This article is the first 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 I: Trends in the Terrorist Threats Against Turkey
To assess the magnitude of the terrorist threats facing Turkey, the nature of its counterterrorism campaign, and the effectiveness of its counterterrorism (CT) measures, this analysis is divided into two articles. The first article presents an overview of the terrorist threats facing the country, including a table of terrorist incidents over an 11 year period by the major terrorist groups that threaten it. The second article presents an overview of the agencies that constitute Turkey’s counterterrorism campaign and an assessment of the effectiveness of these CT response measures vis-à-vis the spectrum of terrorist threats facing it.
Timeline of Terror Attacks in Turkey. Data provided by Dr. Joshua Sinai. Designed by Alexandra Chronopoulos
Turkey faces a high threat level from terrorist attacks by domestic Kurdish insurgents and foreign Islamic State (IS) operatives. Adding to the foreign threat from IS, and its smaller jihadi insurgent counterpart, the Al Nusra Front (ANF), is the presence of an estimated 2,000 to 2,200 Turkish nationals who have been radicalized into violent extremism and joined these groups in Syria in the recent period. To analyze these threats, this article consists of three sections: the terrorist groups that threaten Turkey, a table of terrorist incidents from 2005 until mid-2016, and an assessment of the magnitude of the terrorist threats facing derived from this incident table.
Overall, Turkey faces terrorist threats from two primary types of adversaries. The first and longest running threat is presented by Kurdish terrorist groups, particularly the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK), also known as Kurdistan Workers Party, and the Turkish Freedom Falcons (TAK). The second threat, from the Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIL or Daesh), emanates from the neighboring Syrian civil war, which escalated in 2011, with little possibility of peaceful resolution following five years of intensive and violent fractionalization and state collapse. Other terrorist groups based in Syria, such as the formerly al Qaida-affiliated Al Nusra Front (ANF), are also capable of conducting attacks in Turkey, although it had not, as of late 2016.
Kurdish Terrorist Threats
Kurds constitute the largest ethnic minority in Turkey, estimated in July 2016 to constitute 18 percent of the country’s population of more than 80 million. The Kurds are indigenous inhabitants of south-eastern Turkey (with neighboring Kurdish communities in north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia).
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, an increasingly significant portion of Turkey’s ethnic Kurds began to demand cultural, linguistic, and political rights as Kurds. The unwillingness by successive Turkish governments to resolve these demands was one of the factors leading to the creation of several Kurdish insurgent groups in the late 1970s. The human toll of this conflict has been high, with an estimated 40,000 people killed in Turkish-Kurdish clashes from the mid-1980s through early 2016.
The Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK)
The Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK), also known as Kurdistan Workers Party, is the most prominent Kurdish terrorist group. It was established in November 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, who became its long-time leader. A Marxist-Leninist group, it called for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state within Turkey. The PKK launched its insurgency in August 1984. In the 1990s, the PKK scaled back on its demands for an independent Kurdish state, advocating for greater autonomy for the Kurds. In 1999, the PKK experienced a major blow when Ocalan was arrested and jailed for treason. As of late 2016, he was still imprisoned.
At its peak in 1993, the PKK numbered some 10,000 fighters, as well as approximately 60,000 part-time fighters, which by 2000 had reduced to between 3,000 and 4,000 fighters. In 2016 it was estimated there were approximately 4,000 to 5,000 PKK operatives, with most of them located in northern Iraq, along the Turkish-Iraqi border.
Following three decades of conflict with the PKK, in late 2012 the Turkish government and PKK leader, Ocalan, initiated a peace process, which led to a cease-fire around March 2013. However, in July 2015, the PKK announced an end to the cease-fire and re-started its armed attacks against Turkey’s security forces and military bases. This led to large-scale operations by Turkish security forces against the PKK, whether inside Turkey or across the border with Syria.
Inside northern Syria, along the Turkish border, there are Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) fighters, where they have been carving out a self-declared autonomous region known as Rojava. The YPG are the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD). While they are considered by Western governments as effective forces against IS in Syria, they are regarded by Turkey as an extension of the PKK, resulting in Turkish cross border military attacks against them.
Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK)
The TAK, a highly secretive organization, was established as a break-away faction of the PKK. It was established around 1999 when the PKK was designated by the Turkish government as an illegal terrorist organization. It seeks an independent Kurdish state in eastern and southeastern Turkey. At the beginning of its operations, its strength was estimated at 300 operatives, but the current amount active is unknown. Its first major terrorist operation took place in January 2005. It has continued to launch attacks in subsequent years, including several in 2015 and 2016.
