pattern of operational activity that can lead to broader conclusions about the current state of the organization.

It has become increasingly clear in the past two years that the armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish peshmerga units based in Turkey, are some of the most formidable opponents of militant Jihadists on the ground. By bombing soft targets inside Turkey, the Islamic State is sending a message to the Kurds that armed opposition on the ground will carry a heavy cost at home. Contrary to initial impressions, there was nothing special about the particular wedding ceremony that was targeted on Saturday. Any wedding would have been suitable for the Islamic State’s purpose. In fact, the randomness of the attack increases its shock value by demonstrating to the local population that any activity can be attacked, even if it does not involve notables. Additionally, the specific choice of a wedding magnifies the brutality of the attack, by targeting a young couple on what is typically the happiest day of their lives. The high concentration of children among the casualties may indicate that the bomber was given specific operational instructions to attack younger participants. The clear warning here is that the disruption will leave nothing untouched –including something as ‘off-limits’ as a couple on their wedding day, or groups of children– if the Kurds continue to fight the Islamic State.

Moreover, the Islamic State is trying to widen the already deep division between the Turkish state and the Kurds, by exposing the inability of the government in Ankara to protect its Kurdish population from attacks. The Kurds already resent Turkey’s ‘soft policy’ on the Islamic State. They and the rest of the world can see that Ankara has typically viewed the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as far more threatening than the continuing rise of Islamist fundamentalism. Since the failed July 15 coup, the Turkish state has begun to revise its soft stance on the Islamic State, but this comes too late to pacify the country’s infuriated Kurdish population. This latest attack will only intensify the deep anger felt by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

Initial reports indicate the possible use of a child or a teenager to carry out the Gaziantep bombing. These may or may not be accurate. They could easily be an attempt by the Kurds to further-incense international public opinion against the Islamic State. If the reports are accurate, they do not necessarily represent some sort of break from the traditional tactics of the Islamic State. According to the group’s war-fighting doctrine, there is no differentiation between men and children when it comes to what it sees as the defense of Sunni religious doctrine. Every Muslim, regardless of race, gender, or age, is required to engage in holy war. Indeed, the Islamic State has deployed children before, in warfare, executions and suicide bombings against both hard and soft targets. However, even though the use of a child to carry out the Gaziantep bombing is not in itself unique, or particularly important, it matters if it forms part of a broader pattern. If it is verified that ISIS is increasingly using children in suicide bombings, or in warfare, it may signify two things: first, that the organization is finding it difficult to recruit able-bodied men for missions. Second, that adult ISIS recruits are becoming scarcer, so the organization is trying to preserve them for decisive battles.

It may be, of course, that a child or younger teenager was selected in order to avoid security profiling by the Kurds. Still, the use of children in warfare or suicide missions can result in a large degree of unpredictability. Children may be relatively easy targets for recruiters, for the obvious reason that they are young and impressionable. Their reality can therefore be effectively altered by fantastical tales of the supernatural, which the Islamic State is very skilled at. However, children are not necessarily very dependable in war, or terrorism. They can be easily frightened, can change their mind at the last minute, and they do not stay calm under pressure. There are several recent examples of children or teenagers who were recruited for suicide operations but surrendered after changing their mind.

Ultimately, shocking massacres such as Saturday’s attack in Gaziantep cannot be prevented. They can only be limited through careful police and intelligence work. In the case of Turkey, however, this will be difficult. The country’s police, intelligence and military structures have been significantly weakened following the failed July 15 coup. Thousands of government officials, police officers, intelligence and military personnel have been fired, demoted or imprisoned. The state, which is becoming increasingly synonymous with the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP party, is too preoccupied with preserving its own stability to concentrate on combating the terrorist spillover from Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: It seems everyone predicted the coup in Turkey except its spy agency

Turkey coupAfter the failure of the recent military coup d’état in Turkey, much attention has been given to the country’s armed forces, the police, even the judiciary. In contrast, little to no information has surfaced about Turkey’s intelligence establishment, which is led by MİT, the National Intelligence Organization. Did it anticipate the plot, and how did it fare as the crisis unfolded in the early hours of July 16?

