December 28, 2003 | Front Page Magazine

Symposium: Militant Islam vs. Turkey

Why has Turkey become a target of Islamists' Holy Jihad? Joining Frontpage Symposium to discuss this issue with us today, we are joined by:

Ersel Aydinli, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara and a former counter-terrorism officer with the Turkish National Police. He has a forthcoming book edited with James Rosenau, Paradigms in Transition: Globalization, Security and the Nation State (SUNY Press, 2004);

Ali Koknar, the owner of AMK Risk Management, a private security consultancy with offices in Washington, DC and Turkey, specializing in counter-terrorism and international organized crime, and providing risk assessment and security services for business involved in the Middle East, Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Ali contributed to the Turkish portion of Combating Terrorism: Strategies of Ten Countries, a book edited by Prof. Yonah Alexander Director of the Counterterrorism Center at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, with an introduction by former DCI, Jim Woolsey, and published by the University of Michigan Press;

Gerald Robbins, an Associate Scholar with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. He just returned from a visit to Turkey;

and Walid Phares, a Professor of Middle East Studies and Religious Conflict and a Terrorism expert with MSNBC.

FrontPage: Welcome to Frontpage Symposium gentlemen. Why are Islamic militants targeting Turkey in their latest terrorist attacks?

Koknar: Let us clarify our terms of reference before we address that question: Terrorists who profess to be Muslim, but are declared otherwise by mainstream Muslim theologians, on account of their acts which violate the fundamental tenets of Islam, are attacking Turkey. Those terrorists are attacking Turkey for a number of reasons some of which have not changed in the last two decades. First and foremost, Turkey, as the ONLY functioning multiparty parliamentary democracy under constitutionally protected secularism in a majority Muslim country, is a manifest denial of the perverted version of Islam which these terrorists are advocating. They need to make sure that the Turkish way of peaceful coexistence and tolerance of other religions, particularly of Judaism, which has been practiced for the last 500 years, ends. The terrorists are attempting to drive a wedge between the Turkish people and their legitimately elected government which maintains the Turkish national policy of strategic partnership with the United States and strategic alliance with Israel. They are trying to make this policy as costly for Turkey as possible.

It should also be emphasized that, while Turkey disallowed the transiting of the 4th Infantry Division via its territory in order to open the Northern Front in Iraq, it engaged in a number of activities, such as allowing the use of its airspace by Coalition aircraft and guided missiles, access via Turkey into Northern Iraq for US Special Forces and intelligence operatives, the logistic supply and medial/casualty evacuation of the aforementioned–which resulted in at least 1 US Special Forces NCO's life being saved after WIA in N.Iraq. Turkey also hosted Coalition aircraft making emergency landings at not only the joint US-Turkish Incirlik AFB, but at Turkish airbases close to Iraq, which evidence Turkey's collaboration with the US against Saddam's regime.

Robbins: There are varying theories.I believe that the most plausible one regards what Turkey represents to the Muslim world – a successful experiment in democratic secularism. This is anathema to Islamic fundamentalism's agenda, in which religious tolerance (the synagogue bombings) and Westernization (targeting Britain's diplomatic and commercial interests, namely due to London active role in Iraq and overall battle against Islamic extremism) are fair game. Such blasphemy trumped Turkey's non-committal stance towards Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Aydinli: I agree with the assertion that the biggest reason for Turkey being targeted has a lot to do with what Turkey presents as a political, sociological and cultural entity in this part of the world. As we all know, one of the largest goals of terrorism is to magnify the natural differences among the societies and groups so that the majority moderates who are generally builders and legitimizers of peace and stability would be forced to take a side along the lines of the radicals and radical ideas. From this perspective then, the bridging, uniting, and stabilizing image and mission of Turkey, which has even been multiplied by the existence of an Islamic-based government, is in complete opposition to the rhetoric, strategies and ultimate goals of Al Qaida-type radical Islamists organizations, including its well-connected local versions in Turkey. Obviously, these attacks are also an effort to put the Turkish government in a difficult position with its supposed hard-core constituency.

Phares: The international Jihadist movement, at the centre of which you have al-Qaida, considers the Turkish republican and secular institutions as one of their major enemies. Remember the words of Bin Laden in his November 2001 first video aired on al-Jazeera. He said the Muslim world was living in decline for over 80 years. What he meant was the abolishing of the Caliphate by the founder of the Turkish modern Republic, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. Hence, and in many writings by Jihadists around the world, the Turkish regime and institutions are made historically responsible for the disaster that struck the Muslim world as of the mid 1920s. In short, Turkey as political entity is a fundamental target in the eyes of the Jihadists worldwide. Ultimately the Turkish republic is to be dismantled at the hands of the Islamists. That is not a secret. However, till recently, Turkey was not a prime target on the Jihadist world calendar. The strikes in Istanbul, preceded by the attack against the Consulate in Baghdad are signaling a change in al-Qaida's battlefield priorities.

Per my analysis, al-Qaida's estimate is that Turkey's situation is ripe for explosion. In the mid 1990s, the Government of Prime Minster Najm ed din Arbakan introduced a brand of Islamism into the institutions of the Republic. Although the Army and the hard-core secularists managed to bring that cabinet down, the Islamist current continued to grow. Al-Qaida watched that growth and waited for the right time. After 9/11 and particularly after the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, the al-Qaida plan was to inflame the whole region and corner pro-US Government into making a choice. That is the case in Saudi Arabia and in Turkey. The recent al-Qaida attacks in these two countries, and particularly in Istanbul are about creating a wedge inside the Turkish society between Fundamentalists and secularists. Typical Jihadist strategy.

FP: Will Prime Minister Erdogan's Islamist background short-circuit his
government's full commitment to the battle against fundamentalist terrorism?

Koknar: Quite the contrary. Prime Minister Erdogan's Islamist background burdens him to project an especially tough stance on so-called “fundamentalist terrorism”. Given the overwhelming majority vote which elected this government to office, they have an opportunity, unprecedented in recent Turkish political history, to take radical decisions without having to make compromises in parliament. If anything, their Islamist background, providing them with more insight into those who claim to come from a similar background, should help them tackle Turkey's renewed terrorism problem.

PM Erdogan made a conscious effort to voice his opposition to these acts being labeled as “Islamic terrorism”–the exact same line of thought as that of President Bush, by the way–he also challenged the terrorists, whom some pundits claimed were sending a “message” to their “Islamist compatriot” to end their relations with the so-called “Axis of Evil”–the Western version–i.e. the United States, United Kingdom and Israel.

Robbins: The $64,000 question. It's important to note that Turkey's ruling party is a mixed bag of various and sundry political interests. In brief, it is more populist than Islamist – the rough equivalent of Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura joining forces to get rid of an ineffective political establishment. That being said, Islamist thinking plays an influential role in governmental policies. Prime Minister Erdogan comes from this particular camp, but after a year at the helm, the general consensus is that he's no true believer. The bombings have probably made him veer towards a more nationalistic outlook than Islamist one. That being said, he must be mindful of not alienating the Islamist wing in his administration, where the idea that November's bombings were either an American or Israeli plots are widely held. If Erdogan specifically repudiates this mind frame, it can rupture his party's unity and overall leadership. This dilemma has so far been averted rather than confronted in the bombings aftermath.

I'm not as sanguine as Ali that Mr. Erdogan has the wherewithal to stir parliament or even his party towards “radical” decisions. Yes, he has a parliamentary majority, but it's still comprised of factions that are often at cross purposes with each other. While the Prime Minister has shown political adeptness and an adaptability to circumstances that even surprises his critics, the Islamist element within his party isn't going to readily adhere, without much wrangling and possible rupture to the current parliamentary majority.

Koknar: So far Erdogan has played to appease the “right-of-the-center” Islamist elements in his party. Two examples would be the passage of the Amnesty Law, which was designed so that the Islamist terrorists would also qualify under it just like the PKK terrorists, and the recent issue of an executive regulation to expand the after-hours religious instruction to students. While minor squabbles, often behind closed doors, within his party are undeniable, I would not go so far to say that these could fragment the AKP's parliamentary majority anytime soon. Then again, I am no political scientist, but a humble security consultant.

Robbins: Frankly I'd rather be humble than considered a political scientist. Further subcategorizing my “mixed bag” metaphor for describing Mr. Erdogan's party, the Islamist wing does have its differences. They are however based more on subtleties than substance. I'm unable to see the manifest difference between a “right of center” Islamist viewpoint versus a “left of center” one, especially when it comes down to the dynamics behind the Amnesty Law or even the religious instruction issue. The intra-party squabbling with the Islamists can't be considered minor either -it played a noticeable role in last March's votes as to whether US forces should be allowed on Turkish soil.

Aydinli: I generally agree with Mr. Koknar in the sense that the Prime Minister will feel even more pressured to crack down on the Islamist radicals. The primary reason for this is that local versions of El Quaida-types present still an isolated minority and phenomenon. Large, Muslim, Ak-Party constituents think that these groups are either highly mis-educated about Islam and are therefore almost 'not Muslim', or, that they are being used by 'foreign elements'. In either case, this minority is largely excluded from the primary constituency, and Tayyip Erdogan will be supported by the majority in his crackdown on the terrorists. The government's strong use of the police is the best indication of their will to crack down. The extensive experience of the police with terrorism and even with these particular groups (recall that a few years ago the Turkish police captured the central data files belonging to the Turkish Hizbollah and crippled their structure) will prevent institutional hesitation, and will instead provide motivation to go ahead quickly.

Phares: Al-Qaida's planning is very meticulous. Since the Erdogan Government is seen with Fundamentalist inclinations but with policies that accommodate secularists and to a certain extent American and Israeli interests, it becomes a problem for the Jihadists. In the eyes of Bin Laden, the Erdogan Government is a moderate form of Fundamentalist. It needs to be challenged into a higher form of Jihadism. Hence, the strikes were basically aimed at provoking what they call a “thaghara” or a breach in the system.

FP: Did Turkey's Amnesty Law, recently passed this summer, pave the road to the bombings?

Koknar: The government's ability to enact radical decisions does not protect them from making mistakes. In my opinion, the so-called “Homecoming Law”, an amnesty statute passed earlier this year in Turkish parliament to allow for terrorists, (including the Islamic fundamentalists) to demobilize and return to civilian life while avoiding prosecution, was a mistake. Since the 1990s, Turkey enacted a series of so-called “Repentance Statutes”, with the same purpose. The previous attempts at best yielded meagre results in the form of terrorist-turned-informants.

A number of the suspects arrested, on charges stemming from the latest Istanbul bombings, have been discovered to have filed applications to qualify under the Amnesty Law, about which the Turkish military were worried from the get go.. They were found to have been previously associated with the Turkish Hizbullah, IBDA-C and Islamic Movement terrorist organizations.

The Amnesty Law was enacted and frankly, it has not achieved the purpose for which it was created, i.e., to drive a wedge between the PKK leadership and their 5,000 terrorists currently based in Northern Iraq and Iran. Very few rank-and-file PKK terrorists took the Turkish government up on their offer.

Robbins: It's possible that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. Formally known as the Repentance or Integration Law, the amnesty program was originally designed for the PKK, the Kurdish separatist groups that waged a civil war within Turkey costing 37,000 lives. The amnesty will last for a six month period (approximately ending in late January/early February), specifically targeting the rank and file, leadership excluded. Despite the opposition's warning that they were opening up Pandora's box, Erdogan's government broadened the scope to include Islamic (namely Turkish Hezbollah – no relation to the Arab version) as well as far left/right terrorists. A Parliamentary hearing which occurred shortly before the bombings revealed that a sizeable number of Islamic terrorists (431) were granted amnesty along with Kurdish separatists (551). It should be noted that the majority of PKK cadre – an estimated 3,000-5,000 – have not taken advantage of this offer. So far there has been no confirmed links between those pardoned and November's perpetrators, but there are deep suspicions that some of the former may have known about or even aided the terror operations.

Aydinli: I don't think the idea of the Amnesty was fully a mistake. Because it didn't produce the expected results–bringing the armed PKK terrorists down from the mountains–people tend to label it a mistake. I think the idea might have been good, but the law was bad. Anybody who would know about PKK type organizations should know that unless you provide incentives for the leadership to disarm themselves, no amount of incentives for the remaining cadres will be enough for them to 'liberate' themselves from such a brutally administered hierarchical structure. It simply doesn't work from bottom up.

