Turkey’s terrorist threat a year after the Reina shooting

Turkey’s terrorist threat a year after the Reina shooting

A year after the deadly New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul, Turkey continues to face a heightened threat from radical Islamist militants. However, security forces have become increasingly proficient in countering cells operating within the country.

Istanbul’s 2016 New Year’s Eve was bloodied by a deadly terrorist attack conducted by an assailant linked to the Islamic State. The perpetrator, a Kyrgyz national with operational ties to the Sunni extremist group, opened fire in the Reina nightclub killing 39 people and injuring more than 70 others. After being on the run for a week, Abdulkadir Masharipov was detained and identified as the shooter.

The attack closed a year during which radical Islamist violence marred Istanbul and Turkey’s security environment. Throughout 2016, the Islamic State conducted six major attacks in Turkey, of which four took place in Istanbul and two in Gaziantep. These left approximately 160 dead and close to 440 injured. In addition, several cross-border incidents took place in the first months of the year in Turkey’s southern regions. However, over 2017 the Islamic State has been unable to conduct any successful and high-profile attack in the country.

A shifting situation in Syria

The Islamic State’s capacity to successfully plan and conduct attacks within Turkey has been substantially hindered by the changing strategic situation in Syria. Since early 2017, the Sunni extremist insurgent group has lost close to the entirety of its positions that were located in proximity to the Turkish southern border. Islamic State militants have increasingly been on the defensive in Syria, being forced to move away from areas that could be used to smuggle operatives to Turkey.

In addition, Turkish military units have been present in northern and north-western Syria since August 2016 with the objective of ridding areas close to the Turkish territory of militant organisations that could generate a threat to national security. As such, since late 2016, the number of cross-border incidents involving rocket, mortar and machine-gun fire has drastically dropped limiting the threat generated by Islamic State militants to the southern Sanliurfa, Kilis and Gaziantep provinces.

While the Islamic State maintains active support networks in southern Turkey, the combination of border security operations and pro-active engagements in Syria have deprived the organisation of its capacity to use what was once a porous border to plot international attacks. As such, it is highly likely that in the coming month, Sunni extremists will try to push supporters already present in Turkey to plan and conduct attacks rather than using smuggling routes to transport personnel and weapons to Turkey.

Turkey’s security measures

In addition to its operations in Syria, Turkey has boosted its domestic anti-terrorist capabilities and internal security forces have become more proficient in countering the threat generated by Sunni extremist networks. The country is under a state of emergency since the failed July 2016 coup and the special legal status is in part meant to enable authorities to conduct more dynamic anti-terrorist operations. The security walls that have been built along Turkey’s southern and eastern borders have also been efficient mitigating the threat posed by cross-border smuggling and terrorist infiltrations.

Within the main cities, Turkish authorities have been actively targeting Sunni extremist cells with ties to international groups. The country continues to face a substantial threat generated by the presence of thousands of foreigners who traveled to Turkey with the objective of supporting Islamic State activities. Islamist cells are periodically dismantled in Istanbul and throughout the country.

These groups have access to weapons and explosives and security operations have thwarted several high-profile plots that reached the final stages of their preparations. It is almost certain that in the coming year Turkey will prioritise domestic anti-terrorist operations in a bid to mitigate the threat generated by Islamic State-linked terrorist groups. Turkish authorities and foreign governments will continue to issue periodic warnings pertaining to the evolution of the threat.

Turkey to remain a target

Despite these security measures, Turkey will remain a major target for radical Islamist militants in 2018. Islamic State propaganda outlets have time and again issued messages calling for attacks against the country.

The Islamic State considers attacks against Turkey as part of its regional strategy in the Middle East as well as part of its wider global strategy. Islamist militants continue to benefit from a relative popular support within some segments of the local population and have well-established support networks.

It is highly likely that future plots in Turkey will remain consistent with the current Islamic State strategy of trying to weaken the local economy and fueling sectarian and ethnic tensions.

As such, it is probable that Islamic State militants in Turkey will try to hit high-profile institutional, commercial, touristic and religious assets as well as members of the Kurdish, Christian, Jewish and Alevi communities.

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.