Two days after the failed coup, American Congressman Peter King (R-NY), a senior member of the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, claimed that “no one […] saw this coup coming”. Speaking on WNYM, a conservative talk-radio station in his home state of New York, Rep. King said that, as far as he was aware, “there was no diplomatic talk; there was no intelligence talk of this coup”. Speaking a day earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that the White House had “no idea” that a coup was imminent in Turkey, and that developments in the country had “surprised everybody”.

As is often the case, King and Kerry were both wrong. Even as early as October of 2015, Norman Bailey, of the University of Haifa in Israel and the Institute of World Politics in Washington, was stating with certainty that Turkey’s “army will step in and take over” if it senses that the country is descending into chaos. On March 12 of this year, Russian observers warned that Turkey’s military was “gradually building up its political influence, thus laying grounds for a military coup”. Later in the same month, Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, asked: “could there be a coup in Turkey?”, and answered that “no one should be surprised […] if the Turkish military moves to oust Erdogan and place his inner circle behind bars”. And on March 30, the esteemed journal Foreign Affairs hosted an article by Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, in which she explained that Turkey was about to face its “next military coup”. During an interview on July 2 of this year, the present author spoke about the “very volatile situation within [Turkey]” and added: “I can’t think of any countries in the region that are more unsettled and unpredictable right now than Turkey”.

If analysts relying on open sources were able to issue concrete warnings about Turkey’s political instability at least a year in advance of the coup, it should be taken for granted that intelligence observers were equally alarmed over the same period. We know, for instance, that American intelligence analysts were “concerned for months” prior to the coup “about simmering tensions between President […] Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish military brass”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Will ISIS claim responsibility for Istanbul airport attack? (updated)

Istanbul Airport TurkeyTurkish security and counterterrorism officials are blaming the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for Tuesday’s bloody attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, which left at least 41 people dead and nearly 300 injured. But will ISIS claim responsibility for the attack? And if not, why not? ISIS is indeed the most likely culprit of Tuesday night’s terrorist attack. The modus operandi of the three attackers, which some unconfirmed reports suggest Turkey has now confirmed were foreign nationals, matches that of previous ISIS attacks on high-profile international targets. More importantly, the style of the attack does not fit the profile of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as PKK, which almost always targets uniformed personnel in Turkey.

There is no shortage of motives for ISIS to target Turkey. The militant group wants to destabilize Turkey, which it sees as a prime market for spreading its ideas, especially among the country’s disenfranchised religious working class. The attack at Istanbul’s airport happened in the holy month of Ramadan, the most revered time on the Muslim religious calendar, during which ISIS said would launch a wave of violence around the world. Last but not least, foreign and domestic intelligence agencies had warned the Turkish government in recent weeks of an impending large-scale attack by ISIS, saying that the group was anxious to re-galvanize its supporters after suffering heavy military defeats in Iraq and Syria. Since the start of 2015, experts have connected ISIS to at least seven different attacks on Turkish soil, most of them in large urban centers like Ankara and Istanbul. However, the only attacks the militant group has claimed responsibility for were against Syrian anti-ISIS activists based in southern Turkey. In contrast, ISIS has shied away from officially linking itself with deadly attacks against high-profile targets in Turkey. This latest attack may fall in line with that pattern.

But why would ISIS not claim responsibility for such a media-savvy strike? There is no question that the Sunni Islamist group wants to destabilize Turkey’s economy, a goal that it sees as key to its success. That explains Tuesday night’s attack on one of the country’s busiest transport hubs during the peak of the tourist season. At the same time, however, ISIS is aware that Turkey’s main concern in the Middle East is not Sunni Islamism, but the rise of the PKK and other secessionist Kurdish groups. The latter are some of ISIS’ most formidable military adversaries, and the Islamist group would rather not distract Turkey from its escalating war against the Kurds. What’s more, because Ankara has been paying most of its attention to Kurdish separatists, ISIS has been able to build an extensive network of operatives inside Turkey, and it does not want to see it demolished by Turkish security forces. ISIS is therefore engaged in a delicate balancing act: on the one hand it wants to destabilize Turkey so as to export its sectarian war to one of the world’s most populous Sunni Muslim nations. On the other hand, however, it does not want to alter Turkey’s security priorities, which are mostly focused on Kurdish militias.