In terms of the attacks, I think the preparation of the local versions of Al-Qaida far surpassed any possible effects of the Amnesty Law. The important thing is not 'who did it', but how such a potential came to exist–ideologically, logistically, and organizationally. All of this takes time to accumulate–we know, for example, that in the 1990s, Turkish radical Islamist groups were the most computerized and therefore internationally linked of all local terrorist organizations. Even if some of the perpetrators can be somehow linked to the amnesty, the other dimensions are clearly telling us that these groups have been educated and internationally trained for many years.

Phares: Turkey has developed an institution which has been slowly moving to its last steps towards full democracy. It is a very realistic model of a Muslim society developing its own path towards secular democracy. It also wishes to enter the European Union. Hence for many years it was put under pressures by the European to rehabilitate the “radicals” in Turkey. Among them the Kurdish Marxist militants and the other extremists on the left, and in the Islamist movement. The amnesty law came as a result of the Turkish attempt to meet Western standards. But let me add that the current Government was under pressures by the radical Islamists to release their own prisoners.

Ankara opened the bottle, and the Jinn is out. It won't be so different from what many Western countries do from time to time, with different procedures. Releasing the radicals while hoping they would settle. Egypt recently releases more than a 1,000 Jihad militant. But the difference between regimes such as Egypt and Syria with their authoritarian-rooted security services and countries such as Turkey, which are striving to act as Western, is exploited by al-Qaida. Therefore it doesn't surprise me at all that those who were behind the multiple attacks in Istanbul were among the released detainee.

FP: Were the recent Istanbul bombings sort of like a 9/11 wake-up call for the country?

Koknar: Turks have not experienced this form of urban terrorism since 1980, when the military coup then put an end to Turkey's “2nd Terrorism Wave” which had started in the mid-1970s. The “3rd Terrorism Wave” led by the PKK from the mid 1980s, was mostly a rural insurgency campaign. While urban Turkish watched it on television, they were not its primary targets. Since the arrest of the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, Turks have experienced a false sense of comfort, while the terrorists, not only the PKK, but Turkish Marxists and the Islamic fundamentalists have been continuing their operations. I would call the Istanbul bombings the beginning of Turkey's “4th Terrorism Wave”. It appears that this time around it may be led by the Wahhabis, who have relationships with the PKK, and oddly enough, with the Marxists. Turkish counter terrorism has been quite effective against the PKK's rural campaign. Fighting the terrorists who are at ease in the urban environment is a different, and decidedly more difficult task, which requires more sophisticated intelligence collection. This means another learning curve which the Turkish security forces must traverse.

Judging by the front pages of most Turkish dailies which sported pictures of the Istanbul skyline with newly built skyscrapers shrouded in dust and smoke emanating form the site of the HSBC country headquarters after the latest suicide bombing, somewhat similar to those pictures taken in and of downtown Manhattan on 9/11, I cannot imagine a Turk not living in a cave at present, who did not stop and think to himself “It can happen here and to us, too!”–no matter who they believed later was actually behind the terrorist acts.

Robbins: Not really from what I observed. Whereas 9/11 was a seminal event in the American psyche, Turks have become somewhat accustomed to terror bombings, compliments of the PKK and the occasional far Left campaigns. Call it stoicism, but it's a trait that was very perceptible in the immediate aftermath. That's not to say there was sorrow and anger, but most of the editorials that I read from major Turkish newspapers were surprisingly measured, projecting more shock than outrage. If there was outrage, it was misguidingly led by Leftist and Islamist rationale, namely directed at Bush's Iraq policy or alleged Mossad manipulations. Perhaps it was the suddenness of these attacks in the midst of Ramadan that caught the nation's emotions off-guard. A slow burn? Recent polls indicate that the majority of Turks now blame al-Qaida for what occurred along with the realization that their very precepts are being challenged.

