March 29, 2017 | Monograph

Islamic State Networks in Turkey

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The year 2016 was catastrophic for Turkey. At least 30 terror attacks across the country took more than 300 lives.[1] Ankara survived a bloody military coup attempt in July, which claimed the lives of an additional 290. In a massive purge that ensued, more than 100,000 civil servants, academics and journalists across the political spectrum were either sacked or detained.[2] The economy was downgraded by nearly all of the major credit-rating agencies.[3] The military formally joined the Syrian civil war, primarily to carve out a long-desired “safe zone” across the border. And, in a historic moment in December, a Turkish police officer assassinated the Russian ambassador to Ankara. Turkish citizens spent half of the year under a state of emergency, which is still in effect.

The nation rang in 2017 with another devastating terror attack, this time at an iconic Istanbul nightclub, Reina, on New Year’s Eve. The mass shooting killed 39 people, becoming the deadliest attack that the Islamic State (IS) ever claimed in Turkey,[4] and the eighth mass assault tied to the group since 2015.[5] More than 150 people, many of them tourists, have been killed by IS in Turkey in the last year alone.[6]

Following the Reina massacre, the parliament extended the state of emergency for another three months, the second extension since the July 15 coup attempt. Authorities arrested dozens of people and issued an immediate media ban – as they have after every crisis in Turkey, including the assassination of the Russian ambassador in December. Ankara also announced “all social media accounts are being monitored.”[7] But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s censorship of Turkish media and state of emergency measures have clearly failed to make Turkey safer. The widespread purges of the Turkish military and law enforcement officials have not helped.

To be sure, the Islamic State is just one of the groups that has targeted Turkey in the last two years. In December alone, Kurdish militants conducted three suicide attacks – twin bombings in Istanbul and another one in central Turkey – killing a combined 58 and wounding more than 150.[8]

The rise of renewed Kurdish radicalism was sadly predictable. In July 2015, Ankara’s peace talks with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terror organization, ended after a two-year ceasefire. The PKK has fought the Turkish state for four decades, but no Turkish government had ever negotiated with the group’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, before the AKP’s reign. The 2013 ceasefire had produced a period of unprecedented calm and socio-economic opportunity. Many younger-generation Kurds were infuriated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2015 change of heart vis-à-vis the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the country’s Kurdish conflict.

Since the so-called “solution process” ended in 2015, PKK-affiliated Kurds have carried their traditional guerilla warfare in Turkey’s southeast from the villages into the cities, and have detonated suicide vests in major Turkish cities including Ankara and Istanbul. Together with its offshoots, such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK),[9] the PKK has claimed more than 300 civilian lives in over 30 bombings since July 2015. Included among their targets was the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who survived the attack on his convoy in August but has received more threats since.[10]

Between the PKK and its more extreme affiliates in Turkey, Ankara has its hands full. But as both fights drag on, it seems increasingly clear that Turkey’s fight against Kurdish militants is steadily undermining its struggle against the Islamic State.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey’s indifference towards and even tacit support for IS and other jihadists battling the Kurds across its borders has alarmed its Western allies, particularly the United States. Knowingly or not, Turkey allowed IS and other jihadist groups to establish their cells in Istanbul, Ankara, and other Turkish cities near the Syrian frontier. Turkey’s own radical Islamists have proved easy for IS and other Syria-based jihadists from groups – such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, also formerly known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham – to recruit.

Beyond their physical networks in Turkey, the jihadists’ online presence in Turkish is growing. Indeed, social media has become the top recruiting platform for IS and other tech-savvy extremist groups. And while Turkey has imposed draconian media laws, Ankara’s online crackdown on jihadists remains relatively meek, with the AKP showing far greater alarm over anti-government expressions of political dissent.

Until 2015, militants had been preoccupied with the jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime (and all minority groups) in Syria, sparing the Turks for the large part. Mounting attacks over the last two years, however, make clear that is no longer the case. As Turkey’s territorial designs in northern Syria increasingly clash with those of IS, and the two sides engage in direct military combat with greater intensity, the Islamic State is increasingly inclined to punish the Turks at home. With residual IS networks now spread throughout the country, the worst for Turkey may be yet to come.

Ankara claims that it foiled nearly 350 terror plots last year. If true, that would be an outstanding achievement. But the amount of terror-related bloodshed Turkey has suffered in the last two years is jarring. The prospect of continued violence threatens the country’s security, as well as the stability of its neighbors and allies.

[1] Including the suicide bombers, the exact number of deaths for 2016 is 325, based on a tally of the figures listed in “Bir buçuk yılda 33 bombalı saldırıda 461 kişi hayatını kaybetti; 363’ü sivil (461 people, 363 civilians lost their lives in 33 bombings in a year and a half),” Diken (Turkey), December 12, 2016. (

[2] “Purge in Numbers,” Turkey Purge, February 2, 2017. (

[3] S&P and Moody’s downgraded Turkey’s ratings in 2016, while Fitch joined them on January 27, 2017. Mehreen Khan, “Turkey cut to junk by Fitch, losing last major investment-grade rating,” Financial Times (UK), January 27, 2017. (

[4] Thomas Jocelyn, “Islamic State Claims Responsibility for New Year’s Day Attack at Istanbul Nightclub,” FDD’s Long War Journal, January 2, 2017. (

[5] The bombing at a Diyarbakir police station on November 4, 2016, which killed 11 people, was claimed by both IS and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a Kurdish terror group in Turkey. Based on the target and location of the attack, the author ascribes the attack to TAK. See: Mahmut Bozarslan, “One bomb, three suspects: Who was behind latest Diyarbakir attack?” Al Monitor, November 13, 2016. (

[6] See Appendix I.

[7] “Numan Kurtulmuş’tan Sosyal Medya Uyarısı (Social Media Warning from Numan Kurtulmuş),” CNN Türk (Turkey), January 2, 2017. (

[8] Daren Butler, “Death toll in Istanbul bombings rises to 44: health minister,” Reuters, December 12, 2016. (; “Kayseri suicide bomber arrived from Kobane in Syria before attack,” Hürriyet Daily News (Turkey), December 19, 2016. (http://www.hü

[9] For a quick overview of TAK, see Aykan Erdemir, “PKK Offshoot Claims Ankara Attack,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 19, 2016. (

[10] “Turkish main opposition CHP leader survives PKK attack on motorcade,” Hürriyet Daily News (Turkey), August 25, 2016. (



Islamic State Jihadism Turkey