Islamic State (IS)
The Islamic State has become the most lethal foreign terrorist threat in Turkey. While attacks by the PKK and TAK have primarily targeted the country’s police and military forces, IS operatives attack mostly target civilians in popular places such as tourist sites and, in the case of its Kurdish adversary, a crowded Kurdish wedding near the border with Syria.
On one level, IS’s attacks against Turkish targets are part of the blowback for Ankara’s previously relatively lax control of its long border with Syria. This open border enabled thousands of foreign nationals to exploit it as a transit route to join terrorist groups such as the ANF and IS in their insurgencies against the Syrian regime – also Ankara’s adversary. Once Turkey began cracking down on the use of its territory by these foreign nationals, the IS in particular began to mobilize its operatives in Turkey to conduct terrorist attacks in-country (see Table , below, for a chronology of these incidents).
Overall, IS’s motivations to attack Turkey are driven by the following factors:
- Turkey’s retaliatory offensives against its fighters following IS terrorist operations in Turkey,
- Turkey’s intensification of its surveillance and arrest of potential jihadi operatives from countries around the world who attempt to use Turkey as a crossing point into Syria, with 2,337 foreigners suspected of planning to cross the border into Syria detained in 2015, 
- The arrest of other IS terrorists based in Turkey,
- Turkey’s alliance with Western nations, particularly the U.S., which uses them in targeting IS positions in Syria,
- Turkey’s re-establishment of diplomatic and economic ties with Israel,
- The opposition to their own government of some 2,000 to 2,200 Turkish nationals who have joined IS in Syria, and, like their counterparts from other Western countries, having some of them instructed by IS to conduct attacks in Turkey upon their return.
Terrorist Incidents, 2005-2016
The table below presents a chronology of terrorist attacks against Turkish targets from mid-2005 until third quarter 2016. The incident chronologies’ information is derived from numerous open sources, such as newspaper articles and several incomplete databases, and is not intended to be as authoritative or complete as what is likely contained in a government’s official database. Finally, this table’s counting of incidents includes attacks by designated terrorist groups against civilian as well as military and police targets.
Assessing the Magnitude of the Terrorist Threat
With the data provided in this incident chronology table derived from numerous open sources, it is not intended be as authoritative as a government’s own database, but to present a rough order of magnitude of the threats facing Turkey. Nevertheless, even this estimated incident database is more comprehensive and detailed than what is likely to be found in other open source accounts, so it should be useful for other researchers in constructing more robust incident databases to generate empirically-based findings on the actual magnitude of terrorist threats facing Turkey.
Thus, based on the incidents listed in this database, during the period of 2005 to 2016, there were a total of 51 terrorist attacks carried out by the PKK, TAK, and IS, with an additional terrorist attack carried out by al Qaida. An additional terrorist attack, on May 11, 2013, which resulted in 51 fatalities and 140 injuries, had not been claimed by any terrorist group. The total number of terrorist attacks during this period, therefore, reached 53.
Second, within this total number of terrorist attacks, the PKK carried out the largest number (19), followed by IS (17), and TAK (15).
Third, in a further breakdown, in terms of fatalities and injuries, the PKK’s 19 attacks caused 160 fatalities and 566 injuries; the TAK’s 15 attacks resulted in 119 fatalities and 611 injuries, and IS’s 17 attacks resulted in 265 fatalities and 763 injuries. Al Qaida’s single attack caused 3 fatalities and one injury.
Finally, during the 2013 – 2016 period, however, a new significant terrorist adversary emerged, with 17 attacks by IS over this condensed period, with the PKK and TAK both carrying out 6 attacks each. Thus, one can argue that the current phase, beginning in 2013, represents the most lethal period in terrorist attacks against Turkey. The continued intensification of the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s continued impasse with its Kurdish insurgents will likely perpetuate a high terrorist threat level against the Turkish state.
