How Ankara’s Policy Choices Enabled its Terrorism Problem

March 30, 2016

The terrorist attacks that bookended the week of March 13 exemplify a terrifying new normal in Turkey. That Sunday, a suicide car bomb ripped through Ankara’s central Kızılay district, killing 36 and injuring 127 others. The following Saturday, a suicide bomber killed four and wounded 36 on Istanbul’s major pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Street.

“We will spoil the game of those who are trying to manage Turkey through terrorism,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said defiantly in the aftermath of the Istanbul attack — indicating his view of a broad, monochromatic threat of terrorism facing Turkey. In staunchly pro-government Yeni Şafak, Abdulkadir Selvi echoed Erdogan’s view, arguing that while the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attack Turkey in different places, their objectives are the same.

Yet, the attacks by ISIL and the PKK show meaningful differences, both in the type of targets selected and the apparent aims of the violence. The PKK’s attacks emerge from it’s the resumption of civil war over Kurdish enfranchisement and autonomy; ISIL’s attacks seem intended to exacerbate ethno-political tensions and maximize civilian casualties in striking major centers of tourism and business.

Though Turkey faces two distinct terrorist threats, the government speaks about a unified terror problem. This results from political expedience, as the government obfuscates the ways in which the new reality emerged from its own decisions. The government also diverts attention from the ways different policy choices can help alleviate the problem.

A Renewed Kurdish Militancy

Since the resumption of hostilities with Turkey, the PKK has attacked mostly institutions of the state. Following the July 2015 Suruç bombing, which killed peace activists at a community center near the Syrian border, the PKK killed two police officers in their sleep. The PKK declared openly that these assassinations were in retaliation for the Suruç bombing — for which the militants, without evidence, blamed the Turkish state. As the government ramped up its military counter-insurgency operations in southeast Turkey last fall, the PKK resumed killing active-duty military personnel.

Kurdish militants did not limit themselves to clashing with Turkish security forces. In December 2013, the PKK splinter group Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for explosions at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen airport in which one airport employee died. The PKK denied sabotaging the Kurdistan–Ceyhan oil pipeline in February 2016, but government officials believe the Kurdish militants were behind the attack — which sent oil exports from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) via Turkey plummeting.

TAK brought its violent attacks into the heart of the Turkish capital in February 2016, with a car bomb in Ankara’s central Kızılay district. As with prior PKK attacks in late 2015, the bomb targeted military personnel, killing 28 people in all.

Yet, when the TAK militants struck Kızılay again on March 13, many civilians were among the 37 killed in Ankara’s city center. The killing of civilians appeared to depart from both TAK’s and the PKK’s prior attacks targeting the state apparatus. In claiming the attack, though, TAK said that despite civilian casualties, police were the intended target. TAK showed little remorse, coldly dismissing the civilian deaths as “inevitable”; however, renewed Kurdish militant activity — whether perpetrated by TAK or the PKK — has aimed to strike the state and its proxies.

The Burgeoning ISIL Terror Threat

Unlike the PKK’s and TAK’s attacks against the state, ISIL attacks first aimed to exacerbate ethno-political tensions in Turkey, and subsequently to undermine Turkey’s tourism industry — both through targeted violence against civilians.

Two days before the June 2015 parliamentary elections, two bombs detonated at a People’s Democratic Party (HDP) rally in the preeminent Kurdish city of Diyarbakır. Early reports captured the confusion sown by ISIL, with all parties struggling to understand and explain the attack amid an already tense election campaign.

In the July 2015 Suruç bombing, ISIL attacked young activists preparing to rebuild the ravaged Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, shaking Turkey along the very ethno-political fault lines targeted in its previous attacks. Though the HDP properly blamed ISIL for the attack, Kurdish militants assigned culpability to the government — believing its policies facilitated ISIL — and retaliated with the murder of sleeping police officers.

ISIL’s October 2015 twin attacks on a leftist rally outside Ankara’s rail station that killed over 100 people underscored how successfully the group fueled divisiveness in Turkey. The attack came three weeks before November’s snap elections called because the AK Party failed to win a majority in the June polls. In the months between the ballots, the state–PKK violence intensified, and the AK Party exhibited strident nationalism in an ultimately successful effort to win back its parliamentary majority. Thus it was noteworthy when HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş — typically known for his eloquence, political deftness, and moderation — accused the Turkish state of perpetrating the October attack.

ISIL attacks on civilians continued, though it began targeting the tourism sector in January 2016. In the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul’s old city, an ISIL suicide bomber killed 10 tourists, mostly Germans, near the old Roman hippodrome. The March suicide bombing that targeted a tourist group on Istiklal Street follows the same pattern. In addition to exacerbating domestic political tension, ISIL revealed an interest in broadening its terror campaign to subvert Turkey’s vibrant tourism industry.

Obscuring the Problem

Turkey faces threats as intractable as they are disquieting, yet its leaders seem keener to manage political outcomes than remedy the violence’s underlying causes. President Erdogan’s conflation of terrorist attacks facing Turkey did not begin after the March bombings. After October’s twin attacks on the Ankara rally, Erdogan affirmed that he saw no distinction between the attacks on the rally and the attacks targeting Turkish soldiers and police — ignoring clear differences between the perpetrators and driving forces behind the attacks. Not two weeks later, in reference to the same bombing, Erdogan named ISIL, the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (the PYD, a Syrian Kurdish PKK-affiliated group), and the Assad regime’s intelligence service as co-conspirators.

