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

Turkey asks German spies for help in rounding up July coup plotters

Recep Tayyip ErdoğanThe Turkish government has sent an official request to German intelligence for assistance in cracking down on the members of the so-called Gülen movement, which Ankara claims is behind July’s failed coup plot. The movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims it has stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s. The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses Gülen’s supporters of orchestrating the July 15 coup that included an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey.

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (known by its Turkish initials, MİT) has secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The Turks’ request, said Spiegel, involves the provision of assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens. There are over three million people with Turkish citizenship, or of Turkish descent, currently living in Turkey. Citing “a dossier of classified documents”, Spiegel said that the MİT had asked the BND to investigate a list of 40 individuals for possible links to Gülen, and to extradite to Turkey another three whom Ankara claims have direct ties to the July coup. The documents also allegedly contain a request for MİT officials to pressure German lawmakers to be more critical of Gülen supporters in Germany. Requests for cooperation were also sent by MİT to nearly a dozen state governments in Germany, but all were declined, said Spiegel.

The Turkish government has arrested, fired or demoted tens of thousands of people since July, for alleged links to the Gülen movement. Some European officials, many of them German, have accused President Erdoğan of using the failed coup as an excuse to purge his opponents of all political persuasions in the country. On Sunday, the head of Germany’s Committee on Parliamentary Oversight, Clemens Binninger, said he would launch an investigation into the joint projects between German and Turkish intelligence agencies following the failed July coup. Another member of the Committee, Hans-Christian Ströbele, said he would personally set up a panel to probe any communication between German intelligence agencies and the MİT. By working closely with Turkish intelligence, German spy agencies were risking “becoming complicit in criminal activity”, said Ströbele.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 August 2016 | Permalink

Turkey arrests nine Caribbean islanders attempting to join ISIS in Syria

Turkey Syria borderTurkish police have detained nine citizens of Trinidad and Tobago who were on their way to Syria, allegedly to join the Islamic State. They are believed to have traveled from Trinidad and Tobago to Caracas in Venezuela, and from there to Amsterdam, Holland, before flying to Turkey. Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper said on Monday that the nine men were captured on July 27, after a police roadblock in south-central Turkey’s Adana province stopped a truck heading toward the Syrian border. Upon searching the vehicle, police officers found a Syrian driver and nine passengers, all of whom were Trinidad and Tobago passport holders. All ten men were arrested. The truck’s driver has been charged with attempting to smuggle the nine Caribbean islanders to Syria, where, according to Turkish authorities, they were planning to join the Islamic State. Over 30,000 foreign nationals are estimated to have joined the militant Sunni group, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Turkish police said on Tuesday that the nine Trinidadians have been transferred to the Provisional Migration Management authority in Adana and will be deported back to the Caribbean later this week. Negotiations are currently underway between the government in Ankara and authorities in Holland and London, to arrange flight stopovers en route to Trinidad. Meanwhile, speaking in Port of Spain, the Trinidadian capital, the Caribbean country’s Attorney General, Faris al-Rawi, said that the nine soon-to-be deportees would be kept under strict surveillance once back in Trinidad. He added that investigators would determine any charges that the men might face, and called for “an intelligence-based approach” to the problem of ISIS recruits in the country.

Al-Rawi was referring to dozens of prior instances of Trinidad and Tobago citizens who have joined ISIS in Syria. Last January, Turkish authorities arrested four more Trinidadian nationals who were allegedly on their way to Syria. The Caribbean country’s Ministry of National Security has identified 105 men, women and children who left for Syria after ISIS pronounced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. But nongovernmental sources claim that the actual number of ISIS recruits from Trinidad is closer to 400.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 August 2016 | Permalink

Turkish media accuse US general, CIA, of plotting coup

Yeni Şafak’sAmerican officials have strongly denied accusations in the Turkish press that Washington was behind the failed July 15 coup in Turkey. On July 25, Yeni Şafak, a popular Turkish daily, alleged that the failed coup had been funded and organized by the United States government. The newspaper, which is headquartered in Istanbul, is known for its conservative political stance and close links to the AKP, the party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Its editorials typically reflect the AKP’s position on the political affairs of the day.

