Assessing the Effectiveness of the Turkish Government’s Counterterrorism Response Measures

Posted By October 14, 2016 No Comments

This article is the second in a two-part series on terrorism in Turkey.  Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Principal Analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings and an expert on terrorism, counter-terrorism, insider threat mitigation and active shooter prevention. This analysis is his own. 

Part II: Assessing the Effectiveness of the Turkish Government’s Counterterrorism Response Measures

sunset mosqueThe Turkish government’s overall counterterrorism campaign seeks several objectives. First, Ankara seeks to militarily defeat the PKK’s and TAK’s domestic insurgency and force them to withdraw from Turkey, even, if possible, without an agreed upon political settlement of Kurdish demands. Second, by achieving these objectives, Turkey would also be able to lessen the military threat presented by the YPD’s control of an estimated 265 miles of territory along the porous 565-mile Turkish-Syrian border.[1] Finally, Turkey seeks to eliminate the threat presented by IS terrorist operatives in Turkey through law enforcement, intelligence, and military measures, and to create an IS-free zone along its border with Syria. In this case, given IS’s extremist and uncompromising demands, a political settlement with this jihadi group is deemed impossible.

Timeline of Terror Attacks in Turkey. Data provided by Dr. Joshua Sinai. Designed by Alexandra Chronopoulos

Timeline of Terror Attacks in Turkey. Data provided by Dr. Joshua Sinai. Designed by Alexandra Chronopoulos

In general, Turkey’s counterterrorism campaign consists of three components: first, agencies involved in law enforcement, intelligence, and military measures; secondly, countering violent extremism; and, finally, cooperation with regional and international partners

Government Agencies Involved in Counterterrorism

The primary Turkish government bodies involved in managing and executing the country’s counterterrorism campaign consist of intelligence, law enforcement and military agencies. At the top, under the Prime Ministry’s Under Secretariat, are the National Security Council and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).[2] Under this echelon are the Strategic Analysis Directorate, the Counter-Intelligence Directorate, the External Operations Directorate, the Security Intelligence Directorate, the Electronic and Technical Intelligence Directorate, the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SİB), and the Under Secretariat of Public Order and Security (KDGM) – a semi-dependent, internal security service.[3]

In terms of the military component of counterterrorism, the responsible agencies include the Joint Chief of Staff Intelligence Bureau, the Army Intelligence Bureau, the Navy Intelligence Bureau, the Air Force Intelligence Bureau, the Coast Guard Intelligence Bureau, the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Bureau (unofficially known as JİTEM) and the Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization.

The Interior Ministry (IM) is the primary agency responsible for countering terrorism.[4] Under the IM are two counterterrorism agencies: the Turkish National Police (TNP) and Turkish Gendarmerie (TG) forces.[5] In this organizational framework, responsibilities for countering terrorism are divided according to the two agencies’ geographical jurisdiction. Thus, the TNP, and its Counter-Terrorism Department, is responsible for policing urban areas, while the TG is responsible for maintaining security in the country’s rural areas.[6] Finally, the TNP’s Intelligence Department (ID) collects terrorism-related intelligence throughout the country’s urban and rural regions. The ID’s International Relations Section also engages in terrorism-related intelligence sharing with Turkey’s foreign counterpart police agencies.[7]

Other government services also involved in counterterrorism (or the more defensively focused anti-terrorism), such as the Ministry of Finance, Financial Crimes Investigation Unit (MASAK), and the Ministry of Customs, Customs Enforcement.

Countering Violent Extremism

A second component of counterterrorism involves countering the violent extremism that gives rise to terrorism. The Turkish government has established several programs to counter violent extremism. These include an outreach program administered by the Turkish National Police to reach vulnerable populations and prevent their recruitment into terrorism. Another program is administered by the government’s Religious Affairs Office (Diyanet) to counter violent extremist messaging. However, the Erdogen government’s own turn to Islamism, and crackdown on pluralism and dissent by purging its judiciary, military, and security services of any opposition elements, likely render programs to decrease violent extremism as half-hearted and ineffectual. Finally, no effectiveness metrics or examples of programmatic success by these programs in turning vulnerable populations away from PKK/TAK or IS violent extremism is available to determine the effectiveness of such programs.

International CT Cooperation

With terrorist groups attaining global reach by taking advantage of porous borders between states and other interconnected international systems, such as in transit, communications (with much of this facilitated by the Internet), and finance –– it is essential for effective counterterrorism to include bilateral, regional and international cooperation with counterpart state partners. In this third component, Turkey’s counterterrorism campaign cooperates with regional and international partners. These include NATO allies, including the United States. It has been reported, for example, that CIA Director John Brennan has made several trips to Ankara, including in January 2016, for meetings on counterterrorism operations with his MIT counterparts.[8] Such cooperation reportedly involves assisting Turkey in formulating its terrorism watch list, upgrading its border security, aviation security, and law enforcement investigations. Turkey also permits the use of its Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana by American fighter aircraft to launch airstrikes against IS targets in Syria. At times, however, such cooperation has been marred by disagreements over U.S. and European backing of Kurdish insurgent forces in Syria that Turkey views as affiliates of the PKK, which its own military forces attack in cross-border raids.