After the Istiklal bombing, a Turkish official immediately fingered the PKK as prime suspects. Curiously, he made statements to the press within three hours of the 11 AM attack, despite the attack’s similarities to January’s Sultanahmet bombing. The official’s response raised questions about the government’s effort to both muddle the facts and deflect attention from another ISIL attack on Turkish soil.

Government actions both prior to and following the Istiklal bombing lend further credence to concerted deflection as policy. Days before the attack, the German embassy warned of an Istanbul attack, and in response, closed the embassy, the Istanbul consulate, and the German school in central Istanbul. Istanbul’s governor responded fiercely, enjoining citizens to respect only official statements by the competent authorities and not the “sensational and unserious” statements of the German delegation.

Following the attack, the government’s deflections grew desperate — and darkly personal. The pro-government Sabah printed scurrilous accusations against the prominent Turkey scholar and former Clinton administration State Department official Henri Barkey, twisting speculative comments about the risks of an Istanbul attack into a threatening prediction of the Istiklal bombing. Not satisfied with journalistic malpractice, Sabah impugned Barkey’s own credibility, slandering him as a paid-up agent of the Gülen Movement and the CIA — dog whistles for a conspiracy-minded Turkish audience.

Policy Decisions and Violent Outcomes

The central question in all of this is: Why has Turkey’s response to mounting attacks been to obfuscate and misdirect, and not to inform the public?

The government’s objectives in, and conjectures about, the state’s ongoing battle with the PKK insurgency hold part of the answer. The HDP’s surprising success in the June elections were due in large part to support from southeastern Kurds who historically voted for the AK Party. In November’s snap rerun elections, amid the renewed state–PKK violence, many of those Kurdish voters returned to the AK Party. The government certainly noticed. Its broad demographic appeal — and electoral success — rests in large part on the faith of socially conservative Kurds in the AK Party project. The more the PKK is presented as an aggressor against civilians, the government, and social peace, the more likely the government is to consolidate support. The government’s wager is high-risk — and one that already appears likely to backfire.

The Turkish government’s view of the Syrian civil war also shapes the way it frames attacks at home. Turkey remains livid at American and international support for the PYD in Syria. Regularly, President Erdogan and government officials have lambasted Washington for supporting the PYD and its military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — claiming they are part of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist group. Washington’s response — that the United States does not view the PYD and PKK as the same — has become famously rote.

Hence the Turkish government’s efforts to tie the February 2016 Ankara bomber directly to the PYD in Syria, and its habitual conflation of culpability for violent attacks. If the government can demonstrate a PYD operational role in PKK domestic attacks, it reasons, surely the United States will cease its support for the PYD in Syria. This fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Washington’s support for the PYD and its Talmudic distinction between the PYD and the PKK. Moreover, the Turkish government’s shoddy claims only serve to discredit its arguments with its international partners.

Perhaps the most important reason, though, is that the violence seizing Turkey stems directly from the government’s own misbegotten policies. The attacks by TAK and the PKK are condemnable. Their decision to formally end the ceasefire and kill security forces was a major factor, of course, in the resumption of hostilities. Yet, the government, too, chose to shelve the peace process. PKK leader Murat Karayılan’s Newroz comments that the militants are amenable to renewed talks provide an opening for a swift halt to Kurdish militant attacks. But the AK Party has benefited politically from its hard-line, ultra-nationalist lurch, diminishing its interest in a return to talks — even at the expense of continued violent attacks in urban areas.

The roots of ISIL’s attacks in Turkey are just as disconcerting. In an eye-opening account of the October 2015 Ankara attack, Istanbul-based journalist Noah Blaser and Atlantic Council senior fellow Aaron Stein reveal the depth and intricacy of ISIL networks in Turkey, and the permissive, short-sighted policies that enabled the group to take root in Turkish communities. They show the ease with which ISIL operatives moved about in Turkey and across the border to Syria for years prior to these attacks. Though Turkish counter-ISIL measures strengthened from late 2015, Turkey is still dealing with the consequences of a years-long laissez faire approach.

All this should make the Turkish response to the surge in violent attacks quite clear. Turkey must return to the negotiation table with the PKK, using a change in posture toward the Syrian Kurdish territory of Rojava as a potential entry point for reconciliation. Turkey must seal its remaining border with ISIL, bolstering its security presence and rooting out corruption among officers looking the other way on ISIL supply and personnel movements. Turkey must reconcile itself to the PYD in northern Syria, with which it must cooperate to deny ISIL access to the Syria–Turkey border. Finally, Turkey must eventually redirect intelligence efforts away from the militarized conflict in the southeast toward penetrating and thwarting ISIL networks in Turkey.

None of this will be easy. But Turkey cannot bring this violent wave to an end by any other means.


Dov Friedman is a specialist on Turkey and Kurdistan. He serves as U.S. director for Middle East Petroleum, a British-Turkish energy company. The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the positions of his employer. Follow Dov on Twitter: @dovsfriedman.

Correction: This article originally misidentified the rally attacked by ISIL in October 2015 as a HDP rally when, in fact, it was a leftist rally with activists from many different factions.

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