Turkey’s Crippled Counterterrorist Capacity:  How Domestic Purges Represent an International Threat to Europe’s Security

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urkey has been suffering from terrorism for a long time, losing over 40,000 people in the last 40 years. When the Syrian uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in 2011, Turkey was enjoying a peaceful era with the least causalities lost to terrorism in its recent history. However, this less-violent period quickly started to deteriorate due to new regional conflicts and Turkey’s flawed domestic and international policies.

Turkish leaders considered the Syrian uprising as an opportunity by taking advantage of the situation to further their interests in the region, basically promoting a regime change in Syria by supporting different radical Salafist Jihadist groups in Syria and Turkey. As a result of these flawed policies, the number of terrorist attacks and people killed in Turkey by Salafi-jihadi attacks has skyrocketed since 2014, a surge of more than 400% compared to recent years.

More recently on New Year’s Eve, a DAESH terrorist attacked the Reina Night Club in Istanbul, Turkey, killing 39 and wounding 71 . The Reina Club is one of Turkey’s most well-known and prominent nightlife venues, located on the Bosphorus in the heart of Istanbul and frequented by celebrities and tourists. Soon after the attack, DAESH made a claim of responsibility for the attack. Their followers in different social media mediums praised the attack, calling the attacker a “lion of the caliphate” and publishing a selfie of the attacker along with a video he had taken in the Taksim district of Istanbul . The attacker, later identified as Abdulgadir Masharipov (code name Muhammed Horasani), from Uzbekistan, was finally captured alive on January 16, 2017, in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. He was detained and interrogated until February 11, 2017.

DAESH and Other Radical Terrorist Organizations in Turkey

To understand the context of the Radical Salafist Jihadi terrorism in Turkey, it is important to understand the history of support for terrorism in the region. In mid-2011, I was the Police Chief of the counterterrorism and operations department in Sanliurfa, Turkey, a city of two million on the Turkish-Syrian border in the South of Turkey. At the time, Turkey’s southern borders were wide open and all Syrian refugees -- almost three million -- were welcomed . In fact, the influx of refugees was so overwhelming that it became a major security concern for border cities: Sanliurfa alone received over 400,000 refugees in just 20 months. Meanwhile, the flows of logistical support, arms, and explosives continued to move into Syria to different jihadist groups. DAESH became one of the primary beneficiaries of Turkish support , as it had begun to control major border areas and transport material and foreign fighter movements back and forth across borders. Turkey was the only country geographically in close proximity.

In the interim, Turkish politicians thought that not only would DAESH guarantee the defeat of Bassar Assad, it would put a final blow to Turkey’s decades-old PKK problem, as DAESH had started to fight the PKK. With these outcomes in mind, Turkey’s full-fledged support to DAESH, Jabhat-al Nusra, Ahrar us-Sham, and Free Syrian Army continued. For example, as noted in European Union-funded Conflict Armament Research (CAR) reports, almost all DAESH IEDs were produced with explosives, chemicals, electronics and other parts brought in from Turkey. CAR reports also argue the majority of the weapons used or produced by them were sourced from Turkey . Throughout this period of assistance, Turkey’s open policy was to not stop or interrupt the flow of foreign fighters going back and forth across Turkish borders , resulting in over 30,000 foreign fighters joining DAESH ranks.

In contrast to several other opposition groups in Syria, DAESH managed to recruit around 3,000 active Turkish fighters and established a vast and sustainable network within Turkey, through the involvement of mostly Turkish, but also some of foreign, members . That network is involved in recruitment activities, arranging and providing logistical support to operations, financial transactions, and the establishment of numerous terrorist cells inside Turkey. For example, through this network, DAESH established a factory where it produced over 60,000 uniforms for its fighters and hundreds of suicide vests.

On September 23, 2016, the world learned of another reason behind Turkey’s explicit support to DAESH: through the hacking and subsequent release of emails belonging to Berat Albayrak, President Erdogan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, the so-called “RedHack” emails revealed Erdoğan family involvement in transferring and selling DAESH oil , making it a little bit clearer as to why it was enjoying so much freedom in Turkey.

Until the beginning of 2016, the Turkish government avoided labeling DAESH a terrorist organization. President Erdogan did not publicly state DAESH was a terrorist organization until the beginning of 2016. Similarly, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to it as a “bunch of frustrated young guys ” and almost openly legitimizing the group in public speeches . Furthermore, since 2014, all ongoing radical Salafist jihadist counterterrorism operations were halted by the new administration and there were no planned counterterrorism operations anywhere in Turkey during 2014 and 2015. The operations in 2016 were mostly reactionary operations. This led to broader support and a warmer approach towards DAESH, especially among the young supporters of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP. In 2015, PEW public opinion research found 6 million people had a favorable opinion regarding DAESH .

Police and Intelligence Purges and the Rise of the Islamic State

On December 17, 2013, Turkey woke to a scandalous corruption operation against Erdogan’s son and close circles, carried out by the Istanbul Police Department. Erdogan appeared furious about the operation, claiming the operation was in fact a coup against him. Instead of allowing the prosecutor’s office and the police to continue with the investigations, Erdogan immediately began firing and purging the officers involved, eventually closing all the investigations . Following the events of December 2013, Erdogan started to dismantle the Police and Judiciary. Initially, almost all of the police chiefs and officers who were involved with the corruption operations were purged and arrested. Similarly, the prosecutors managing the case and the judges who issued warrants were also purged . The incident became a turning point for the Turkish National Police. Initially, all officers in counterterrorism, intelligence and organized crime divisions in the Istanbul Police Department were fired and replaced with new officers and chiefs . Unfortunately, the new officers and police chiefs were inexperienced and not trained to deal with the complicated cases and threats involved in terrorism and organized crime activities.

