Capabilities and Restraints in Turkey’s Counter-Terrorism Policy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 8

Turkey has long faced a broad range of domestic terrorist threats, ranging from left-wing and Kurdish radicals to violent indigenous Islamist groups and Turkish militants affiliated with or sympathetic to transnational organizations such as al-Qaeda. The country’s geographical location, often porous borders and thriving black market in stolen identity documents have also combined to make it one of the major transit countries for foreign militants.

Turkey’s intelligence and law enforcement services have become adept at the surveillance and penetration of indigenous organizations identified as posing a threat to national security. However, domestic counter-terrorism efforts continue to be hampered by a limited legislative and technical infrastructure, inter-service suspicions and a tendency to focus on proven rather than potential threats. Similar suspicions and shortcomings also often impede international cooperation against transnational organizations and are exacerbated by the very introspective nature of Turkey’s counter-terrorism strategies and legislation.

Perceived Terrorist Threats

Article One of Turkey’s “Law No. 3713 on the Struggle against Terrorism” defines terrorism solely in terms of the threat it poses to the Turkish state ( Although Ankara frequently complains about other countries tolerating the activities of support groups affiliated with organizations that target Turkey, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), there is no provision under Turkish law for action against organizations that are not perceived as posing a threat to Turkish domestic security.

The only published list of proscribed terrorist organizations is one on the website of the Turkish National Police (TNP) listing 12 “leading terrorist groups active in Turkey”; of these, four are leftist, three Kurdish and five Islamist. Although the list includes al-Qaeda, it is described as the “Al Qaeda Terrorist Organization in Turkey” (

Institutional Infrastructure

The main intelligence-gathering body in Turkey is the National Intelligence Organization (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, or MIT), which is affiliated with the Prime Minister’s office and gathers intelligence against all perceived threats to national security.

Under Turkish law, responsibility for law enforcement is divided between the TNP, which comes under the Interior Ministry and is responsible for urban areas, and the Gendarmerie, which is responsible for rural areas. In theory, the Gendarmerie is answerable to the Interior Ministry in peacetime and only comes under military command in time of war. In practice, the Gendarmerie is institutionally more closely affiliated with the Turkish General Staff (TGS) and is always commanded by a serving four-star general on secondment from the Turkish Land Forces.

Along with MIT, both the TNP and the Gendarmerie also gather intelligence against terrorist groups. The intelligence arm of the Gendarmerie is called “Gendarmerie Intelligence and Struggle Against Terrorism” (Jandarma Istihbarat ve Terorle Mucadele, or JITEM). The TNP has a counter-terrorism department, consisting of three branches: One each for “leftist terrorism”; “separatist terrorism,” such as the PKK; and “rightist terrorism,” which in practice means violent Islamist groups.

In addition, the three branches of the armed forces—i.e. the Turkish Land Forces, Air Force and Navy—each have their own intelligence arms. However, in practice, their counter-terrorism efforts are concentrated mainly against the PKK.

Institutional Rivalries and Capabilities

There is no single body which coordinates counter-terrorism activities in Turkey. Unlike many other countries where the domestic intelligence agency is an integral part of national security planning, MIT is not even permanently represented on Turkey’s National Security Council (NSC), which meets once every two months to discuss security issues. In addition to institutional rivalry and turf wars, the coordination of the various intelligence organizations in Turkey is also overshadowed by ideological suspicions and sometimes outright hostility.

The staunchly secularist Turkish military tends to distrust the TNP, which it suspects is riddled with political appointees and Islamist sympathizers, particularly since the election of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. Until the early 1990s, the TGS had been more prepared to trust MIT, which was traditionally headed by a retired soldier. However, the two institutions have grown more distant since the appointment of the first civilian head of MIT in 1992. Many in the police strongly resent what they regard as the disdainful arrogance with which they are often viewed by the military and complain that the military even taps police telephones.

Occasionally, the underlying tensions spill over into the public arena. In 2006, the police in Ankara leaked documents to the press apparently implicating a group of young military officers in a plot to destabilize the AKP government by staging a series of bombings. More recently, many in the TGS suspect that AKP sympathizers in the police have been trying to discredit the military by trying to implicate it in what appears to have been an attempt by a small group of ultranationalists to foment a coup (see Terrorism Focus, January 29).

It is unclear what practical impact such tensions have had on Turkey’s counter-terrorism efforts, although it is unlikely to have been beneficial and the distrust is such that members of each institution routinely accuse the other of withholding information.

Nevertheless, individually, the Turkish intelligence services have often proved highly successful at penetrating and neutralizing an identified threat. However, the degree of success has varied according to the nature of the organization and the extent to which it has been perceived as an imminent threat to Turkish national security.

For example, urban leftist terrorist groups have always been regarded as a priority in Turkey. Primarily based in the cities with a hierarchical command structure, they have proved relatively easy targets both for surveillance and for the recruitment of potential informers. As a result, all are now heavily penetrated and the vast majority of their planned attacks are thwarted before they can be realized.

In contrast, during the early 1990s the Kurdish-Islamist organization known as the Turkish Hezbollah was allowed to operate with impunity in southeastern Turkey because it was initially involved in its own war with the PKK. It was only when the security forces feared that it might begin to target the Turkish state that they moved against it. Similarly, throughout the 1990s, the Turkish intelligence services were aware that thousands of radical Turkish Islamists were traveling abroad to fight in the international jihad. However, as none of them was involved in violence inside Turkey, they were largely ignored. It was only in November 2003, after Turkish militants trained in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda returned to Turkey and staged four suicide bombings in Istanbul, that the Turkish intelligence services began to target Turks who had traveled abroad to fight for Islamist causes or were in contact with foreign military organizations. Yet even today, the focus is on whether or not they are likely to stage attacks inside Turkey. Little attempt has been made, for example, to detain Turkish Islamists planning to cross the border to fight in the insurgency in Iraq.

Tracking Terrorists Inside Turkey

Turkey has relatively few CCTV cameras. In 2005, the police in Istanbul launched what is known as Mobile Electronic Systems Integration (MOBESE), a network of constantly monitored surveillance cameras situated at strategic locations around the city. However, by year-end 2007, the network still comprised only 1,350 cameras and plans to introduce similar systems in other cities—including a 1,000-camera system in Ankara—had been delayed by a shortage of funds (Turkiye Radyo Televizyon, January 22).

Each of Turkey’s intelligence organizations is believed to have its own files. Under a system known as Genel Bilgi Toplama (General Information Gathering, or GBT), law enforcement officers have access to a computer database of basic information from TNP and Gendarmerie files, such as the identities of wanted criminals and suspected terrorists. A more detailed database, known as TEM-NET and including photographs, finger-prints and even statements by terrorist suspects taken in for questioning and then released, began to be introduced in late 2007 (Polis Haber, July 30, 2007).

However, the reliability of much of the intelligence gathered during interrogations of suspected terrorist suspects in Turkey is questionable. Although it still occurs, the once routine physical mistreatment and torture of terrorist suspects during interrogation is now much less common. But it is still not unusual for the resulting statement to owe more to suggestions put forward by the interrogating officer than to the suspect’s own words.

International Cooperation against Terrorism

Almost all of the terrorist organizations active in Turkey have attacked foreign targets in the country. Since 2004, the PKK has repeatedly targeted the Turkish tourism industry, killing and injuring foreign tourists. Leftist groups have attacked Western companies and government representatives as well as the Turkish state. In the last five years, there have been more than a dozen plots by Turkish Islamists to stage attacks in Turkey, the majority of which have been prevented. All have been intended to strike not Turkey itself, but what are regarded as foreign interests in the country, whether institutions, businesses and personnel associated with the United States and the UK or Turkey’s tiny Jewish community. In addition, foreign Islamists frequently transit Turkey to engage in violence elsewhere. As a result, there would appear to be considerable scope for international cooperation and intelligence-sharing. In practice, this has often proved problematic.

As happens in similar situations in other countries, one of the reasons for this difficulty is simply nationalist pride. In the Turkish case, a reluctance to share sensitive information with foreigners is reinforced by a perception that Europeans and Americans in particular are guilty of double standards; particularly given the apparent unwillingness of some European governments to clamp down on the activities of organizations such as the PKK and leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party – Front (DHKP-C) and Washington’s refusal—which was only relaxed in November 2007—to allow Turkey to take military action against the PKK’s main bases in northern Iraq.

Until Turkey is convinced that the West is genuinely committed to eradicating organizations such as the PKK, it is probably unrealistic to expect either greater willingness to cooperate and share intelligence or the presentation of legislative amendments which would make it easier for the Turkish authorities to take action against militants not actively involved in terrorist activities inside Turkey.