Turkey’s Other War on Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 1

On December 31, 2007, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth quoted the claims of unnamed Israeli security officials that intelligence reports suggested al-Qaeda cells had infiltrated into Turkey in preparation for an imminent attack against Israeli and U.S. targets inside the country. Yedioth Ahronoth reported that the heightened threat had resulted in fresh security guidelines being sent out to Israeli government agencies and businesses operating in the country.

The claims in Yedioth Ahronoth have not been confirmed by other sources. However, the article was published on the same day that 19 alleged Islamist militants appeared in court in the city of Aksaray in central Turkey on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda. The 19 were detained by Turkish security forces on December 29 during simultaneous raids on 20 different premises, mostly in Aksaray but also including locations in Ankara, Istanbul and the eastern Mediterranean port of Adana. The Turkish press subsequently published photographs of captured weapons, ammunition, computers, falsified identity documents and propaganda leaflets. From the photographs most of the weapons appeared to be either handguns or hunting rifles. There were no indications that the group—whom the Turkish press described as an “al-Qaeda sleeper cell”—had stockpiled explosive materials (Anadolu Ajansı; Vatan; Hürriyet, December 31, 2007).

It is possible that the intelligence reports cited by Yedioth Ahronoth were related to the raids in Turkey on December 29. The Turkish media quoted unidentified members of the Turkish security forces as reporting that the nucleus of the cell in Aksaray had been under surveillance for some time and that they had decided to act when the alleged militants appeared to be preparing to launch an attack. Under Turkish anti-terrorism legislation, merely belonging to an “illegal organization” is in itself punishable by a lengthy custodial sentence. As a result, when the 19 appeared in court on December 31, Turkish authorities were not obliged to produce details of any alleged targets. However, given the frequency with which Turkish Islamists have targeted Jews in the past, it is not unlikely that the militants detained in Aksaray had similar intentions.

Nevertheless, the article in Yedioth Ahronoth is misleading in one important respect: namely, the suggestion implicit in the description of al-Qaeda cells “infiltrating” into Turkey that the momentum for al-Qaeda-associated violence in Turkey comes from outside the country. Even if they look to bin Laden’s organization for inspiration or technical and financial support, there is no doubt that there are several thousand Turkish al-Qaeda sympathizers already active inside the country who do not need direction from outside Turkey in order to resort to violence against what they regard as appropriate targets. If they lack anything, it is expertise and money.

Transnational Islamist Violence in Turkey

Before 9/11, there was no al-Qaeda-related violence in Turkey. Although violent Islamist organizations began to emerge in the late 1980s, they focused exclusively on a domestic agenda and even then tended to avoid targeting the Turkish state itself, preferring to focus on rival groups or prominent secularists. Networks of al-Qaeda sympathizers were indeed active in Turkey, but they focused primarily on recruiting Turkish militants to fight outside the country or on providing logistical support—such as forged documents—for al-Qaeda affiliates transiting Turkey en route to targets elsewhere. During the 1990s several thousand Turks traveled abroad to fight for Islamist causes in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Afghanistan. However, when they returned to Turkey, they rarely became involved with violent indigenous groups. As a result, they tended to be ignored by Turkish security forces as they were not regarded as potential threats to domestic security.

The situation changed in November 2003 when four suicide bomb attacks against Jewish and British targets in Istanbul killed 63 people—including the four suicide bombers—and injured over 700 more. Although the attacks had been approved and financed by al-Qaeda leadership, they were prepared and carried out by a group of Turkish militants who had been trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan but had fled the country and returned to Turkey in advance of the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban in fall 2001.

The Istanbul bombings produced a dramatic change in the priorities of Turkish security forces, which now began aggressively targeting Turkish Islamists with connections to transnational groups such as al-Qaeda. The preparations for the Istanbul bombings began in early 2002. By the time they were carried out, the focus of Islamist internationalists inside Turkey had already shifted to the insurgency in neighboring Iraq. Not only had the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country created a plethora of targets, but—compared with the pressure they were experiencing from Turkish security forces—Iraq was also a much easier environment in which to operate. As a result, rather than trying to put together an attack inside Turkey, most Turkish al-Qaeda sympathizers simply opted to cross the border into Iraq.