What will it mean if ISIS breaks with the typical pattern and does claim responsibility for Tuesday’s attack in Istanbul? That would be equivalent to an official declaration of war by the Islamic State against the Turkish Republic, a call for arms issued to all pro-ISIS networks in Turkey for the opening of a northern front in this widening regional conflict. It could also spell trouble for Turkey’s beleaguered security forces, which will be forced to divide their attention between two foes, the PKK in the east and in urban centers, and ISIS in the south and in popular tourist resorts throughout the country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 June 2016 | Permalink

Experts warn about Brexit’s effects on European, NATO cooperation

BrexitAfter Thursday’s Brexit vote, European and American security officials have tried to pacify concerns about major disruption of longstanding Western security cooperation arrangements. But experts stress that the international security landscape will be significantly impacted by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). As early as Thursday night, British defense, military and intelligence officials launched a marathon of phone calls in order to reassure their European and American counterparts that the United Kingdom was not going to retreat from its role in security pacts with Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

On Friday, the office of NATO Director General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement assuring the public that Britain’s decision to leave the EU would not impact on NATO’s security arrangements. On Sunday, however, a new statement by Stoltenberg appeared to revise his earlier comments. It argued that Britain was “the biggest provider of security in Europe” and that its eventual exit from the EU “matters”, adding that the West’s security situation post-Brexit was “more unpredictable […] than before”. Citing security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Stoltenberg, The Wall Street Journal opined on Sunday that Brexit “could have a profound effect on global security”, but stressed that its precise impact remains uncertain. Some officials warned that, in the long run, Britain’s exit from the EU would weaken its military, which is Europe’s most powerful. This could happen through a possible breakup of the country, with Scotland and Northern Ireland splitting from the United Kingdom in reaction to Brexit. Alternatively, Britain’s worsening economic situation could prove detrimental to its overall defense spending.

On Saturday, United States Navy Admiral (ret.) and former NATO commander James Stavridis, argued that NATO will benefit from Brexit, because it will allow the United Kingdom to devote “more resources and manpower to support” NATO’s mission. There will also be a “reduction in the […] battlefield competition between NATO and the EU”, said Adm. Stavridis, which “will likely produce a stronger NATO”. Others, however, disagreed. Citing several current and former officials, The Wall Street Journal warned that Britain’s exit from the EU would result in the loss of a quarter of the EU’s combat power. That could prompt Germany, France, and other EU nations to increase their military spending, in order to advance a more unified defense policy among EU nations. That could bring about a unified EU military headquarters, or even a joint European Army, which NATO has traditionally resisted, as it believes it would duplicate resources and undermine transatlantic cooperation. But with Britain leaving the EU, a staunch pro-NATO voice that strongly objected to the creation of a European Army ceases to exist. That could open the door to the creation of a European Army, say experts.

Last but not least, the UK was a strong player lobbying in favor of instituting EU-wide sanctions against Russia in the wake of the war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. With London now removed from the decision-making center in Brussels, the voices from EU member states like Spain, Italy and Greece, which argue for abandoning the sanctions against Moscow, are likely to grow louder, said The Wall Street Journal.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 June 2016 | Permalink

Recent gains against ISIS are not enough, may actually backfire, say experts

First Post HWestern experts and intelligence officials are warning that the recent military gains made against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not enough to damage it, and may in fact make the group stronger in the long run. Undoubtedly, the impressive momentum of ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, has been curtailed, and the image of invincibility that it once projected is no longer there. Observers estimate that the Sunni militant group has lost nearly a fifth of its territory in Syria, while it is no longer in control of about half of the land it used to occupy in Iraq. As a result of these territorial defeats, ISIS has lost a third of its oil production, which is believed to account for half of its overall revenue. Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama said that, as ISIS continues to concede territory, it is “losing the money that is its livelihood”.

But US intelligence officials do not seem to agree. Speaking on June 16 before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, cautioned against triumphalism. He told senators that the efforts of the international military coalition against ISIS “have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach”, adding that ISIS would “have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly”. According to Reuters, a number of US intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts support Brennan’s views. The news agency said on Wednesday that many experts are warning that the military campaign on the ground was “far from eradicating [ISIS] and could even backfire”.

