Between the second half of 2015 and late 2016, Turkey experienced different kinds of terrorist attacks, which resulted in hundreds of dead and caused serious damage to the country’s economy. In 2016 alone, tourist arrivals fell by about 30 percent compared to the previous year, leading to a significant reduction in foreign-exchange reserves and general economic deterioration. Partial trend reversal has been recorded in 2017, with no high-profile attacks reported (leaving aside the New Year’s Eve attack). External and domestic factors explain the improved security situation, but the medium-term outlook seems uncertain.
On New Year’s Eve, an Uzbek man armed with Kalashnikov (subsequently identified as Abdulkadir Masharipov) killed thirty-nine people in an Istanbul nightclub. The attack—later attributed to the Islamic State—was the peak of a spiral of violence that began in summer 2015 with the double Islamic State suicide attack in Ankara (109 dead and five hundred wounded), and fuelled fears about Turkey's future, with the country more and more compared to almost-failed states like Iraq and Pakistan.
The country has suffered major attacks in previous years. For example, in 2013 two car bombs caused more than fifty deaths in the town of Reyhanlı, which is just a few kilometers from the Syrian border. Still, terrorist attacks haven’t been so frequent and significant to such an extent that doubt could be cast on Ankara’s very institutional stability and—even more so—its ability to protect citizens and foreign investment since the summer of 2015.
At least fifty-five terrorist attacks were reported in 2016 alone, which is more than 70 percent of the seventy-six attacks that have occurred on the European continent. Three of the five most serious attacks in 2016 took place on Turkish soil. The one that occurred in Istanbul on June 28 killed forty-eight people. Another attack, this one in Gaziantep on August 20, left fifty-seven dead. Finally, in Istanbul, on December 10, 2016, forty-eight additional people were killed in an attack.
Terrorist attacks in Turkey mostly fit into three genres: Kurdish, jihadist and Marxist-Leninist.
Since July 2015, Kurdish violence, which is mainly limited to the southeast of Turkey (where Kurds are the majority), has caused at least 1,200 deaths (especially among the security forces). In 2016 alone, about 70 percent of the attacks on Turkish soil were Kurdish. In addition to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey is also a base for other separatist armed groups that have stepped up their activity in the last few years by means of high-profile attacks. It is, for example, the base of the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), which has mostly hit Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities.
The jihadist threat, which has grown since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has mostly led to attacks in crowded places and, in some cases, hitting foreign targets. For example, twelve Germans and one Peruvian were killed in a suicide attack in old Sultanahmet District on January 12, 2016.
Lastly, Turkey faces a threat (less serious than the other two) posed by far-left groups, particularly the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C). This situation is due to domestic issues such as the strong sociopolitical polarisation that mainly affects urban centers. These groups tend to attack government targets and U.S. assets, but lack the resources and capacity to conduct high-profile attacks.
The Reasons for the Terrorist Wave
There are both domestic and external reasons behind the spiral of violence that has affected the country since the second half of 2015.
Undeniably, the regional security deterioration in Syria and Iraq has caused the terrorist threat to significantly rise, allowing different armed groups to proliferate. However, Ankara’s policies have ended up causing a multiplying effect, which has ultimately paved the way for the series of attacks on Turkish soil.
As we know, Ankara has long been accused of an ambiguous attitude towards the regional jihadist groups. In the years immediately following the outbreak of the Syrian civil conflict, Turkey was used as a logistical base for the Syrian opposition (including jihadist organizations) and as the main corridor for the so-called foreign fighters, which have increased the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq. Although there is no evidence of Turkey's direct support to the jihadist groups, checks along the Syrian border were quite inefficient, at least until the Islamic State threat prompted the Turkish authorities to take a hard-line approach. For example, in July 2015, following the Suruc bombing, Turkey authorized its NATO allies to use its Incirlik Air Base for military operations in Syria and Iraq and conducted air operations against Islamic State. Prior to this change, Turkey long had Bashar al-Assad’s removal, rather than neutralizing jihadism, as its foreign-policy priority. The “open-door policy” that has been adopted by the Ankara authorities has had the side effect of encouraging jihadist cell proliferation in the country. Many of the Turkish nationals who went to Syria and Iraq to fight in the ranks of the Islamic State and other jihadist groups are Islamist Kurds who were once part of Hezbollah (a Marxist group mainly active in the nineties that was created to counter PKK hegemony). In other cases, the deserters were radical Islamists from the most conservative regions of Turkey, including Central Anatolia and the major urban centers (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir).