The Reina Nightclub Attack and the Islamic State Threat to Turkey

17 Mar 2017

What does the New Year’s Eve terrorist attack against the Reina nightclub tell us about Turkey’s vulnerability to the so-called Islamic State (IS)? Ahmet Yayla believes a ‘nightmare scenario’ is imminent and it’s attributable to 1) the large clandestine IS network that already exists within the country; 2) the purging of experienced counterterrorism professionals from Turkey’s security services, especially since last July’s failed coup attempt; and 3) an expected influx of IS fighters, who may soon arrive en masse from Syria and Iraq.

This article was originally published in Volume 10, Issue 3 of the CTC Sentinel by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) in March 2017.

Abstract

The Reina nightclub attack in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve made clear the immense scale of the Islamic State threat to Turkey. Investigations have shed new light on the group’s command and control over sleeper operatives in Turkey and the large network of clandestine cells and logistical and financial support elements it has set up to sustain terrorist activity. Turkish government complacency has allowed the threat to grow, as have purges of experienced counterterrorism professionals, including those after last year’s failed coup. As the Islamic State shows signs of crumbling in Syria and Iraq, Turkey now faces a nightmare scenario of a mass influx of Islamic State fighters into its territory.

In the early hours of January 1, 2017, the Islamic State took the gloves fully off in its terrorist campaign against Turkey. A single gunman gained entry to the Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus, a famous haunt for celebrities and Western tourists, killing 39 and wounding 71 before escaping into the night. For the first time evera after a high-profile attack in Turkey, the Islamic State claimed responsibility, warning “the government of Turkey should know the blood of Muslims, which it is targeting with its plane and guns, will cause a fire in its home.”

On January 16, 2017, after a massive manhunt, the attacker—later identified as an Uzbek national named Abdulkadir Masharipov (alias Muhammed Horasani) from a small town in Kyrgyzstan with a predominantly Uzbeki population—was finally captured alive in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. Investigations revealed he had been directed to launch the attack by a senior Islamic State operative in Raqqa, Syria, and had been provided logistical and financial support in Istanbul by a large Islamic State network operating clandestinely in the city.

This article examines the Reina attack and subsequent investigations for implications on the Islamic State threat to Turkey. It then explores why the threat has grown so acutely in Turkey. Given its long border with Syria and Iraq, Turkey was always likely to experience blowback from the Syrian civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State as a quasi-terrorist state. This article argues, however, that government complacency over the threat allowed it to build a deeper presence and wider support inside Turkey. It will also explain how Turkish vulnerability to Islamic State terrorism has been accentuated by the removal of many experienced counterterrorism professionals following last year’s coup attempt. Finally, the article looks at how the threat to Turkey and Europe may evolve in the future.

The Reina Nightclub Plot

The Reina nightclub attack was carried out eight weeks after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for all-out war against Turkey. In an audio released on November 2, 2016, al-Baghdadi stated, “Turkey entered the zone of your operations, so attack it, destroy its security, and sow horror within it. Put it on your list of battlefields. Turkey entered the war with the Islamic State with cover and protection from Crusader jets.”

Al-Baghdadi was referring to the Turkish military incursion into northern Syria, which had been launched in the summer of 2016 and was then bearing down on the Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab. The Turkish push deeper into Islamic State-held territory from Jarabalus to al-Bab appears to have crossed a red line for the group. The Islamic State had previously pursued what one observer labeled a “calibrated strategy” against Turkey. This involved launching attacks aimed at fracture points in Turkish society without claiming responsibility so as not to lose its battle for hearts and minds or jeopardize its ability to use Turkey as a recruiting, financing, and logistics base. The fourth issue of the Rumiyah magazine, released on December 7, 2016, designated Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin as the two leaders “plotting against Islam together.” On December 22, in a significant escalation, the Islamic State released a video of two Turkish soldiers being burned to death.

Three days later, on Christmas day, the Islamic State activated Abdulkadir Masharipov, a sleeper operative in Turkey, and tasked him with carrying out an act of larger retaliation. Born in 1983, Masharipov graduated from Fergana State University in Uzbekistan with a major in physics and a minor in computer science. While much remains unclear about his jihadi path, Masharipov has been involved with jihadi terrorist organizations since 2011 according to information provided to Interpol by Uzbekistan, where he was a known terrorist and subject to a national arrest warrant. He spoke four languages: Uzbek, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. After his capture, Masharipov told police that he had received military training at an al-Qa`ida camp in Afghanistan after traveling there in 2010. At some later point, while he was in Pakistan, Masharipov became a member of the Islamic State, pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi.b

Bosphorus
A view of the Bosphorus in front of the Reina nightclub, one of Istanbul’s most exclusive party spots, early on January 1, 2017, after the New Year’s Eve attack. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

According to Masharipov’s subsequent account to interrogators, about a year before the Reina attack, he had been given orders by an Islamic State emir in Raqqa to travel to Turkey to establish himself, along with his wife and two children, in Konya—a city in the middle of Turkey—and await further orders. It is not clear how Masharipov established contact with the group in Syria. As no evidence has emerged that he ever traveled to Syria, it appears that at some point while he was in Pakistan, he established remote contact with the group’s leadership in Syria. According to his statement to police, after traveling from Pakistan, Masharipov was arrested inside Iran and detained there for over a month before Iranian authorities deported him in January 2016 across (a likely remote part of) the Iranian-Turkish border without informing the Turkish police or customs agents.

According to Masharipov’s testimony to the Turkish prosecutor, on December 25, 2016, he was directed, via the messaging app Telegram, by an Islamic State emir in Raqqa he knew as “Abu Shuhada” to launch an attack on New Year’s Eve in Istanbul. Abu Shuhada, Masharipov said, was responsible for Islamic State operations in Turkey. Masharipov added that he discussed the details of the attack and his plan with another commander in Raqqa, whom he knew by the alias “Rahova,” and later informed Abu Shuhada via Telegram that he was ready to carry out the attack.

After traveling with his wife and two children to Istanbul, Masharipov claimed he was provided an AK-47 assault rifle with six loaded magazines and three stun grenades before the attack by an Islamic State member, whose name was never made known to him.c The delivery was remotely arranged by Abu Shuhada and was dropped off at the apartment building “Medikule Residences” in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul, where Masharipov rented a room before the attack. In this residence, he readied his rifle, taped the ammunition magazines together into pairs to save time when changing them out during the impending attack, and then put all of his weapons into a backpack.

After his arrest, Masharipov provided the password to his email account to the police, and among his emails, the police found a “martyrdom” video he made, recorded by his wife, Zarina Nurullayeva, on December 27, 2016. In this video, Masharipov said he was going to carry out a suicide attack in the name of the Islamic State. He asked his children to behave well and not to upset their mother after he was gone, and he requested that his son grow up to become a suicide bomber just like him.

In the safe house where Masharipov was apprehended, the police also found a tablet computer. According to the prosecutor’s indictment, the police recovered a voice message from an emir in Raqqa, who appears to have been senior to Abu Shuhada. In his message sent to Masharipov, the senior emir gave his farewells to Masharipov and guaranteed him that his family was going to be well-taken care of, asking him not to worry about his family under any circumstances.

Masharipov’s target was Taksim Square in Istanbul, where a large public gathering was expected to welcome in the new year. At some point before setting out, he sent Abu Shuhada target reconnaissance video he had recorded in the square during daylight hours. He said Abu Shuhada then gave his approval over Telegram from Raqqa. Even before the Islamic State officially claimed the Reina attack, this footage—later labeled a “selfie video” by international media because Masharipov surreptitiously filmed the square while turning the camera on himself—was released on a pro-Islamic State Telegram account, which claimed the perpetrator “was a lion of the caliphate.”

But when Masharipov arrived at the square around midnight local time, he aborted the attack because there were too many police officers present. Using Telegram on his cell phone, he immediately communicated this decision back to Abu Shuhada and was told to look for an alternate target. Already familiar with the Reina nightclub and observing, as he passed by in a taxi, that it was not well protected, he reported to Abu Shuhada it could be a possible target. After Abu Shuhada confirmed Reina as the new target, Masharipov went back to his residence in Zeytinburnu to get his weapons and stun grenades and returned to Reina via taxi to carry out the attack.

“I entered Reina to die,” Masharipov later told interrogators. The way he carried out the attack made clear that he was a well-trained, experienced, and battle-hardened fighter.d He approached the entrance, killing the police officer located there without any hesitation and then entered the nightclub, spraying people with his automatic assault rifle. He remained calm as the revelers panicked and screamed, changing the magazines five times without any interruptions or apparent excitement. In total, he shot 180 rounds, killing and wounding his victims as many looked him in the eye.

“When I was out of bullets, I threw two stun grenades. I put the third one near my face to commit suicide, but I didn’t die. I survived. My purpose was not to fall hostage,” he later told Turkish investigators. After fleeing the nightclub, Masharipov evaded capture for more than two weeks. He was captured in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul on January 16, 2017, and detained and interrogated for 25 days before being charged.

During the interrogations, he claimed infidels had been his target. “I wanted to stage the attack on Christians in order to exact revenge on them for their acts committed all over the world,” he told an interrogator. He said that after the attack, he left Reina wounded because the stun grenade had exploded in his hand. He crawled out of the club through the front door, pretending that he was one of the victims. When the SWAT team officers arrived at the front gate, they believed Masharipov was one of the victims and handed him over to other police officers who pulled him out of the crowd toward the sidewalk from which he fled seconds later.

In the apartment building where Masharipov was captured, police found two aerial drones, two handguns, several cell phone SIM cards, and $197,000 in cash.

The Reina Attack Support Network

Subsequent investigations established that Masharipov was provided support on the ground in Istanbul by a large network. After the attack, Masharipov hid in five different safe houses before he was captured. He was apprehended along with three women (Dina, 27, from Senegal; Aysha M., 27, from Somalia; and Tene T., 26, an Egyptian-French citizen) as well as an Iraqi man. The women were allegedly also members of the Islamic State and sent as “gifts” to him after the attack. Masharipov claimed he first went to the Zincirlikuyu neighborhood to hide, meeting with a Uighur he had become acquainted with to get help and spend the night. Afterward, he went to Basaksehir to meet with another Islamic State cell, which resulted in the leader of the cell taking him and an Iraqi member of the group to a prearranged safe house. He was then transferred to another safe house, which was considered a more secure place in Esenyurt, where he was eventually captured.

Masharipov initially had had his son with him, but the boy was taken from him by an Islamic State member, according to Turkish court documents. Masharipov was allegedly told that his son would be given back to him when it was time to leave Istanbul. His wife subsequently claimed that their son was taken to Iran.

Masharipov’s wife was detained in an operation that captured 11 suspects on January 12, 2017. In her statement, Nurullayeva stated that her husband left their Istanbul lodgings three days before the attack and that she and their daughter were then transferred to an Islamic State safe house by Islamic State members. Nurullayeva and her two-year-old daughter stayed in hiding in such places as Basaksehir and Pendik in Istanbul. It was later revealed that Russian authorities had arrested Nurullayeva in 2011 on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization.e

The safe house where Masharipov was hiding when he was caught was supervised by a suspected Islamic State operative “Muaviye” (code name “Abdurrauf Sertin”), who was arrested on January 5, 2017, in a raid in Zeytinburnu, that netted several alleged key figures in the Islamic State’s network in Istanbul. Muaviye was allegedly supervising several safe houses in Istanbul.f Also arrested was “Abu Jihad” (alias “Yasser Mohammed Salem Radown”) the Islamic State’s alleged qadi (judge) for Istanbul.g Abu Jihad had been sent to Turkey by the group after serving as a qadi in different Islamic State territories. A third man arrested in the raid was Maitibake Tusunmaimaiti, an Islamic State operative who had been in touch with Masharipov before and after the attack. Tusunmaimaiti had $159,380 in his possession at the location where he was caught and was, according to the Turkish prosecutor, supervising Islamic State operatives based at 12 terrorist hideouts who were working to shelter foreign fighters in Istanbul. The police also found an additional $150,000 at a different house where Tusunmaimaiti was staying, revealing just how deep the financial pockets of the network supporting the Reina attack were.h Abdullah Türkistanli, a fourth operative caught in the same operation, was, according to a Turkish prosecutor, the emir in charge of Islamic State operatives based at 60 terrorist hideouts housing foreign fighters in Istanbul.

Based on the author’s research and personal experience investigating terrorist hideouts in Turkey, each location is typically manned by two to three armed fighters and is often protected with booby-traps. Typically only one individual in these micro-cells is responsible for communicating with his emir via encrypted messaging systems such as Signal or Telegram. By this arithmetic, a single emir like Türkistanli could have been overseeing over 100 fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Istanbul, which gives a sense of the scale of the group’s presence in Turkey’s largest city. Thus far, the investigations into the Reina attack have revealed that more than 50 individuals directly provided support to Masharipov before and after the attack.i Almost all of those arrested were from the Caucasus region and Central Asia, and many were Russian speakers. Police operations also revealed the presence of almost 100 safe houses operated by the Islamic State in Istanbul. An unknown number remain undiscovered. The investigations have also revealed just how cash rich the group is inside of Turkey. In total, just over $500,000 was confiscated by the authorities from the network linked to the attack, a clear indication of the priority given to international operations by Islamic State decision-makers.

The Islamic State’s Network in Turkey

The Istanbul-based network, which provided support to the Reina attacker, was just one part of a web of cells that the Islamic State maintains in Turkey. The group has thus far recruited around 3,000 active Turkish fighters in Syria and Iraq. It has also established a vast and sustainable network within Turkey through the involvement of mostly Turkish individuals, but also a significant number of foreign operatives. This network remains involved in recruitment activities; arranging and providing logistical support to Islamic State operations; financial operations; and the establishment of numerous terrorist cells and safe havens inside Turkey. No official numbers exist on the scale of the Islamic State presence in Turkey, and any estimates are very tentative. But based on the author’s research and data available on the number of terrorist hideouts in Turkey, there may be as many as 2,000 hardcore fighters loyal to the Islamic State inside Turkey.

The network in Turkey includes attack units composed of Turkish and foreign-established cells in different cities around the country, intelligence units (the emni), logistical support units, border units, communication, and finance units, and a variety of other sympathizers playing supportive roles. Most of these structures are overseen by city emirs who, in turn, report up to regional emirs. In contrast, the emni and attack cells are directly tied to the Islamic State’s center in Raqqa, Syria, rather than being linked to each other, making it impossible for them to give up information about other cells.

Selfie
Screen captures from the “selfie video” showing alleged Reina nightclub attacker Abdulkadir Masharipov in Taksim Square. The reconnaissance video, which Masharipov told interrogators he uploaded to his Islamic State handler in Raqqa, Syria, was first released on a pro-Islamic State Telegram account after the attack.

There are two types of cell structures working for the Islamic State in Turkey. The first are the local, Turkish cells, which tend to be more loose-knit and less experienced than the foreign cells based in Turkey. They have tended to carry out suicide bombings rather than gun attacks, likely because they are less experienced in urban warfare. One example was the “Dokumacı network,” which in 2015 carried out bombings in Diyarbakir, Suruc, and a Kurdish and opposition rally in Ankara, killing a total of over 130.

The second type of cell structure is composed of foreign fighters. They tend not to mix with the local cells and have, so far, been staffed mostly by fighters from Caucasus countries, including Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, as well as Uighur Turks and Central Asians from the former Soviet bloc. Almost all of these fighters speak Russian, making it easy for them to work together. Islamic State defectors interviewed by the author have said that the Caucasian contingent within the Islamic State has a reputation as being the most formidable of the group’s fighters. It is possible that the Islamic State has used these foreign fighters for attacks inside Turkey because they have fewer local ties, making it easier for them to be persuaded to launch attacks and operate clandestinely.

As has been outlined, Caucasian and Central Asian foreign fighters played a key role in the Reina nightclub attack. Operatives from the region also played a critical role in the gun and suicide bomb assault on Istanbul airport on June 28, 2016. This was carried out by two Russian citizens from Dagestan, Rakim Bulgarov and Vadim Osmanov, who entered the country legally a month before the attack; the identity of the third attacker and his country of origin has yet to be shared with the public. The mastermind of the attack was allegedly Akhmed Rajapovich Chatayev, a senior Chechen Islamic State commander who lived in Turkey between 2013 and 2015 and is believed to have previously worked to target Turkish interests, who continues to pose a threat to Turkey and other nations from Syria.

As illustrated by the Reina attack, the foreign cells also maintain a large number of safe houses in which to hide foreign Islamic State members. The safe houses are essential to the Islamic State’s efforts to move terrorists around the country and back and forth to the Islamic State territories. In the aftermath of the Reina attack, almost 100 Islamic State safe houses were uncovered, many of them in Istanbul. Istanbul has been the main location for Islamic State safe houses because it is the main arrival hub for foreign fighters. But the network of safe houses is spread across the country and is present in such major cities as Ankara, Izmir, Kocaeli, and Konya as well as the border towns of Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Kilis, and Hatay where foreign fighters hide and wait for their turn to be smuggled into Syria.

It has recently come to light that the Islamic State has also been operating training centers in Turkey. In early March, court filings revealed the Islamic State ran four separate training centers and schools in the towns of Sincan, Altındag, Etimesgut, and Çubuk in Ankara province, which were used to train Turkish youth to become Islamic State militants. The investigation into the Istanbul airport attack has revealed the Islamic State ran a training center, which airport attacker Vadim Osmanov attended. This center was used for the initial and entry-level training of foreign fighters coming to Turkey to join the Islamic State and also to arrange their transfers to Syria.

Islamic State activity in Turkey has taken a variety of other forms. As noted in reports by the European Union-funded Conflict Armament Research (CAR), “Turkey is the most important choke point for components used in the manufacture of IEDs” by the Islamic State. In fact, CAR reports assessed that Islamic State “forces source most of the products used in the manufacture of weapons and ammunition from the Turkish domestic market.” Similarly, thousands of Islamic State and other jihadi fighters—including one of al-Baghdadi’s deputies, Ahmet el-H—received free medical treatment in Sanliurfa and other Turkish cities. The Islamic State was also able to establish a secret factory in Turkey where it has produced a large number of uniforms for its fighters and hundreds of suicide vests, ensuring the uninterrupted flow of needed materials.

The Slow Turkish Response

The threat now facing Turkey is self-inflicted to some degree. The Islamic State was able to establish such an extensive network in Turkey because Turkey was complacent about the threat—for example, President Erdogan’s hesitancy to blame the Islamic State as the terrorist organization behind attacks until the June 2016 Istanbul airport attack. Ankara was prepared to tolerate a certain degree of Islamic State activity on its soil and on its border with Syria because it was seen as an enemy to the Assad regime and to Kurdish fighters linked to the PKK rather than a direct threat to Turkish national security. Another factor slowing the response to the Islamic State threat has been the long-held view by Turkey’s security establishment that the PKK is a greater threat to the country than Islamists. In 2014 and 2015, Turkey did not carry out a single pre-planned, intelligence-led counterterrorism operation on its soil against the Islamic State and other jihadi terrorist organizations. Even in 2016, when Turkey started treating the threat more seriously, counterterrorism operations were mostly launched in reaction to different terrorist incidents, and in most cases, suspects were released swiftly.

Until the beginning of 2016, Turkey did little to stop or interrupt the flow of foreign fighters going back and forth across the Turkish border, resulting in over 25,000 foreign fighters joining Islamic State ranks through this route.

As the civil war in Syria escalated, the author (who directed counterterrorism operations in the border town of Sanliurfa until 2014) witnessed firsthand Turkey’s southern borders being overwhelmed with refugees fleeing from Syria—over three million—who were let in regardless of their background. In fact, the influx of refugees was so overwhelming that it became a major security concern for border cities because of the opportunities it provided the Islamic State to infiltrate operatives into Turkey. Sanliurfa alone received more than 400,000 refugees in just 20 months. By the time it declared a caliphate in June 2014, the Islamic State was essentially the main southern neighbor of Turkey. In the months that followed, it strengthened its control of major border areas and thereby its ability to transport material and foreign fighter movements back and forth across the border.

The lack of full-throated condemnation of the Islamic State among Turkey’s political classj and the significant level of popular approval in Turkey for fighters confronting the Assad regime allowed the group to gain a degree of support inside Turkey. In 2015, public opinion research found eight percent of the Turkish population had a favorable opinion of the Islamic State. Islamic State supporters inside Turkey have openly celebrated attacks in the West, for example parading openly and tweeting in celebration after the July 2016 Nice truck attack. Even more disturbingly, as late as 2015, extremist preachers were allowed to organize gatherings for Islamic State supporters to openly support the group in front of the media. One aggressively pro-Islamic State Turkish preacher, Abu Hanzala, who lives openly in Turkey, can be heard on a YouTube video saying “anyone who supports the fight against ISIS, he is an infidel for sure.”

Although Ankara is now treating the threat from the Islamic State more seriously, the Turkish government’s current focus on countering domestic political opponents suggests it has not yet recognized the gravity of the situation.

Curtailed Counterterrorism Capacity

The Islamic State threat to Turkey has been exacerbated by a series of purges of experienced police and security officials that has seriously degraded Turkey’s counterterrorism capabilities. Following the sensational corruption charges against senior figures in then Prime Minister Erdogan’s party in December 2013, the ruling party moved to purge and arrest all of the police chiefs and officers, prosecutors and judges they perceived to be involved. Within the Turkish national police, senior officers in counterterrorism, intelligence, and organized crime divisions in the Istanbul Police Department were fired and replaced.

After the failed coup on July 15, 2016, the purges only accelerated. More than 125,000 government officials, including military officers, police officers, judges, prosecutors, and academics, were removed from office, of which almost 40,000 were arrested. The top ranks of the military were also targeted, with half of its active duty generals removed. The Turkish National Police lost more than 20,000 officers in the period since late 2013, including police chiefs and officers who had spent years in the field fighting terrorism; they were either fired or, in many cases, arrested. In the judiciary, a third of prosecutors and judges were fired and/or arrested, a number well over 4,000. All of this has resulted in Turkey losing its most experienced manpower and a great deal of institutional knowledge in the fight against terrorism as most of the newly appointed police have never worked in counterterrorism-related jobs and do not have the necessary skills and training.

The Future Threat

The Islamic State will likely expand its campaign of attacks in Turkey. In the fifth issue of the Rumiyah magazine, issued on January 6, 2017, the group stated the country’s NATO membership, secular governance, security operations against Islamic State operatives on Turkish soil, support for the Shi`a-dominated government in Baghdad, and incursion into Islamic State territory in Syria meant war.

The investigations into the Reina nightclub attack reveal just how large of a presence the Islamic State now has inside Turkey, with a network of 50 with access to half a million dollars proving support to the attacker. The group appears to currently have the capacity to wage a sustained campaign of terrorism in Turkey by ordering operatives already on Turkish soil to move forward with attacks and providing them with the financial and logistical assistance they need through support networks on the ground. Masharipov’s case shows how senior Islamic State operatives in Syria are now able to manage every aspect of terrorist attack planning through encrypted communications. This is allowing them not only to direct terrorist plotters like Masharipov in real time but also to arrange for weapons, supplies, and hiding places to be provided to such plotters. Such coordination has also been noted in the group’s terrorist plots against Europe, but the group’s large presence in Turkish cities means that it has a much larger support infrastructure there for terrorism.

The investigations also show there are true sleeper cells in Turkey with almost a year elapsing between Masharipov being dispatched to the country and the attack’s launch. During this time, he settled into a Turkish city with his wife and two children and kept no connections, as far as is known, to local Turkish cells. This high level of operational security is concerning to counterterrorism officials. There are likely dozens of known and unknown established cells throughout Turkey, with several likely awaiting activation by the Islamic State.

A sustained campaign of attacks by the Islamic State could lead to large-scale loss of life and significant damage to the Turkish economy. The targeting of a nightclub popular with foreigners suggests Western diplomatic, commercial facilities, and tourists could all emerge as primary targets.

The Islamic State still has a large support base among Turks, providing the group with continued recruitment opportunities and operational advantages, though it is possible a surge in attacks could create a backlash. Although the Islamic State has been pushed back from areas on the Turkish border, it will still likely be able to find ways to send operatives directly from Syria to carry out attacks. The Turkish counterterrorism apparatus has been critically damaged, crippling the police’s counterterrorism and intelligence departments and leaving Turkey vulnerable to a variety of future terrorist attacks. And the government has yet to make repairing that capability a priority, raising questions of its understanding of and commitment to tackling the Islamic State threat.

One possibility that should not be discounted, given the fighting between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, is fighting erupting between PKK supporters and Islamic State supporters inside Turkey as happened during the 1990s between the PKK and Turkish Hezbollah. It is also possible that the Islamic State and the PKK could independently and simultaneously decide to increase the frequency of their attacks in Turkey, taking advantage of the current situation and forcing Turkey to defend itself with poorly trained, inexperienced, and unprepared counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering forces.

The nightmare scenario for Turkey is a mass influx of Islamic State operatives across its border. As Iraqi forces advance in Mosul and coalition-backed forces push toward Raqqa, there is no question that many Islamic State members fleeing from these cities—including Syrians, Iraqis, Turks, and a variety of other nationals—will end up in Turkey, considerably increasing the likelihood of the establishment of new terrorist cells and new attacks. Several defectors the author has interviewed indicated that Islamic State commanders have decided in the worst case scenario to instruct their fighters to shave their beards and cut their hair to blend into societies in close proximity, with Turkey being the nearest. Syrian Islamic State fighters traveling to Turkey under such a scenario may be able to pass themselves off as refugees, given the country already has three million Syrian refugees. In such a scenario, the current Islamic State infrastructure in Turkey used to facilitate the transfer of foreign fighters from Europe, Asia, and Northern African countries to Syria through Turkey would likely be mobilized to reverse the direction of travel flows.

A surge in the number of Islamic State fighters inside Turkey could also threaten Europe, particularly given the significant number of those involved in Islamic State attacks and plots in Europe who traveled back through Turkey. Other countries around the world could also be threatened because of Istanbul’s many international air connections.

Turkey’s counterterrorism capacity is vital for both the country itself and the West, including European countries, NATO members, and even the United States. A failed or unsuccessful Turkish counterterrorism apparatus threatens not only Ankara but every European capital as well.   

Substantive Notes

a It was the second attack in Turkey that the Islamic State claimed. The first was a car bombing in southeastern Turkey in November 2016. Tim Arango, “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Istanbul Nightclub Attack,” New York Times, January 2, 2017.

b Masharipov’s wife, Zarina Nurullayeva, subsequently told police that Masharipov pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi during the period in which they were living in Pakistan. “ISIL told me they are taking my son to Iran: Istanbul nightclub attacker’s wife,” Hürriyet Daily News, February 7, 2017.

c The unknown Islamic State member who delivered the weapons was dressed in black cloth with a mask covering his face, but his eyes were reportedly indicative of someone from the Caucasus region. Yüksel Koç, “Reina saldırganı tutuklandı,” DHA, February 11, 2017.

d His “professionalism” was evidenced by his use of tracer ammunitions at the end of each magazine (as a reminder to reload the magazine) and his use of steelhead, armor-piercing ammunition. Pinar Hilal Balta, “Reina saldırganı ‘profesyonel’ olabilir,” Timeturk, January 7, 2017; Yüksel Koç, “Reina saldırganı tutuklandı,” DHA, February 11, 2017.

e Bakhtiiar Abdurashidov, an alleged Islamic State member who was arrested in the same operation that captured Nurullayeva, was accused of facilitating Masharipov’s transfer to the Pendik safe house. Two other suspects, Adili Salumi and Islam Magomedov, were accused of being watchmen for the safe house. Even though Salumi had been blacklisted as a terrorist and banned from entering Turkey, he had managed to enter the country illegally. “Reina saldırganının esi dahil 11 kisi tutuklandı,” Cumhuriyet, February 3, 2017.

f Islamic State safe houses are typically leased by individuals who do not reside in them.

g Ten foreigners in the process of being transferred to Syria were captured in the same raid. None of them had passports. “DEAS’ın ‘kadı’sı Ebu Cihad kod isimli Yasser Mohammed Salem Radown tutuklandı,” Habertürk, January 25, 2017.

h In the Istanbul operations targeting the network behind the Reina attack, more than $500,000 in cash has been recovered so far from the cells and safe houses raided, a clear indication of the steady flow of cash for operations.

i More than 50 terrorists were arrested due to their ties with the Reina attack, and the police took legal action against 168 foreigners in a larger net. Angela Dewan and Emily Smith, “Istanbul nightclub attack suspect confesses, governor says,” CNN, January 17, 2017.

j For example, Prime Minister Ahmet Davudoglu referred to the Islamic State as a “bunch of frustrated young guys” and failed to condemn them in public speeches. “Davutoglu ISID’e yine ‘terörist’ diyemedi, ‘mesrulastırıcı’ laflar etti,” Diken, August 7, 2014.

About the Author

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University and a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. He formerly served as Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Harran University in Turkey and as the Chief of the Public Order and Crime Prevention Department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa.

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30.03.2017
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