Turkey’s terror problem: How terrorism challenges Turkey’s long-term stability
In the wake of the assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov, terrorism is once again at the forefront of news about Turkey. A recent string of terrorist attacks underscores Turkey’s heightened exposure to instability caused by ongoing security challenges.
Since the beginning of December, Turkey has experienced three high-profile terrorist attacks that hit Istanbul, Ankara and Kayseri, among them the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov. The country has been subject to an elevated threat since July 2015 and so far terrorist activity has resulted in approximately 390 dead and 1,350 injured. This figure does not include the fatalities caused by the Kurdish separatist insurgency in the south-eastern provinces of the country. The Turkish security, economic and political environment are substantially affected by the ongoing terrorist threat and the current regional crisis makes it unlikely for the situation to improve in the foreseeable future.
Turkey faces a complex terrorist threat
Turkey currently faces an elevated and complex terrorist threat that is generated by a two main militant groups: Kurdish separatists and Islamist radicals. Far-left militants also periodically carry out anti-government and anti-western attacks.
Since July 2015, Kurdish fighters mainly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) have conducted multiple terrorist attacks in Turkey’s major cities. These attacks have hit airports, security forces, touristic places and crowded transportation hubs and have so far resulted in approximately 130 dead and 470 injured. Kurdish separatists’ terrorist attacks in Turkey’s western, central and northern provinces are an extension of the ongoing insurgency in the country’s south-eastern region and are likely to continue to generate a substantial security threat.
Islamic State (IS)-linked militants have also conducted several high-profile attacks in Turkey that left approximately 250 dead and 870 injured. Islamic militants located in Syria have also periodically conducted border strikes that left dozens of Turkish nationals dead in the Kilis and Gaziantep provinces. Turkey is at the cross-road of IS regional and international strategies as the Sunni extremist group tries to carry out global high profile attacks as well as military strategic operations against Turkey. IS spokesperson have increasingly been calling for attacks against Turkey since Ankara started operations in Syria in August 2016. Islamist militants generate a high terrorist risk due to the generally indiscriminate nature of their attacks.
A threat to foreign interests
As exemplified by the recent assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov, terrorist activity generates direct and indirect threats to foreigners operating or travelling to Turkey. Militant groups have conducted attacks deliberately targeting foreign personnel as well as areas essential to global travel and business operations.
Turkey relies heavily on its tourist sectors as it is a driving force of the national economy and supports multiple cross-sector economic industries. However, the series of terrorist attacks that have been hitting the country have substantially hindered its capacity to attract foreigners. IS militants have directly targeted groups of tourists in Istanbul and Kurdish separatists have staged bombings in crowded touristic places. This highlights the growing cost terrorism has on the Turkish economy.
Domestic and international militant groups have also staged high-profile attacks against Turkish critical infrastructure. TAK fighters hit Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport in December 2015, IS militants staged an assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in June 2016 and in August PKK insurgents fired rockets toward the Diyarbakir airport. These attacks underscore the threat posed to civilian travel in Turkey and highlight additional risks to potential business operations in the country. In addition, Kurdish separatists have sporadically hit oil and gas pipelines in the eastern regions of the country and conducted several assaults along highways and national roads.
The assassination of Ambassador Karlov also highlights how the current instability in Turkey may directly negatively affect foreigners operations in the country. Foreign diplomatic missions have periodically been issuing warnings throughout 2016. The US State Department has been implementing a program of voluntary departures for families living in Turkey and European consular services have periodically shut down their offices due to heightened terrorist concerns. In the long term, these repeated warnings are likely to have an impact on the way international businesses perceive Turkey.
Concerns over local security forces capabilities
While the country faces a complex and far-reaching terrorist threat, Turkey is also confronted with concerns over the capacity of its authorities to fully respond to the current situation. The fact that on 15 July several branches of the national armed forces managed to organise a failed coup underscores a least some level of shortcomings in the internal intelligence capacity to prevent destabilising and subversive acts. In addition, the shooting of Russian Ambassador Karlov raises question over controls within the Turkish police as the assassination was conducted by a riot police officer.
The ongoing post-coup crackdown has led to the detention and removal from their positions of thousands of civil servants, security forces personnel, academics, media workers and private business owners. Ongoing post-coup operations targeting police, military and intelligence structures may relatively weaken the intelligence gathering and response capabilities of domestic security forces thus hindering Turkish capacity to thwart terrorist plots. The latest bombing in Istanbul as well as the assassination in Ankara highlighted these issues as these attacks required a certain level of target monitoring and operational planning.