Turkey also cooperates with other countries’ intelligence services whose IS-inspired violent extremists attempt to use Turkey as a transshipment point into Syria in counter-terrorism information sharing. This reportedly includes a “banned from entry list” of such foreign operatives to prevent their travel into Turkey as potential foreign fighters.

Turkey is also a member of international agencies involved in counter-terrorism such as the United Nations, NATO, the Committee of Experts on Terrorism, and the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), to which it has also provided secretariat support. It is a member of the Global Coalition to Counter IS, as well as the Working Group on Foreign Terrorist Fighters (WGFTF). It serves as co-chair of the GCTF’s Horn of Africa Working Group. Turkey also participates in the OSCE’s expert meetings on the Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism. It is also a member of the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law, which provides trainings for judges and prosecutors who handle terrorism cases.

Assessing the Effectiveness of Turkey’s CT Response Measures

Turkey’s counterterrorism response measures against its separate Kurdish and Islamic State (IS) threats have been vastly exacerbated by several factors, especially the country’s internal political turmoil caused by President President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government’s increasing Islamic authoritarianism, purging of its military and security forces, and clampdown of any criticism of its policies by the media and academic circles.[9] These factors led to severe internal political turmoil, and resulted in contradictory CT strategies (e.g., battling IS and Kurdish anti-IS forces at the same time), which have served to greatly hinder the country’s overall CT effectiveness.

First, the July 15-16, 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian and Islamist regime and subsequent declaration of a 90-day state of emergency by his government was followed by an escalation in arbitrary police arrests and other coercive military measures against what were perceived as internal threats to regime stability within the country’s military, security forces, judiciary, and mass media. In the case of the military, according to one report, an “estimated 5,000 soldiers, including half of all admirals and generals, have been sacked or detained. The air force has lost at least 265 pilots, leaving it with a shortage of pilots for its fighter jets.”[10] This crackdown has therefore left the Turkish military and security forces in turmoil at a time when they are tasked with fighting its adversaries in Syria.[11]

Second, the high fatality terrorist attacks by IS in Turkey, whether in Ankara, Istanbul, or Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, were followed not necessarily by incursions against IS forces in Syria, but by incursions into YPG-held positions along the Syrian-Turkish border. Thus, while Turkey’s stated objective is to fight IS and other jihadi rebel forces in Syria, it is also battling anti-IS Kurdish forces, thereby diminishing the overall fight against IS.

Third, further complicating Turkey’s CT campaign is the fact that although Turkey is not responsible for the Syrian-based IS – Kurdish conflict, it has spilled over into Turkey, with IS terrorist operatives using it to attack Kurdish civilian targets. This was demonstrated by the horrific suicide bombing by an IS operative of a Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep, a city near the Syrian border, in which more than 50 people were killed.[12]

Fourth, Turkey’s incursions against the Kurdish anti-IS insurgents, in fact, belied the fact that the Turkish government’s Syria policy was filled with other contradictions, as well. Thus, Ankara’s stated opposition to President Bashar Assad regime appeared half-hearted. Thus, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey sponsored and trained the reportedly “moderate” anti-Syrian regime Free Syrian Army (FSA), and provided it a safe haven in its territory. Later, however, the improvement in political relations with Russia in September 2016 signaled that Turkey was not necessarily vehemently opposed to Russia’s extensive military involvement in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime, which included battling the FSA, Turkey’s supposed ally.

Fifth, moreover, in this regard, Turkey’s permission for the use of its Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana by American fighter aircraft to launch airstrikes against IS targets in Syria, also served to complicate the picture of the multi-faceted interventions by different actors in the Syrian civil war from Turkish originated military bases, especially since they, unlike Turkey, specifically target IS forces, while regarding the anti-IS Kurdish forces as their military allies.

Sixth, the massive influx of primarily Sunni Syrian refugees into Turkey since the civil war intensified in 2011, which numbered an estimated 2,726,980 (as of August 25, 2016),[13] out of a total of more than 4.7 million Syrian refugees,[14] included an unknown number of IS sympathizers or operatives, who were intent on attacking not only Turkey but Western Europe, as well. Here, Turkey cooperated with its Western allies in attempting to vet these refugees, while receiving Western financial assistance in managing their well-being at their refugee camps.

Seventh, after an initial period in which Turkey largely tolerated the presence of foreign Sunni Islamists who were using the country as a cross border transit point into Syria to join the jihadi insurgents – which also served Turkey’s efforts to undermine the Assad regime – the Turkish government began tightening their freedom of movement, which, this time, resulted in a boomerang, as they turned against their previously tolerant Turkish hosts. This was demonstrated by the relative frequency of IS attacks against Turkey from 2014 to 2016, which resulted in 17 attacks and  fatalities and  injuries .

Finally, with Turkey restoring full diplomatic relations with Israel towards the end of June 2016, ending a five-year diplomatic estrangement, this rapprochement was also targeted by IS, which conducted several attacks in 2016 against Israeli tourists and the Israeli Embassy in Ankara.