ISIS Sleeper Cells in TurkeyFebruary 3, 2015 in ISIS, Islamic State, Turkey
3 February- Information leaked from a Turkish National Police intelligence has divulged a threat of potential attacks conducted by ISIS sleeper cells across the country. The police report gives warning of as many as 3,000 operatives living in Turkey who are directly associated with the terrorist group that has taken large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria. The report details a list of cities in Turkey that are vulnerable to attack, including the administrative and cultural capitals, Ankara, and Istanbul.
Turkey shares a 565 mile border with Syria. During the 2011 Syrian uprising, Turkey opened its border to Syrian rebels in an effort to assist in the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al Assad. As the popular uprising metastasised into a civil war, fighters were able to travel between the nations’ borders. These included members of al-Qaeda affiliated group al Nusra Front, and the group which came to be known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The open border has provided a transit route for ISIS, which has been used to transport fighters, as well as black market oil and numerous weapons.
In the years since the 2011 uprising, extremists have established networks and infrastructure within Turkey that allows them to facilitate illegal activity. The group has reportedly established logistical bases in Turkey, and built a network of cells.
While the Turkish National Police are only now acknowledging this threat, Turkish and America media have been reporting for months about Islamic State recruitment activity in Turkey. In September 2014, the Turkish daily, Hurriyet, identified Islamic State activities in cities such as Istanbul and Kocaeli in the western portion of the country, and Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Diyarbakir to the east. Similarly, a New York Times report also detailed ISIS recruitment in Ankara, a report that was echoed in Newsweek which added that other conservative pockets in Turkey, such as the Dilovasi neighbourhood in Ankara are particularly susceptible for recruitment. Turkish daily newspaper Aydinlik noted that ISIS militants were operating in other towns, such as Konya, which is known for its conservative Islamic culture.
In January, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu acknowledged that there are approximately 700 Turkish nationals fighting for ISIS. Financial inducements may play a role; a New York Times report suggests that ISIS offers $150 a day to Turkish recruits who agree to fight.
Further weakening Turkish security is the idea that Turkey may be home to ISIS sympathisers. Ali Ediboglu, a Turkish opposition deputy, claims that “at least 1,000 Turkish nationals are helping […] foreign fighters sneak into Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.” Videos have emerged of gatherings in Istanbul which proclaim support for fighters in Syria, including ISIS. In October 2014, police arrested three students who clashed with protestors at an anti-ISIS rally. Further, a group of 20 people referring to themselves as “Musluman Gencier” (Muslim Youth) interrupted an anti-ISIS demonstration at Istanbul University wearing black masks and wielding bats. The group has reportedly attacked the campus on more than one occasion.
In the midst of the civil war, Turkey has become home to at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees. There is reason to fear that among those numbers are some that could be susceptible to radicalisation. Intelligence reports have suggested that the ISIS may be targeting young men and boys in refugee camps for recruitment.
The impact of ISIS has already been felt in Turkey. On January 6, a suicide bomber attacked a police station in Istanbul’s historic district of Sultanahmet. The bomber is believed to have had ties to the Islamic State. Continued attacks could cause irreparable damage to Turkey’s vital tourism sector and create alarm throughout the nation. However, ISIS may not benefit from targeting Turkey. The group has become reliant on the relatively open border and illicit oil sales in the nation. South-eastern Turkey has a “rather permissive environment” where “authorities don’t seem terribly alarmed over the presence of extremists”. Further, despite the nation’s proximity to the fighting, the Turkish government has not played an active role in the US-led coalition to eradicate ISIS. Turkey has refused to allow its military bases to be used for coalition operations. However the number of ISIS sympathisers and operatives within Turkish borders puts the country at risk. If Ankara decides to take a harsher stance against ISIS, it is likely that the terrorist group could activate cells within the nation. Turkey will need to tread carefully to take a concerted stance against ISIS while ensuring its national security.