In its leading article on Monday, Yeni Şafak cited “senior government officials” in claiming that the CIA had organized the plotters behind the July 25 military putsch. It also fingered retired US Army General John F. Campbell as the principal intermediary between the CIA and the coup plotters in the Turkish military. Born in 1957, General Campbell served as the US Army’s Vice Chief of Staff until 2014, when he assumed the command of all US armed forces in Afghanistan. Upon his retirement, in 2016, he stepped down from that post as the last commander of the International Security Assistance Force in the Central Asian country. Yeni Şafak’s July 25 front-page headline read: “This man led the coup”, next to a photograph of General Campbell. In the corresponding article, the retired American General was accused of having “organized and managed the soldiers” behind the coup, and having handled “at least $2 billion” in CIA funds, which he allegedly distributed to the coup plotters via the Nigeria-based United Bank for Africa (UBA).

But in a statement issued on Tuesday, UBA called Yeni Şafak’s allegations spurious and insisted it had “no involvement with, or connection to” the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, General Campbell also dismissed the allegations against him as “absolutely ridiculous”, adding that they “don’t even warrant a response”. On the same day, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, described the Turkish newspaper’s article as “absurd”. Speaking at a press conference held jointly with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Washington, General Dunford said: “I really don’t know where that report could have come from”. Last week, US President Barack Obama telephoned his Turkish counterpart to assure him that the US had no prior knowledge of, or involvement in, the coup.

Pro-AKP media in Turkey have repeatedly accused Washington of being behind the July 15 coup attempt. But the Yeni Şafak article marked the first time that a foreign individual was named as a leading coup plotter. Ankara claims that the main culprit of the coup is Fethullah Gülen, a charismatic religious figure who leads a large anti-AKP religious movement from his place of exile in the US state of Pennsylvania. Turkey has said that it will issue a formal request for Gülen’s extradition. But the White House says it will consider extraditing Gülen only in light of sufficient evidence from Ankara. Gülen himself denies all charges of involvement in the plot.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 July 2016 | Permalink

Did Russian intelligence warn Turkish government of impending coup?

Turkey coupRussian and Turkish authorities will not confirm or deny reports that the Kremlin warned Turkey’s intelligence services about an impending coup on July 15, several hours before tanks appeared on the streets of major Turkish cities. On Wednesday, several Arab and Iranian news outlets claimed that Russian intelligence officials told the government in Ankara that the Turkish military was preparing a coup. The reports cited anonymous Turkish diplomats who said that Turkish intelligence was urgently alerted by the Russians “hours before [the military coup] was initiated on Friday”.

According to the unconfirmed reports, the secret preparations for the coup first came to the attention of Russian military intelligence. Its radio interceptors captured —and were subsequently able to read— a series of encoded radio messages exchanged between Turkish commanders in the early hours of July 15. There is no information about the precise circumstances of the alleged interception, though media reports note the significant presence of Russian military intelligence in the northern Syrian province of Latakia, a few miles south of the Turkish border. The reports state that the intercepted messages contained “highly sensitive army exchanges” involving a plan to send army helicopters to the Turkish resort port of Marmaris, where the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan was holidaying, in order to kill or capture him. Russian intelligence officials reportedly shared the information with senior members of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT). The alleged exchange allegedly took place “several hours before the start of the coup” in Turkey.

However, government officials in Ankara will not comment on the possibility that Russian intelligence services may have warned the MİT about the coup. On Thursday, Russian government spokesman Dmitri Peskov was asked directly by journalists whether the Kremlin warned Turkish officials of an impending coup by the military. He responded saying “I have no information of that kind and I do not know which sources [the media reports] are citing in making these claims”. Russia’s TASS news agency interpreted Peskov’s comment as a denial. However, the wording in his response shows that he simply denies having personal knowledge of the incident. He does not deny it happened.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,358 other followers