For many radical Islamists, the Istanbul bombings of November 2003 raised theological questions. Most tended to follow the traditional Islamic division of the world into the Dar al-Islam or “Abode of Islam”—which was governed by the values and precepts of Islam—and the non-Islamic Dar al-Harb or “Abode of War.” Turkey’s status had been the subject of considerable debate. Some argued that, as a predominantly Muslim country, it was part of the “Abode of Islam” and thus could not be attacked. Others maintained that Turkey’s secular regime and its pro-Western foreign policy placed it firmly in the “Abode of War” and thus made it a legitimate target for violence. Police interrogations of the militants involved in the Istanbul bombings revealed that some saw Turkey as having an intermediate status, an acceptable venue for jihad without being a target in itself. However, even these suspects said they were dismayed when they learned that the vast majority of the injured and all but nine of those killed in the bombings had been Turkish Muslims.

Over the years that followed, Turkish security forces arrested several hundred alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers who they claimed had been preparing to stage attacks inside Turkey. On each occasion the alleged targets were either non-Turkish or non-Muslim. For example, in May 2004, 16 Islamists with alleged links to al-Qaeda were arrested in Istanbul and Bursa on suspicion of planning an attack on the NATO summit which was due to be held in Istanbul on June 28 and 29, 2004. Subsequently, in April 2006, nine alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers were arrested in the southeastern city of Gaziantep on suspicion of planning a mass casualty attack. In January 2007, 48 alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers were arrested in police raids in seven different provinces, though the conspiracy appears to have been mainly based in the city of Konya. Eight alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers were arrested in Ankara in May 2007 on suspicion of planning an attack, followed the next month by the detention of another 23 members of an apparently unrelated group of militants in Bursa. In November 2007, police in the Mediterranean port of Izmir arrested six suspected members of the Islamic Raiders of the Greater East – Front (IBDA-C), who they claimed had tried to establish contact with al-Qaeda (see Terrorism Focus, December 5, 2007).

In each case, however, it appears to have been the Turkish militants who were taking the initiative in trying to contact al-Qaeda rather than vice versa. In none of the cases were large quantities of explosives recovered, suggesting that if the militants were preparing mass casualty attacks similar to the Istanbul bombings of November 2003, they were still some way from carrying them out.

Since November 2003, the only planned al-Qaeda-associated attack that is known to have reached an advanced stage is the summer 2005 attempt by two Syrian nationals to attack an Israeli cruise ship as it docked at the Mediterranean port of Antalya. By the time the plot was uncovered, the two men—Louai al-Saqa and Hamed Obysi—had stockpiled sufficient explosive materials to make a 1,650-lbs improvised explosive device (IED). Al-Saqa is also known to have been involved in the preparations for the November 2003 Istanbul bombings, including acting as courier for some of the financing. He later joined the insurgency in Iraq before returning to Turkey. Al-Saqa’s past record and the money required to finance the planned attack in Antalya—which included the purchase of a seafront villa and a yacht—strongly suggest outside involvement, possibly from an al-Qaeda associate. The interrogation of al-Saqa has produced only a confused stream of claims and fabrications, leading to speculation that he may have become clinically deranged as a result of his experiences, particularly in Iraq where U.S. intelligence reports suggest he was involved in the fighting in Fallujah in late 2004 and in the capture and beheading of foreign hostages (Turkish Daily News, April 22, 2006).

What Direction for Terrorism in Turkey?

Despite the absence of any substantial al-Qaeda attack in Turkey since November 2003, there is considerable evidence to suggest that Turkey remains an important transit hub for transnational militants, not least because of its extensive transportation links and the easy availability of stolen and forged identity documents. There are also elements in Turkish Islamic foundations and charities with links to transnational militant organizations such as al-Qaeda, which both recruit Turkish nationals to fight in the international jihad and provide logistical support for non-Turks transiting the country.

The spate of arrests of alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers in 2007 suggests that there is no shortage of radical Islamists in Turkey who would be willing to stage large-scale attacks. Turkish counterterrorism police report that interrogations and surveillance of militants suggests that that the most likely targets include local non-Muslims, the United States and its allies, while ensuring Muslim casualties are kept to a minimum. There is as yet no indication that the Turkish state itself is a priority target.