On January 19, 2014, after receiving a tip about three trucks carrying weapons to Syrian terrorists, the Adana prosecutor ordered the Gendarmerie and the Police to stop and search those trucks on the Adana highway . As the trucks were stopped, the passengers in the trucks resisted the searches, claiming the cargo belonged to the Turkish National Intelligence (MIT) and could not be searched. When the prosecutor was informed, he insisted the search of the trucks be carried out with the provided search warrant. As the trucks’ cargo was opened, the officers first saw a layer of medicine boxes on top of the cargo. Underneath those boxes they found military-grade weapons and ammunition, including missiles. This incident quickly became a national crisis and Prime Minister Erdogan ordered the release of the trucks in contravention of the prosecutor's orders . Later on, a prominent journalist, Can Dundar, produced an investigative news article that included pictures and videos of the cargo . Erdogan, however, openly blamed Dundar, claiming espionage, and added that he (Dundar) “would pay dearly ”. Eventually, any officer involved with the stop and search of the trucks, including the prosecutors, judges, police and gendarmerie officers, as well as the journalists, indeed paid a heavy price: first they were fired and then arrested .

By the beginning of 2014, Erdogan realized he could not continue his Syrian operations unless the judiciary and police were transformed and that he could not trust the judiciary and police with his personal and family dealings. This sparked a massive firing and arrest wave throughout the country, mostly involving police chiefs and officers working in the counterterrorism and intelligence divisions and the prosecutors managing their operations. This first wave of national purges resulted in over 10,000 experienced police officers being fired or arrested, basically gutting Turkey’s counterterrorism and intelligence capacity and brainpower. Furthermore, the new chiefs were promptly ordered to not carry out operations against radical jihadist terrorist organizations. This initiative also ensured that DAESH and other Salafist Jihadist terrorist organizations abruptly became untouchable and suddenly started to enjoy a degree of freedom never before experienced in Turkey. This situation lasted until the beginning of 2016. In the years 2014 and 2015, there was not a single planned counterterrorism operation in all of Turkey against DAESH or any other jihadist terrorist organization.

On July 15, 2016, Turkey was shocked by an unsuccessful coup attempt, giving President Erdogan the leverage and justification to further reshape the country. Following the coup, Erdogan immediately started a massive and unprecedented purge and arrest campaign. Over 140,000 government officials, including military officers, police officers, academics, doctors, and anyone else deemed as opposing Erdogan were purged . In addition, over 85,000 officials were detained and almost 45,000 were arrested. The Turkish National Police took the largest blow, losing over 30,000 officers in this period, including police chiefs and officers who had spent years in the field fighting against terrorism. Similarly, the Turkish military paid a huge price, losing half of its active duty generals and two-thirds of its F16 pilots. Additionally, the judiciary was also a particular target, with a third of prosecutors and judges being fired and/or arrested, well over 4,000 in total.

Conclusions and the Future

These events have resulted in two important outcomes. The first is that Turkey has lost its most experienced manpower and a great deal of wisdom in the fight against terrorism. Additionally, the Erdogan government’s approach toward DAESH and other terrorist organizations ensured that the jihadists were untouchable and if you would like to keep your job, then you would not interfere with their activities. These dramatic and troubling policy changes yield today’s security problems, as DAESH has established a dangerous network of terrorist cells all over the country. Turkey first ignored, then allowed, and finally supported DAESH, assuming that this would keep Kurdish militias in check and would never come back and sting Turkey-as-secret-benefactor. However, as one counter-terrorism expert quipped, “When you invite cannibals to dinner you can expect to end up as the main course.”

As the coalition forces advance in Mosul and start their Raqqa operation, there is no doubt that many DAESH members fleeing will end up in Turkey. Many such defectors we interviewed during our DAESH Defectors Interview project clearly indicated that commanders had been discussing this issue and had already ordered their fighters that in the worst scenario they would shave their beards and cut their hair to blend into societies within close proximity, Turkey being the closest. Therefore, as Mosul and Raqqa fall in the near future, it would be very naïve not to expect a somewhat steady and swarming flow of foreign and local DAESH fighters into Turkey. Alas, Turkey will not be prepared to stop this flow based on a purge of true counterterrorist talent.

Consequently, as the war in Syria and Iraq continues against DAESH, there is a good chance that Turkey might become the next battleground. While the war against DAESH and other Salafist Jihadi terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq appear to make steady progress, the prospect of Turkey becoming a vast safe haven for retreating terrorists cannot be discounted. Turkey’s counter-terrorism capacity is vital for both the country and the West. Thus, this weakened Turkish counterterrorism apparatus, completely self-produced by Erdogan paranoia, threatens not only Ankara but the heart of Europe as well.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University. He is also senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He formerly served as a professor and the chair of the sociology department at Harran University in Turkey. He also served as the chief of counterterrorism and operations department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa between 2010 and 2013. He is the co-author of the newly released book ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @ahmetsyayla

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