Aydinli: I agree with Mr. Robbins on this one. I don't think Turks 'needed' a wake-up call on terrorism. Make no mistake, Turkey is a country that has always received a lion's share of every terrorism move–from ideological ones of the Cold War, to ethnically-based ones, and now, it appears, to religious-based ones. So, yes, the scope and type was shocking, but the uncovered atrocities (videotaped tortures and brutal killings) by similar groups a few years ago, were equally shocking. There is perhaps a kind of psychological preparedness that was not witnessed in the American case.

Phares: Dr Koknar calls it the “fourth wave” of Terrorism in Turkey. He has a point from the historical perspective. That is how Turks view the attacks. However we need to take the targeted sites in consideration. Although al-Qaida has somewhat declared war against Kemalism from ideological perspective. And although I believe that ultimately they would want to see Turkish blood in the streets, their last attacks were not aimed at Turks per se. Many Turks died and were injured, but the targeted “enemies” were Jews –even though citizens of Turkey- and British interests. We need to read al-Qaida's mind very well so that we can understand its message. It killed Jews and British, both infidels, to put pressure on the Turkish Muslim Government. As I described it in a piece lately, the dead were non Turkic but the real target was Ataturk's Republic.

FP: If you were appointed to give the Bush administration advice on the best policy it should pursue toward Turkey for the sake of making gains in the War on Terror, what would you say?

Phares: There is the short-term suggestion and the long term one. They are both based on geopolitical realities and historical ones as well. Turkey is a Muslim country which institutions are seriously secular. But its current Government is backed by a political coalition that ultimately wants to change that reality into a less secular and more Islamist identity. So what should Washington encourage while taking into consideration other issues such as the Kurds, Greeks and Armenians? Logically, I would encourage the President to establish a strategic dialogue with the secular and democratic establishment of Turkey over all the issues mentioned above. US-Turkish relations were based on Soviet containment till the 1990s. Now they should move towards spread of democracy and human rights in the region. They should develop into future policies in the region.

If this dialogue is successful, and Turkey's establishment commits towards liberal democracy, then Washington should lend all of its support to Ankara as a strategic ally in the Middle East and beyond. Turkey's seculars would engage in containing Fundamentalism, recognizing Kurdish identity, and settling crisis with the Greeks and the Armenians, and in return, the US would treat Turkey in similar terms as with Israel and support a continental role of Turkey all the way to central Asia.

If the American-Turkish dialogue create a breakthrough on the issues mentioned above, Washington would find in Ankara a major ally in the spread of modernization, democratization and security in one of the largest and most sensitive part of the world. Turkey would reclaim a major legacy in the Middle East. And the Muslim world would benefit from a major opportunity to follow an alternative to radical Fundamentalism. In sum, Turkey can -with US support- become one of the principal architects of the defeat of Jihadism in the region.

Short term, Turkey should be encouraged to take part in the campaign against Terrorism along with Iraq, Jordan and other local allies. Long term, Turkey should become a leader in the Turkish-speaking world in its march towards democratisation.

Robbins: There needs to be a changed perspective in U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey is still primarily defined by its geo-strategic location, but most of Washington's foreign policy mind frame is still ensconced in a Cold War outlook. Turkey's traditional role as the bulwark against a potential Soviet thrust to Persian Gulf oilfields or Mediterranean ports needs revamping. As the November bombings revealed, Turkey has become a major frontline in the War on Terror. Considering Turkey's Islamic background, the challenge is as much internal as fundamentalism's sponsorship from abroad. There's a discernible anti-Americanism running through the Turkish political spectrum -mainly due to cross-border fears from Operation Iraqi Freedom's aftermath, but also based in perceived U.S. arrogance towards cultural nuances and historical dilemmas. A revitalized public diplomacy is called for alongside counter terrorist strategies; battling this new threat with outmoded mechanisms will only exacerbate an already tense atmosphere.

Koknar: While my appointment is not likely to occur anytime soon, a few devastating AC130 Spectre gunship runs over the PKK/KADEK/KONGRA-GEL camps on the Qandil Mountain range in the northeastern section of Northern Iraq section inside the triangle where the Turkish/Iraqi and Iranian borders meet, would be a good start. Turks would perceived this as President Bush putting his money where his mouth is. It would cost the US next to nothing, as these aircraft are flying over Iraq nightly, at zero risk to US aircrews or equipment, as the Spectre is practically immune to any surface-to-air threat which the PKK might offer, while yielding a tremendous amount of goodwill from Turkey towards the US, instantly repairing the relationship between the two countries. You have heard of “gunboat diplomacy”. Well, here is an opportunity for “gunship diplomacy”!

