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Turkey on a Collision Course with the Islamic State

The shooting attack carried out by the Islamic State (IS) at a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve is another example of the organization’s efforts to undermine Turkey’. In the first three months of 2016 alone, Turkish security agencies foiled 80 attempted terrorist attacks by IS fighters and arrested over 3,506 suspects, including 1,531 people of foreign nationalities.[1] The rise in the number of Turkish Air Force strikes, and the invasion of Turkish troops into northern Syria in order to purge the area of an IS presence, has sparked vigorous dialogue among IS fighters and strengthened their motivation to carry out additional attacks inside Turkey.

Since the capture of Mosul in June 2014, relations between the IS and Turkey were in a state of restrained tension. Turkey preferred to turn a blind eye to the organization’s activities in Iraq and Syria as long as its geo-political interests were not harmed. For example, in September 2014 IS fighters waged fierce battles against Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the town of Kobane, which is located on the Turkish-Syrian border, under the open gaze of Turkish army forces that refrained from intervening.

The nature of the relationship started to change during the second half of 2015 when Turkey admitted that that the Incirlik Airbase located in southern Turkey was being used by coalition forces as a base for launching attacks against the organization. The change was reflected in increased IS propaganda condemning Turkey’s secular nature and its emphasis on national identity over Islamic identity, as well as criticism over the implementation of western secular content in the education system, its threat to capture Istanbul, and more. Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the President of Turkey, and the Turkish army were accused of spilling the blood of jihad fighters in light of their cooperation with the organization’s enemies – including Russia, Iran, the United States and even the Vatican – and in light of Turkey’s membership in NATO. In light of this, Turkey was defined as a member of the “heresy front” and a legitimate target for attack. These ideas were expressed in issues of the Turkish magazine, Konstantiniyye, which began to be published in June 2015 (see photo), and in a video titled, “Turkey and the Fire of Nationalism”, which was published in July 2015.[2]

Turkey on a Collision Course with the Islamic State  1

In November 2016, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the most senior figure in the Islamic State, explicitly called on its supporters around the world to attack coalition states, including “secular, apostate Turkey”. He accused Turkey of attempting to establish itself in the region by capturing northern Syria while the terrorist organization was waging war on several fronts. In addition, he compared the blood of Turkish soldiers to dog blood, meaning they should be killed.[3]  In December 2016, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajer, the official spokesman for the IS, referred to Erdogan as “a beggar courting Crusader Europe” and called on the organization’s supporters to attack any target connected to the Turkish government, army, economy, media and embassies around the world.[4]

The propaganda criticizing Turkey and describing it as a member of the “heresy front” laid the groundwork for the execution of terrorist attacks. Already in January 2016, an IS fighter carried out a suicide attack at a major tourist center in Istanbul in which 33 German tourists were killed. In March 2016, another IS fighter carried out a suicide attack in Beyo?lu, a secular neighborhood in Istanbul. The shooting attack at the end of 2016 joined a series of attacks against Turkey and can be seen as a response to the calls by al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajer. According to the organization, the attack was carried out in revenge for the killing of Muslims “in bombings by its planes and its cannons”.

It is important to note that the announcement claiming responsibility was signed by the Islamic State and not by the Amaq news agency that belongs to the organization. This was because the latter publishes claims of responsibility for individual attacks that were inspired by, or in answer to, calls to carry out attacks in the name of the organization. In other words, the latest shooting attack in Istanbul demonstrated clear intent by the organization’s senior ranks.

The shooting attack at the nightclub in Istanbul received praise on jihadist networks. Al-Wafa jihadist media institution, which is involved in publicity for the organization, justified terrorist acts against all possible targets in Turkey in an article titled, “The Real Terrorism in Turkey”. For example, it claimed that Turkey is a big exporter of Turkish television series featuring promiscuity to the Arab Gulf States. According to the media institution, the rise in jihad activity in Turkey will greatly damage Turkey’s economy. Therefore, “jihad tourism” – meaning the arrival of jihad fighters to Turkish territory in order to carry out attacks there – is the only legitimate tourism.[5] The Turkish edition of Rumiyeh magazine, which was published by the organization in the beginning of January 2017, dedicated several articles to criticism of Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and even called for him to be killed (see photo).[6]

Turkey on a Collision Course with the Islamic State 2

The speeches given by al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajer in November and December 2016, respectively, gave permission to focus on Turkey as a target for carrying out terrorist attacks. Turkey’s involvement in the battle against IS fighters in Syria, the assistance that it provides to coalition forces and the change in rhetoric from Ankara towards the Assad regime underlie the organization’s focus on the country.