The fact that local troops fighting ISIS are almost completely composed of Shiite Arabs from Iraq and Iran, or are Kurdish Peshmerga, could add legitimacy to ISIS as the protector of the Sunni Arab minority in the region. There are also reports of human rights violations against Sunnis by the advancing Shiite forces, including an unconfirmed allegation that 49 Sunni men of fighting age were executed after surrendering to the anti-ISIS coalition in Falluja. Additionally, if ISIS loses much more territory, it will be tempted to simply abandon conventional fighting tactics and turn into a guerrilla group. Reuters quotes RAND Corporation analyst Seth Jones, who argues: “It looks like the areas that the Islamic State has lost, they are generally abandoning, and that would mean preparing to fight another way”. That could mean that ISIS fighters intend to blend in with the urban population and launch a campaign of sabotage, assassination and disruption of government services.

As ISIS has lost ground in Iraq and Syria, the flow of foreign fighters intending to join the organization has dropped significantly. But that is not necessarily a good thing, says Reuters. These fighters, who in the past were instructed to join ISIS in the Middle East, may now be told to launch lone-wolf terrorist attacks abroad. The Reuters report cites one terrorism expert, Hassan Hassan, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, who argues that the international appeal of the Islamic State is not connected to the group’s military performance in the Middle East. In other words, its popularity among its Western followers will persist even if all of the group’s territorial strongholds are lost to its adversaries.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 June 2016 | Permalink

Opinion: Islamic State’s strategy will affect America’s gun control debate

Orlando shootingOut of the myriad of questions emerging from Sunday morning’s massacre in Orlando, two are perhaps most pressing. One concerns internal security in the United States; the other relates to the broad strategy of the Islamic State, the militant Sunni Muslim group that claimed responsibility for the bloody attack. The two topics are closely related.

Like most issues in modern-day America, the topic of internal security is heavily politicized, with public debate dominated by Democratic and Republican partisans. Predictably, each side is using Sunday’s massacre to advance its political agenda. It cannot be denied that, rightly or wrongly, gun ownership is a deeply entrenched feature in the American understanding of citizenship for a variety of social and historical reasons. It is equally undeniable that America’s liberal gun laws make it extremely easy for aspiring terrorists to acquire weapons. Recent mass shootings show that even those with documented mental illnesses or individuals who have been questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for possible links to terrorism, like Omar Mateen, are legally able to purchase high-powered weapons. This reduces the number of people that are needed to inflict mass casualties and directly assists the work of terrorist groups. Furthermore, the ability of aspiring terrorists to legally acquire high-powered weaponry exceeds America’s law enforcement and intelligence capabilities, and thus directly threatens the security of daily life in the country.

Judging by other recent mass shootings, and the speed with which the relentless news cycle moves on to other stories, this latest massacre is unlikely to have a major impact on US gun laws. However, if the attack in Orlando proves to be part of a broader strategy by the Islamic State, then the center of the debate on gun control in America may shift in unprecedented directions.

Most commentators agree that the Islamic State is currently retreating not only in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, but also in Libya, where it appears to be losing its control of the strategic port of Sirte. The possibility of losing its territorial base may radically alter the group’s modus operandi and strategic goals. Historically, the Islamic State has focused on what can be described as its core terrain, which includes Iraq, Syria, the Sinai Peninsula, and to a lesser extent Jordan and Lebanon. Back in 2014, Islamic State leaders could have urged the group’s tens of thousands of followers in the West to carry out the jihad there. But they didn’t, because the grand strategy of the Islamic State is to secure a territorial base in the Middle East before taking on bigger tasks. Islamic State supporters were therefore urged to join the fight to establish a territorially secure caliphate in the Middle East instead of attacking Western targets. The latter have of course been attacked, but this has been done primarily for two reasons: first, to discourage Western countries from getting directly involved in the war against the Islamic State; second, to encourage Islamophobia in the West and further-marginalize already disaffected Western Muslim youth, driving them to join the Islamic State.

But should the militant Sunni group be territorially defeated, it might decide to change its tactic and begin unleashing its followers in the West. Or if it is sensing that it is losing control of its self-proclaimed caliphate, it may already be already changing its strategy. There is currently no evidence that Omar Mateen was in touch with the Islamic State prior to committing Sunday’s massacre. But if he did, the Orlando massacre may have been an early indication of the Islamic State’s change of direction. Perhaps, then, the US is in for a lot more of these carefully targeted and lethally executed strikes.

