Do Turkey’s Counter-Extremism Efforts Offer Lessons for the West? Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 21

Turkey’s 900 kilometer shared border with Iraq and Syria has increasingly made it a target for terrorists in both countries. With the internationalization of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has become a particular target for Islamic State (IS).

In order to maintain its own security and stability, Turkey responds forcefully to cross-border activities – whether carried out by IS or the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). That has included military and logistical support for the Free Syrian Army in its fight in Jarabulus and beyond, as well as opening Turkish air bases for use by the anti-IS coalition.

It has also seen the government take steps to combat radicalization at home and tackle the cross-border movements of foreign fighters.

Though Turkey’s international partners have sometimes overlooked its efforts, Turkey has increasingly shown its determination to deal with the threat of foreign militants and played a significant role in international efforts to do so (The Global Coalition, June 27).

Dealing With Cross-Border Threats

Turkey’s experience in combating terrorist groups stems from the 1970s and 80s, when the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) carried out a series of attacks, including bombings at the Orly and Esenboğa airports that claimed the lives of 42 Turkish diplomats and injured more than 250 people from 21 different countries (Hürriyet, June 14, 2014).

Turkey has further experience from dealing with the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C), an extreme leftist terrorist group also founded in the early 1970s, which assassinated a number of political figures, including the Israeli Consul General in Istanbul Efraim Elrom, the former Minister of Customs and Monopolies Gün Sazak, and former Prime Minister Nihat Erim. The group, formerly known as the People’s Liberation Party-Front of Turkey, was renamed in 1994 to DHKP-C. It was behind a failed attack on Hikmet Sami Türk, a former justice minister, as well as two aircraft hijackings (al-Jazeera Turk, February 14, 2014).

The PKK, for its part, has claimed more than 35,000 lives – including more than 5,000 civilians and 7,000 civil servants – in over three decades of conflict (Radikal, January 28, 2013).

While ASALA, following its split in the 1980s and assassination of its leader in the late 1980s, dissolved in the mid-1990s, Turkey’s fight with the DHKP-C and PKK continues, with the PKK at the top of Turkey’s priority list. Following a series of bloody attacks in Suruç, Ankara, İstanbul and Gaziantep, they have been joined there by IS.

Since 2014, when the group captured Mosul and stormed Turkey’s consulate in the city, holding 49 consulate personnel for 101 days, IS has carried out a number of operations in Turkey, with more than 300 people killed in attacks including suicide bombings (Hürriyet, June 11, 2014; Radikal July 21, 2015; Milliyet June 29). Moreover, between January and May 2016, around 60 rocket or mortar attacks were carried out against Kilis along Turkey’s Syrian border. Around 20 people lost their lives and 70 others were injured in the mortar attacks (BBC News, May 9). Meanwhile, during Friday sermons in IS-controlled mosques in Syria, IS imams frequently argue that Kilis, Gaziantep, Karkamış and Nizip in Turkey should be key targets for the group and should be captured by any means possible.

Boosting Security Measures

In its efforts to curb cross-border militant activities, Turkey – which listed IS as a terrorist group in 2013 and has been a member of the anti-IS coalition since 2014 – has built a 300 kilometer (km) wall and constructed 161km of barbed wire fencing along its border. It has dug 356km of ditches, erected 74km of barriers and installed or upgraded lighting along all 422km of the Turkey/Syria border so that it can be patrolled more effectively (Hurriyet Daily News, September 8; Anadolu Agency, April 7; Habertürk, March 23).

Recent figures show that Turkey, since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, has a no-entry list of 37,000 people; has banned almost 52,000 terror suspects from entering the country; prevented 7,500 people coming to Turkey from Europe; has deported 3,719 people and detained 700 more; prevented 40,000 people from joining IS; and stopped 223,000 people entering Syria illegally. Turkey has also established Risk Analysis Units at its border with Syria, which have investigated 6,000 people and added 1,300 of them to a no-entry list (Hurriyet Daily News, September 8; Anadolu Agency, April 7; Habertürk, March 23).

Anti-Radicalization Projects

Turkey has also put significant effort into anti-radicalization strategies. The police, through “briefing and prevention activities” and “family policing,” aim to weaken the ideological and social base of radical groups by reaching out to the people vulnerable to radicalization or the parents of those who have been radicalized. Through conferences, seminars and cultural visits, the police have taken steps to warn – or in many cases have experts inform – people about possible radical influences (Son Sayfa, April 15, 2013; Hürriyet, February 14, 2013).