Aydinli: Turkey would certainly be pleased by what Mr. Koknar suggests, but I doubt Bush would go for this advice knowing that American and much of the world public opinion is not going to distinguish easily between “good” Kurds and “bad” Kurds. Particularly in consideration of the current promotion of the Kurds as a new strategic partner in the region, such a move would not be looked on favorably. I think I would advise the Bush administration within a much larger framework and vision. With the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration is going to now adopt the position that this war is actually an early stage of a long-term global struggle against the roots of terrorism (in this case, getting rid of the dictators in order to initiate comforting transformations in these troubled regions) rather than just, for example, eradicating possible WMDs.

In such a case, it is obvious that this administration needs a stable Turkey. There are two major reasons for this: First, for the short-term anti-terrorism activities and for logistics of nation-building in the neighborhood. Second, and more importantly, for what Turkey represents ideologically and politically as an example of democracy plus Islam. Basically, therefore, I would recommend that Washington treat Turkey as valuable an ally as Britain. If this struggle turns into a new global containment of radical Islam, Turkey–particularly now with a moderate Islamic government–will become a key asset for the U.S.

Koknar: If what is going on in Iraq since last Spring is indeed a part of the global “War on Terror”, then the PKK may not be allowed to remain inside a country controlled by the US. Turkey, in the past has demonstrated that it has the means to eradicate the PKK camps in Northern Iraq. It can repeat that effort in case President Bush is not willing to let those AC130s fly. Having wiped out Ansar ul Islam (“bad” Kurds) bases in the very same neighborhood controlled by the PUK (“good” Kurds) earlier this year, I do not suppose that the American AC130 pilots will have too much trouble finding the right address in Northern Iraq.

Aydinli: What I am saying is that public opinion on 'Kurds' will have some bearing on American decision-making. In fact, the emerging image of the Kurds as virtually being 'saved by American involvement in Iraq' is going to make it even harder for the American government to ever turn to its public and easily explain the distinction between Kurds worth saving and Kurds worth bombing.

The Ansar ul Islam was punished due to its radical Islamic connections. Very few people in fact know of the group's Kurdish dimension. Ultimately, I think the issue is both about technical capacity (we are talking about a very dispersed group of 4,000-5,000 armed men in a mountainous region–think about the U.S. bombings in Afghanistan and their success rate) but perhaps more importantly about what it means politically. I doubt the U.S. would want to bomb any type of Kurd unless it was convinced of a big payback–and so far, that doesn't seem to be their impression.

Robbins: Undoubtedly the Kurdish issue is full of complexities that can easily veer away from the topic at hand. That being said, I think the Bush administration can readily distinguish between a “bad” PKK and as “good” PUK/KDP. The Kurds may have become America's new strategic partners due to a perceived Turkish reticence in the Iraq conflict, but the PKK's Marxist-Leninist advocacy would preclude a one size fits all diplomacy.

Furthermore, I sense that the United States has recognized over the past year by trail and error what Turkey's “red lines” are regarding the Kurdish issue. Proportionate to Prime Minister Erdogan's learning the art of statecraft, Washington's Kurdish education has largely been on the job training. Broad-brush interpretations will only further aggravate diplomatic ties. As for Mr. Aydinli's belief that with Saddam's capture, the Bush administration needs to adopt a much larger framework and vision in the fight against terrorism, doesn't that essentially correlate with the “Axis of Evil” philosophy?

Aydinli: With respect to whether adopting a much larger framework correlates with the “Axis of Evil” philosophy, when the latter was first introduced, its confrontational and divisive characteristics were perceived at the forefront–you're either with us or against us. My point is that now a larger framework with a cooperative, inclusive approach of mainstream moderates against much smaller, radical elements will have to be adopted. At the end, we should all remember that counter terrorism is about winning the larger societal support in order to isolate the bad guys.

FP: Ersel Aydinli, Ali Koknar, Gerald Robbins and Walid Phares, we are out of time. Thank you. It was a pleasure.