It may be that the blood of over 50 people spilled in Orlando will not seriously affect the gun control debate. But if these killings increase in frequency and lethality, American society will face a number of unprecedented dilemmas that combine the issues of gun rights, domestic security and citizenship.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Mullah Mansour’s killing will shape future of Afghan War

Mullah MansourThe American operation that killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, on May 21, was unprecedented in more ways than one. It marked the first known effort by the United States to neutralize the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. It was also the first US drone strike in Pakistani Baluchistan, a region that is far removed from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where American operations have traditionally focused. Mullah Mansour’s killing also marked the most high-profile American incursion into Pakistani territory since the May 1, 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden. Q QuoteIronically, just hours before killing Mansour, Washington was calling the Taliban to join the negotiation table for peace talks with the Afghan government. So what exactly was America’s intention in killing the leader of the Afghan Taliban?

PROSPECTS FOR A MODERATE SUCCESSOR

There is no question that Mansour represented the most intransigent and militant segment of Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns. He consistently dismissed efforts by Washington and Kabul to strike a deal with his forces as a ploy designed to weaken the Taliban’s role in Afghan politics. So the primary outcome that the US is seeking from his death is the possibility that a more moderate figure will emerge from within the ranks of the Taliban. That, however, is far from guaranteed. Even if it does happen, it will probably come after a period of leadership struggle between different factions and tribes within the Taliban, much like the heated infighting that broke out after the announcement of the death of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. There are even some who believe that the death of two successive Taliban leaders in such a short period may split the group into three or more factions.

To avoid such a prospect, the Afghan Taliban have already begun internal consultations in order to quickly enthrone a new emir. Major candidates include the late Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yakoub, and his brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund. The list of contenders also features the late Mullah Mansour’s deputies, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network, which recently consolidated its forces with those of the Afghan Taliban. Many observers believe that Haqqani is Mansour’s most likely successor, as well as the most militant of all contenders for the group’s leadership.

THE END OF PEACE NEGOTIATIONS?

If the Afghan Taliban are led by Haqqani, a man described by the White House as a terrorist mastermind, the chances of seeing Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns join peace negotiations with Kabul are slim to none. The country’s President, Ashraf Ghani, said last week that he hoped that the death of Mansour would weaken the Taliban hardliners and open the path to negotiations with his government. It is difficult to see, however, how the Taliban could sit at the table with the Afghan government and its American allies, namely the same people who just Q Quotekilled the group’s leader.

They only way that could possibly happen is if Pakistan, which is the Afghan Taliban’s state patron, compels them to do so. But such a prospect is unlikely. In the hours after Mansour’s assassination, the US Secretary of State John Kerry described it as an “action that sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners”. Indeed, Mansour’s killing was a source of jubilation in Kabul. But there were no celebrations in Islamabad, which was notified about the US drone strike on its soil after its completion. The Pakistani position has always been that military action against the Afghan Taliban will only push them further underground. Instead, Pakistan argues that the Taliban should be brought to the table to sign a comprehensive peace treaty that will ensure ethnic rights for Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. But the prospect of that happening after Mansour’s assassination are slim, even if a more moderate figure succeeds him at the helm.

THE FUTURE OF THE AFGHAN WAR

What are, then, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan? A notable rise in violence should be expected, as various Taliban factions lash out against the government in Kabul with the aim of augmenting their standing against internal competitors. The Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any other point following the 2001 US invasion. If their alliance with the Haqqani Network survives, they will continue to be a formidable force in the country and the surrounding region, and will become increasingly difficult to defeat militarily. The group will continue to operate with considerable force even if Mansour’s position is not filled soon, as local Taliban forces have shown that they are capable of taking unilateral initiative in times like this. In the meantime, observers in Kabul and Islamabad, as well as the Afghan Taliban’s leadership in Quetta, will be wondering whether the assassination of Mansour marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach by Washington in the ongoing Afghan war. The answer to that question remains elusive, but will likely shape the future of the 40-year-old Afghan war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 May 2016 | Permalink

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