Terrorist Incidents, 2005-2016
|July 10, 2005||TAK||Çeşme, a coastal resort town.||Bombing||20|
|July 16, 2005||TAK||Kuşadasi, Western Turkey||A bombing of a minibus||5||14|
|March 2006||TAK||Istanbul||Bomb detonated near bus station||1||13|
|June 25, 2006||TAK||100 kilometers east of the southern resort of Antalya||Bomb blast||4||28|
|August 28, 2006||TAK||Antalya resort area||Bombing||3||20|
|September 12, 2006||PKK||Diyarbakir, Kurdish southern region||Bomb blast near elementary school||10 (8 children)||14+|
|June 4, 2007||PKK||Military base in Tunceli||Suicide bombing||7 soldiers||6 soldiers|
|October 7, 2007||PKK||Gabar mountains||Ambush by 40-50 PKK fighters||15 soldiers||3 soldiers|
|October 21, 2007||PKK||Dağlıca is a village in Yüksekova District, Hakkâri Province||150-200 PKK fighters attacked a military outpost||12 soldiers||17 soldiers (with 8 soldiers taken captive)|
|July 9, 2008||Al Qaida||Entrance of US consulate in Istanbul||Attack by three gunmen||3 police officers and 3 gunmen||1|
|July 27, 2008||TAK||Gungoren shopping district of Istanbul||Two explosions||17||154|
|October 4, 2008||PKK||Şemdinli in the Hakkâri Province||PKK fighters attacked Aktutun border post||15 soldiers||20 soldiers|
|December 7, 2009||PKK||Resadiye||PKK fighters ambushed soldiers||7 soldiers||3 soldiers|
|May 1, 2010||PKK||Tunceli||PKK attack against military unit||4 soldiers||7 soldiers|
|May 31, 2010||PKK||Naval base in Iskenderun||Missile attack||7 soldiers||6 soldiers|
|June 2010||TAK||Istanbul||Bombing of military bus||4 (including 3 soldiers)|
|September 16, 2010||PKK||Geçitli, Hakkâri Province||Bombing of minibus||10||3|
|October 31, 2010||TAK (suspected)||Taksim Square in Istanbul||Suicide bombing||32 people, including 15 police officers|
|June 3, 2011||PKK||Siirt and Hakkari provinces||PKK shootings||12 soldiers|
|September 20, 2011||TAK||Ankara||Car bombing||3||34|
|October 19, 2011||PKK||Cukurca and Yuksekova, Hakkari province||Eight simultaneous attacks||26 soldiers||18 soldiers|
|August 20, 2012||PKK||Gaziantiep||Bombings||8||66|
|February 11, 2013||IS||Turkish side of Bal al-Hawa border||Car bombing by Syrian registered minivan||13||28|
|May 11, 2013||No claims of responsibility||Reyhanli, near the Syrian border||Two car bombings||51||140|
|January 6, 2015||IS||Tourist area of Sultanahmet, near Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul||A pregnant female suicide bomber, in front of a police station||One police officer||A police officer was injured|
|June 5, 2015||IS||Diyarbakir||Explosion at an HDP rally||2||100+|
|June 9, 2015||IS||Diyarbakir||IED||4|
|July 20, 2015||IS||Suruc, Sanlurfa province, near Syrian border||Suicide bombing||32||100+|
|July 22, 2015||PKK||Ceylanpinar, on Syrian border||Two policemen killed||2 policemen|
|August 10, 2015||IS||Police station in Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul||Shootings by two operatives||5 police officers and 2 civilians|
|August 19, 2015||IS||Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul||Gunfire and grenade attack|
|October 10, 2015||IS||Main train station in Ulus area of Ankara||2 explosions||100 killed||180 injured|
|December 23, 2015||TAK||Sabiha Gokcen Airport, Istanbul||Bombing||1|
|January 12, 2016||IS||Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul||Suicide bombing||10 tourists killed||15|
|January 13, 2016||PKK||Diyarbakir||Attack against police headquarters||6||39|
|17 February 2016||TAK||Explosion near military base in central Ankara||Suicide bombing||30||60|
|March 13, 2016||TAK||Kizilay Square, central Ankara||Bombing||37||125|
|March 18, 2016||PKK||Nusaybin||Detonation of hand-made explosives||1 police officer||2 police officers|
|March 19, 2016||IS||Istiklal Street, Istanbul||Suicide bomb attack||4 tourists||36 (including tourists)|
|March 21, 2016||PKK||Nusaybin||Bombing||4 soldiers and 1 police officer||6|
|March 31, 2016||PKK||Diyarbakir||Car bombing||7 police officers||27|
|April 27, 2016||TAK||Bursa Ulu Mosque||Suicide bomb attack||Bomber was killed||7 injuries|
|May 1, 2016||TAK||Central Police
|Bomb attack||2 police officers||23|
|June 7, 2016||TAK||Vezneciler district , Istanbul||Attack against bus carrying policemen||12||51|
|June 28, 2016||IS||Ataturk
|Shootings and suicide bombings||45 (in addition to the 3 attackers)||230|
|August 20, 2016||IS||Gaziantep||Suicide bombing at Kurdish wedding||54||66|
|September 12, 2016||PKK||Van, Southern Turkey||Car bombing in area between the local offices of the ruling AKP party and the governor’s office||48|
|September 21, 2016||IS||Ankara||A man wielded a knife to attack the Israeli embassy.||Attacker was injured by security forces|