By Peter Jennings
January 7, 2017
A striking feature of the New Year’s Day attack on Istanbul’s up-market Reina nightclub is that the still unnamed assailant wasn’t looking to end it with his own death. Instead he fled the scene — like the truck driver who killed visitors at a Christmas market in Berlin a few weeks earlier — perhaps intending to carry out more atrocities.
This is a worrying development. In the past two years most of the so-called Islamic State’s planned or inspired terror attacks ended with the attackers taking their own lives on purpose, by blowing themselves up or fighting until they were killed.
And this is still the overwhelming pattern of Islamic State attacks in Iraq. Assaults using suicide vests or vehicle bombs are on the upsurge in Baghdad and taking a terrible toll of civilian lives. Since November, more than 600 vehicle bombs have been driven at Iraqi forces attempting to retake Mosul.
There is still no shortage of individuals seeking martyrdom and the Islamic State leadership continues to use foreign fighters in that role. But after years of conflict there is now a cohort of savvy, battle-hardened fighters more interested in killing than being killed.
Reports about the Istanbul attacker suggest he behaved like a veteran of Islamic State’s savage style of fighting. He reloaded his weapon at least once in the nightclub, killed wounded people with shots to the head and calmly left the scene, catching a taxi. He also clearly has the skills to evade capture — at least for the moment.
There is speculation that the terrorist may be a Chinese Muslim Uighur who lived in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and had moved to Turkey last November with his wife after fighting in Syria. Islamic State operates a Uighur unit called the Turkistan Brigade, while a separate extremist group, the Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party, has fought against Syrian forces.
It may be that Turkey is reaping what it sowed. In the early stages of the Syrian civil war the government in Damascus claimed that Ankara facilitated the movement of Uighurs using false Turkish passports travelling from China via Malaysia to Turkey and crossing the border into Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Until last July’s abortive coup, the Turkish government saw value in at least passively supporting, if not covertly facilitating, anti-Assad extremist fighters. A weak Syria strengthened Ankara’s position relative to Iran, its long-term rival for regional influence. Tehran remains Assad’s key supporter.
In the past few months Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip has changed this approach. Russia’s engagement in the Syrian fight ended the prospect of toppling Assad. Turkey refocused on being part of a brokered ceasefire in Syria with Russia and Iran that allows a weak Assad regime to survive but limits the growing strength of Kurdish forces controlling much of Syria’s border area with Turkey.
This explains why Islamic State and presumably other Sunni Islamist extremist groups are looking to launch terror attacks against establishment targets in Turkey. These groups have lost a critically important entry point for foreign fighters who were able to enter Syria from Turkey.
Given this change in Turkey’s approach to Syria, it’s not surprising that Islamic State was quick to claim responsibility for the nightclub attack. It often claims to have inspired attacks launched by individuals, such as the truck attack in Nice in July last year.
But the shootings in Istanbul, in particular the way the attacker was able to move before and after the attack, have the appearance of a more closely planned terror exercise.
The implications for counter-terrorism operations around the world are profound. Last October, Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, declared that Islamic State was “going global” by moving away from its increasingly pressured position in Iraq and Syria and taking the fight into Europe and North Africa.
Whether or not Mosul is retaken soon by Iraqi forces, it seems likely that several Islamic State fighters and leaders have left the besieged city and regrouped in Syria, where they are less vulnerable to large-scale attack by ground forces.
The Istanbul incident and earlier attacks in Paris and Brussels show that fighters are moving into Europe. It’s clear that some of this movement has taken place under the cover of the broad flow of refugees displaced by the collapse of stable government in the Middle East and North Africa.
Turkey remains a critical frontline state in this crisis. Last November the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 2.764 million Syrians were registered in Turkey as refugees. Many more are in Turkey unregistered and the nightclub attacker’s reported movements show that the Turkey-Syria border remains porous.
It’s highly likely that there will be more terrorist attacks in Turkey. In Erdogan’s crackdown following last July’s failed coup, thousands of public servants and senior military figures were removed from their jobs. This weakened Turkey’s ability to mount a coherent counter-terrorism response to the risk of mass attacks.
Turkey’s problems certainly will affect Australians, with Anzac Day commemorations at Gallipoli a few short months away. The terrorist threat is likely to be even higher than last year, while Turkey’s ability to provide adequate security at the ceremonies has been degraded.
Across Europe the movement of refugees and their interactions with resident communities harbouring support for violent Islamist ideology creates a recruitment pool of people willing to commit acts of terrorism. If Iraq and Syria no longer attract fighters, these individuals will stage attacks at home at the behest of Islamic State leaders.
Into this mix we now have to add possibly hundreds of experienced fighters leaving Iraq and Syria, with the damaged psychology, training and capability required for mass attacks. As the Berlin Christmas market attack showed, Europe’s open borders and — to put it kindly — varying levels of counter-terrorism, policing and intelligence capabilities mean that much of the continent is vulnerable to attack.
This is likely to be the year in which European attachment to open borders comes to a dismal end. Liberal-minded western European populations soon will demand more effective policing and intelligence co-operation within the EU, a key part of which is more effective surveillance across borders of individuals already known to the authorities for extremist sympathies.
Southeast Asia also looks increasingly risky. Several hundred fighters left Malaysia, The Philippines and Indonesia for Syria, and several dozen have already returned. While Australia is heavily invested in counter-terrorism co-operation with key Southeast Asian partners since the Bali bombings, we should look much more closely at what must happen now to strengthen a regional approach to countering fighters returning from Iraq and Syria.
Australia is not immune to these negative trends. But we are blessed by our geography, by a painfully won bipartisanship on strong border controls and by effective policing and surveillance laws that remain under constant review. None of this is cause for complacency but we have a good counter-terrorism model to share and every reason to work more closely with European partners.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.