The Presidency of Religious Affairs (DIB) is also a key official state institution through which Turkey has been able to tackle radicalization. In order to produce and publicize a religious counter-narrative, the DIB has sent 700 preachers into prisons deemed hotbeds of radicalization (Habertürk, January 18). It has also released two reports – one entitled “The Purposes, Activities, and Islamic Understanding of the Terrorist DAESH Group,” which came out in August 2015, and a second in October this year on “Religious Exploitation and the Terrorist Organization ISIS.” The reports examine the religious references and narrative used by IS, showing how the group distorts religious concepts in an attempt to give itself legitimacy, as well as making recommendations on how to respond to such distortions. They also investigate and publicize the persecution and human rights violations carried out by the group on people including the Yazidis, and women and children. [1]

The authorities have set up hotlines to combat radicalization. For example, Hotline 183 is for social support allows parents, coaches, teachers and others to contact the authorities at the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs. Hotline 144, also managed by the social affairs ministry, addresses the potential economic root causes of radicalization and deals with social aid, including food, health, education and coal. Hotline 140, meanwhile, operates as a “tip line,” and since August 2015, 115,000 people have called the hotline to alert the authorities to possible terror attacks and the whereabouts of individuals wanted by the state (Hürriyet, March 25).

Turkey also operates educational programs that have been extended in particular to the country’s substantial immigrant population. Around 53,000 young people participated in youth camps organized by the Ministry of Youth and Sports in 2015. The Ministry spent about $9 million on 352 projects only in 2015 within the context of Youth Projects Support Program (İHA, December 30, 2015). Not all of these youth camps and projects were directed at countering radicalization, but youth camps are key measures in current thinking on preventing violent extremism and countering radical groups’ appeal to vulnerable young people.

Working With International Partners

Ankara is a founding member of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF), a multilateral initiative to devise an effective strategy to facilitate international cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Along with the United States, Turkey co-chaired the initiative for five years before the positions were handed over to the Netherlands and Morocco. Turkey also played a major role in the production of the UN Security Council Resolution 2178, which focuses on the question of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and how to define and fight them.

Turkey adopted the Additional Protocol to the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism in March 2016 (Star, March 28). According to the Protocol, which is in line with UNSC Resolution 2178, legal reforms are required to prevent radicalized individuals travelling to a foreign country to join a terrorist group, as well as to tackle those who finance or organize such travel. The document further states that receiving training from a militant group, even without joining any particular organization, should be included in the list of criteria to detect and punish FTFs (TGNA, February 24).

Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) Resolution 1071, which provides the legal basis for Turkey’s cross-border operations in Syria, directly refers to dealing with IS and the PKK. It states that the Turkish military can be sent abroad, and that foreign armed forces can be deployed in Turkey in the context of the anti-IS coalition (TGNA website, October, 2, 2014).

It should also be kept in mind the unprecedented flow of refugees in just a few years has seen almost three million displaced refugees in Turkey of which almost 300 thousand are in refugee camps, many more than the 1.3 million asylum applications made to EU countries (Hürriyet, March 10; BBC News, March 3).

Intelligence Sharing

Although political relations with the EU are sometimes strained, those tensions are far less evident in terms of intelligence sharing. Turkey officially warned the French government twice about Omer Ismail Moustefai, one of the Paris attackers who travelled to Turkey in 2013. Although it cannot be known whether the tragic events in Paris could have been prevented, Turkey’s European partners would do well not to overlook the intelligence Turkey gathers as part of its anti-extremism efforts.

The warnings about Moustefai were made as early as December 2014 and June 2015, but the French government made no follow-up until after the attacks when it submitted an “information request” (IBTimes, November, 16, 2015). Similarly, before the Brussels airport attack in March this year, Turkey informed not only Belgium but also the Dutch government about Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, who was already on Turkey’s suspected FTF list and travelled to Turkey twice in July and August 2015.

On the second occasion, he was detained in Gaziantep and deported to the Netherlands, from where he later moved to Belgium. Turkey had warned both governments about el-Bakraoui’s suspected attempt to access Syria.

Ankara also warned the Belgian government about Najim Laachraoui following his trip to Turkey, and it issued a warning about el-Bakraoui’s brother, Khalid. At that point, however, Belgian authorities deemed both individuals to have “no terror links” and only issued an Interpol red notice for Laachraoui and Khalid el-Bakraoui three weeks ahead of the attack (Hürriyet, March 24; Star, March 24).

Stamping out the Threat

A decisive military defeat of IS on the ground is clearly a necessity, but it must be part of a comprehensive multi-dimensional approach that looks to the long-term and seeks to end the threat posed by violent extremism. Simplistic military-only approaches offer only short-term solutions, and similar groups will easily find fertile ground either in new theaters or in those that already exist.

Similarly, while both state and non-state actors are producing counter-narratives against IS, Islamophobia in the West frequently plays into the group’s hands and must be addressed as part of anti-radicalization efforts.

Given Turkey’s long experience in fighting violent extremism at home, the country has considerable experience with the cycle of radicalization and can make a valuable contribution to make to global anti-terrorism efforts. Turkey’s European partners would do well to work more closely with the country’s security services.

Intelligence sharing, financial tracking and security cooperation are essential, but they too are not enough on their own. A smart counter-extremism strategy must find a delicate balance between security and liberty, punishment and rehabilitation, all within the boundaries of the rule of law and while upholding human rights.


[1] Reports available on the website of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (August 10, 2015 and October 17, 2016).