It has been more than five years since an Islamic State gunman opened fire at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, killing thirty-nine revelers from more than a dozen countries as they celebrated the New Year. The group has not conducted a significant attack in Turkey since, and international attention has been drawn elsewhere, captivated by the latest blood and gore. But while the West has been fixated on emerging and reemerging threats in far-off places, from sub-Saharan Africa to Afghanistan, a much more sophisticated and immediate danger has been simmering away in Turkey. Given the extent of the Islamic State’s presence in Turkey, along with the multitude of problems facing the country, it is remarkable that Turkish authorities have kept the lid on things until now. The question is how much longer it can last.
From the outset, Turkey has been of critical importance to the Islamic State. At the height of the caliphate-building project, foreign fighters were flocking to Syria and Iraq in droves. Most of them arrived by way of Turkey, where they were met by facilitators who vetted them and sometimes gave them training before smuggling them across what was then a poorly guarded border. But Turkey was always far more than just a transit point and staging ground for new arrivals from outside the region. More than 6,500 Turkish citizens (including family members) reportedly joined the Islamic State, making it an important area for recruitment and one of the largest producers of foreign fighters in the world. Furthermore, the country swiftly emerged as a critical financial and logistical hub for the organization, allowing the Islamic State to acquire and move vast amounts of money, weapons components, precursor explosive materials, and a variety of other services and supplies. It is hardly a surprise then, as the caliphate began to crumble in Syria, that the fallback position for many—including a number of high-ranking leaders—was in Turkey.
At the time of the Reina nightclub attack, Ahmet Yayla, a former Turkish counterterrorism officer, estimated that there were around 2,000 “hardcore” Islamic State operatives in Turkey (about the same number that the United Nations recently posited are in Afghanistan). Since then, that number appears to have grown substantially. As the fall of Raqqa was looming in the summer of 2017, Islamic State commanders instructed their followers to seek refuge and await orders across the Turkish border. “Many hundreds” of Islamic State fighters and their family members were reportedly allowed to leave Raqqa under the terms of a deal struck with the Kurds, and thousands more would flee Syria in the months that followed. Though it was not the only destination they could go to, it was perhaps the most attractive, and it is almost certain that many of these individuals went into hiding in Turkey. Add to this the “thousands” of Turkish foreign fighters who returned home—few of whom have been prosecuted—and it is clear that Turkey has a serious problem.
As the threat has metastasized, the number of counterterrorism operations has soared, supposedly approaching around 1,000 per year, with dozens of suspects sometimes netted in a single raid. Among those arrested have been the alleged military head and “right-hand man” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who helped the former Islamic State leader hide in Idlib near the Turkish border; the erstwhile Islamic State deputy minister of education; and one of Baghdadi’s wives and several of his relatives. The fact that these individuals were living in Turkey—and in some cases went undetected for up to four years—is indicative of the ease with which the Islamic State has infiltrated Turkey and the country’s significance to the organization’s leadership.
As the crackdown has intensified, Turkish authorities have thwarted a growing number of plots, including ambitious plans for mass casualty attacks and the kidnapping of public figures. Details are generally scarce, and Turkish politicians sometimes muddy the waters with outlandish claims, but there is no denying that the threat is real. Research by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center has shown that Islamic State attack cells in Turkey have typically been connected to the organization in Syria and Iraq, and have frequently had access to firearms and explosives. The same worrisome combination of operational connections and offensive capabilities has persisted in spite of the Islamic State’s diminished presence in Syria and Iraq. Such was the sense of impending peril this past October that the United States Mission to Turkey suspended consular services across the country and issued a public alert, citing “credible reports” of potential terrorist attacks and kidnappings against American citizens and foreign nationals in Istanbul and other locations.
Parallel to Turkish counterterrorism efforts, the U.S. Treasury has been diligently working behind the scenes to root out the financial infrastructure that the Islamic State and other jihadists rely on. This has resulted in a growing number of designations of terrorist financiers, including an array of money exchange and transfer businesses, the largest of which, Al-Khalidi Exchange, was moving hundreds of thousands of dollars each day. Evidently, Turkey’s efforts to crack down on terrorist financing have been lacking. This led the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global financial watchdog, to place Turkey on its dreaded “grey list” of countries that are deficient in the areas of anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing in October—a development that has exacerbated Turkey’s deepening economic crisis.
The FATF listing speaks to a more troubling concern. Although Ankara was quick to designate the Islamic State as a terrorist organization and join the global coalition to defeat it, Turkey has long been accused of negligence when it comes to jihadists. Eyebrows have once again been raised by the fact that Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi—just like his predecessor—was able to live in hiding only a few kilometers from the Turkish border. There is little question that the Erdogan government has other counterterrorism priorities, chief among them the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and associated Kurdish militias, which are mutual enemies of the Islamic State. Equally, if not more important, is the Gülen movement—officially known as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization—which Turkey holds responsible for the 2016 attempted coup.
In comparison to the fervor with which these and other perceived threats are pursued, the fight against the Islamic State has been somewhat lackluster. Thus, in spite of the frequent raids, it appears that relatively few of the suspects who are detained are formally arrested and charged. Many, it seems, are simply released following their initial statements. When cases do go to court, Turkish judges have been surprisingly lenient. A particularly striking example is the case of the Syrian cleric Jamal Abdul Rahman Alwi. Despite being accused of giving the order to burn two Turkish pilots alive in 2016, Alwi was released pending trial and only later rearrested after public outcry. Many others, including senior members of the Islamic State, have benefited from Turkey’s remorse law, which can result in sentences being greatly reduced or even suspended.
What becomes of such individuals is murky. Turkish authorities have deported a total of 8,585 terrorism suspects of 102 nationalities since 2011. However, this figure does not account for Turkish citizens and also includes individuals seeking to join the PKK and other organizations. Few other details are known. Some suspects who cannot be imprisoned or deported are placed under surveillance, but it seems highly improbable that the security services—likely still recovering from the loss of thousands of experienced officials caught up in the anti-Gülenist purge—would be able to adequately monitor suspects.
With the president’s popularity at an all-time low and elections fast approaching, the Islamic State is likely to become an even lower priority than it already is. The threat of terrorism has already cast a shadow over the upcoming elections after an improvised explosive device was found on a car belonging to a police officer assigned to an Erdogan rally. And although this has since been blamed on the PKK, it only reinforces the existing pecking order. Yet, if history is anything to go by, the Islamic State will be just as much, if not more, of a problem in Turkey. The group was particularly active in the lead-up to the general election in 2015 and is unlikely to let a similar opportunity pass it by. This does not bode well for the months ahead.
Since 2017, Turkey has been successful in doing just enough to keep the Islamic State off balance. Though counterterrorism raids are being conducted at a breathless pace, they are superficially disruptive in nature. The border with Syria, though much tighter than it once was, remains permeable; counterterrorism financing has been woefully deficient; firearms and explosives appear to be readily available; and plotting is widespread. Under the mounting pressure of domestic challenges, and with elections on the horizon, it seems unlikely that Turkey’s success can last.
This is a problem for the international community as well. As a major tourist destination and a hub for international travel—including a thriving trade in high-quality fake passports—Turkey is both an attractive target for terrorists itself and a potential launchpad for transnational attacks. Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, caused a stir late last year when he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan “could potentially” develop the capability to launch external attacks within six to twelve months. It is entirely possible that the Islamic State already has that capability in Turkey. Although attention is still largely focused elsewhere, it would therefore be wise to keep a close eye on “Wilayat Turkey.”