Taking on Turkey: Islamic State’s New Frontier; Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 3


Age: 3 weeks

In November, as Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led coalition air support closed in on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a fretful call to his supporters, exhorting them to conduct attacks in Turkey.

Islamic State (IS) has recently experienced substantial losses following the start of the Mosul offensive in October last year, including being forced out of the city’s east side in January. The IS leader’s call was likely intended to deflect from his organization’s defeats.

The declaration of all-out war on Turkey is a bold and arguably foolhardy move by the group. It heralds a new era in IS’ campaign, exacerbates Turkey’s long-strained relations with its Kurdish population and brings with it significant security and economic repercussions for Turkey and beyond.

‘This Is What God Has Promised Us’ 

On November 3, 2016, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered an unexpected speech entitled “This Is What God Has Promised Us.” The speech served as a motivational call to IS fighters in Mosul, and occasioned the cry for establishing a new frontier – effectively a war with Turkey.

“O monotheists,” al-Baghdadi said, “Turkey has today entered the sphere of your work and your jihadi project. Turn its security into panic, its luxury into dread, and include it in your blazing areas of struggle” (al-Naba, Issue 53, 03 November, 2016).

Just a day later, IS claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir that killed nine people and wounded more than 100 others.

That IS should seek to expand into Turkey is, on one level, unsurprising. At its most fundamental, the group’s worldview is expansionist and apocalyptic and seeks, ultimately, to obtain global domination beginning with the countries of the Muslim world.

Such a worldview is informed by the Arabic mantra baqiya wa tatamadad (“remaining and expanding”), which suggests the group considers itself to have a kind of divine mission to expand into new territories.

However, IS expansion has so far been more-or-less limited to failed or semi-failed states. Noteworthy announcements of expansion into new areas of operation have also tended to follow periods of success in existing areas, possibly serving to communicate visible successes to locals in the territories into which the group is expanding.

Al-Baghdadi’s recent call, then, is unusual. Not only because it comes on the heels of losing territories in Syria, Iraq and Libya, but also because Turkey is a functional state.

Another difference with IS’ other expansionist announcements is that al-Baghdadi did not disclose details of local leadership hierarchies or strongholds. There are obvious reasons for this. First, unlike the states IS usually preys upon, Turkey has functional security services that could efficiently identify and arrest IS leaders and operatives. Secondly, the IS leadership is under pressure. The group has finite personnel and resources, and is increasingly in survival mode.

Justification for Violence 

At the core of IS efforts to legitimize its expansion of terror into Turkey is the promotion of a narrative that Islam faces an existential threat from a multitude of adversaries that inevitably include crusading Christians and Zionist Jews.

These enemies, so the IS narrative goes, aided by apostate Muslim governments such as that in Turkey, are the principle hurdle to creating an alternative world order based on Islamic teachings, or more accurately one based on IS’ Salafist version of Islam.

IS uses this narrative of clashing civilizations to justify its attacks on Muslim countries.

To justify targeting Turkey, IS regularly publishes, catalogues and provides analysis of the “faults by successive Turkish governments dating back to 1944.” These include joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which it considers un-Islamic as it “exhibits loyalty and agency to the crusaders in their fight against Islam”; constitutionally adopting secularism in 1983, which requires the separation of mosque and state; and joining the global anti-IS coalition in 2014 (al-Naba, Issue 14, January 18, 2016; al-Naba, Issue 57, December 01, 2016).

According to IS, Turkey is also at fault for joining the United Nations, as the group sees the UN Charter as un-Islamic for affording dignity and worth for every person irrespective of faith or creed. From an IS standpoint, the human worth of a believer and nonbeliever cannot be equated.

Pragmatism on Both Sides

During IS’ early successes in Iraq and Syria, Turkey emerged as a key transit center for those seeking to join the group, its borders crossed by radicals and potential jihadists arriving from Asia, Europe, Russia, North Africa and elsewhere.

At that stage, Turkey and IS were careful not to overtly carry out operations against each another. When either did, they took care to ensure deniability. This prompted criticism from observers who claimed it equated to a cooperative relationship between IS and Turkey (al-Sharaq al-Awsat,  September 27, 2014; al-Hayat, September 21, 2014). Although there is no evidence to show any formal agreement existed, it is plausible that IS and Turkey, their actions governed by pragmatism, saw a tacit understanding as mutually beneficial between 2014 and mid-2015.

Turkey represented a lifeline through which foreign fighters, goods and weapons entered and left Syria (Sasapost, December 6, 2015; al-Arabiya, September 20, 2015; YouTube, September 20, 2015). As long as Ankara ignored its smuggling activities, there was no reason for IS to establish a new frontline. The group’s priorities at that time were the consolidation of acquired territories and its experiments with local administrations in Iraq and Syria.

Pragmatism, likewise, influenced Turkey’s tacit acceptance of IS. For one, a war on IS might not have been a popular choice for the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, considering that only 10 percent of Turks polled in January 2016 considered IS as a terrorist organization (Masr al-Arabia, July 1, 2016). For another, Turkey would have risked IS retaliations. Turkish military action against IS would likely have resulted in harm to the 48 Turkish hostages captured during an IS raid on the Turkish consulate in Mosul in June 2014 (Idaat, December 27, 2016; CNN Arabic, June 11, 2014). It would likely also have encouraged IS attacks on Turkish targets, impacting the local economy and the country’s tourism industry.

Al-Baghdadi understood that fear, stating that, “Turkey had been reluctant to go into direct fights [with us] fearing that this might force the hands of the mujahedeen [holy warriors] to include it in their operations and fights” (al-Naba, Issue 53, November 3, 2016).

Resistance to Kurdish Nationalism

In the summer of 2015, however, a game-changing event took place.  The Suruc bombing on July 20 of that year swayed Turkey in favor of joining the anti-IS coalition.

Suicide bomber Abdul Rahman Agaloz attacked a group of Kurdish activists in the Turkish town of Suruc as they gathered to discuss plans for rebuilding the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria. The blast killed 32 people.

Turkish officials blamed IS for the attack, but Kurdish leaders insisted that the identity of perpetrator was irrelevant. What was important, they said, was that the bombing was proof of their clams the government did too little to protect them.

Two days later, on July 22, 2015, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), acting in revenge for the Suruc bombing, claimed responsibility for the killing of two Turkish officers in Sanliurfa (al-Jazeera Arabic, July 23, 2015; al-Sharq al-Arabi, July 21, 2015; al-Watan, July 23, 2015; YouTube, July 20, 2015). Turkey and IS, it seemed, shared a common enemy – the PKK.

Hostile relations between Turkey and the PKK date back to the mid-1980s when Kurdish leaders demanded an independent state. Erdogan’s government considers Kurdish nationalism a national security problem, one “more threatening to Turkey than Daesh [IS]” (al-Arabiya, August 22, 2016).

IS too has been locked in conflict with the Kurds who, with Western backing in the form of high-quality training and equipment, particularly from the United States, have been one of the most effective fighting forces on the ground against the group. The overlapping, triangular IS-Turkey-Kurd relationship is complex, but IS fears the fighting tenacity of the Kurds – who present a serious challenge to IS ambitions in Syria – and like Turkey, harbors an ideological objection to them.

That objection is less about specifically Kurdish nationalism, but rather because nationalism itself is at odds with IS’ ideology. Kurdish nationalism is prefaced on Kurdish identity, whereas IS pursues an existence in which an Islamic identity outstrips all other identities whether personal, social or otherwise. Put differently, IS Islamism and Kurdish nationalism are inherently opposed to one another, and IS straightforwardly rejects the modern concept of the nation state in favor of a more “universal” form of government in the form of the caliphate.

In one publication, IS explains its stance on Kurdish nationalism:

“The Kurds found in collaborating with the crusaders against the Islamic State a tool to establish their nationalist state. If Kurds read history well, they will know that even if the crusaders mean well and grant them a state, the Islamic State war against them shall not stop until they go back to God and distance themselves from nationalism” (al-Naba, Issue 19, February 23, 2016).

Between July 2015 and January 2017, IS claimed responsibility for, or is suspected of conducting, at least 60 attacks on Kurdish targets in Syria and Turkey, resulting in causalities that reach into the thousands.

Looking Ahead

IS does not have the resources to pose a serious threat to Turkey, but in a sustained conflict the group will be able to sap Turkey’s financial and other resources, and badly impact Turkey’s tourism industry.

IS thrives on domestic discord, and by far the most immediate impact of its conflict with Turkey has been on Turkey’s already tense relations with the Kurds.

Those strained relations are nothing new, but they have intensified because of Turkey’s unwillingness to prevent what was effectively a campaign of ethnic-cleansing by IS against Syrian Kurds in Kobani in late 2014. This fomented Kurdish popular protests in Turkey in which demonstrators raised the picture of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, and on occasions violently clashed with local security forces (al-Binaa, November 03, 2014; al-Araby al-Jadeed, November 01, 2014; BBC Arabic, October 9, 2014).

If IS succeeds in carrying out further attacks against the Kurds, these will again be blamed on the government for failing to protect a part of its population. Such attacks will increase polarization in Turkish society, which, as part of a vicious cycle, IS can then further exploit.

Turkey must be weary that a continued conflict could cause some citizens to look elsewhere for protection or empowerment. If IS succeeds in creating large enough jihadist safe havens in Turkey — there are already enclaves in the cities of Istanbul, Antalya and Gaziantep — there will be serious consequences for Turkey, and to Western countries that offer visa-free entry to Turkish citizens.