By Aykan Erdemir
July 9, 2016
The ISIS attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport hit Turkey at a difficult, yet hopeful time. The bombing came in the immediate aftermath of the Turkish government’s diplomatic U-turn that is the rapprochement with both Israel and Russia.
The Turkish people were hoping for some normalization in what has increasingly become a nerve-wrecking life.
Both of these deals were expected to bolster Turkey’s security and improve its standing in the region. The Istanbul attack, therefore, took place at an optimistic moment on the Turkish end, and caught Ankara off guard.
What made the latest attack doubly stinging, especially for Turkish security forces, but also the population at large, is that Turkish airports, similar to airports in Israel, are heavily guarded with two or three security perimeters.
Passengers need to go through screening before they can enter the terminal for their check-in.
ISIS Daring Turkey
By carrying out this attack against a well-protected target, ISIS, in a way, is daring Turkey by demonstrating that it can even get at hard targets in addition to soft targets.
This will have real and immediate effects, including on Turkey’s tourism industry, which is a very important component of Turkey’s overall economy.
The sector has taken a heavy hit following the downing of the Russian jet and the escalation of terror attacks. There were hopes that the recent deal with Russia would improve matters.
The attack in Istanbul will certainly make matters even worse for Turkey’s tourism sector. So ISIS will also inflict economic damage, in addition to having scored a symbolic victory by targeting the Atatürk Airport.
How to Respond?
The real question is how to respond. On the one hand, Ankara has made repeated calls for global cooperation against terrorism. On the other hand, when it comes to the home front, the Turkish state has been quite soft on jihadism.
In other words, the Turkish state has been very unforgiving in cracking down on all sorts of opposition, but not when it comes to jihadist groups including ISIS and Al-Nusra Front.
Until quite recently, ISIS could move quite freely in and out of Turkey. It had a large number of cells there, and received logistical support within the country.
Just a year ago, in Istanbul of all places, there were reports of an outdoor meeting organized by ISIS under the watch of the Turkish state.
This once again shows that while the Turkish government has been brutal in its crackdown on political dissidents, it has failed to be vigilant when it comes to ISIS.
Erdogan’s Ambivalent Role
In particular, it is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has seen jihadists, including ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, as a useful tool for toppling the Assad regime in Syria, as well as for counterbalancing Kurdish insurgents within Turkey and across the border.
There were ample warnings that this ill-fated strategy would lead to the gradual Pakistanisation of Turkey. Erdogan, however, assumed that he could turn on and off jihadist violence the way he saw fit.
Many Turkish lawmakers, including me, tried to caution the Turkish government saying jihadism, as we can see from Afghanistan and Pakistan, is not a tool that you can start and stop at your will.
You certainly can easily ignite and fuel the fires of jihadism, but from that point on, violent extremism has a mind of its own, and you never know when and whether it will stop.
Get Tough on ISIS Now?
Today, while Ankara seems much more sceptical about ISIS, I would argue that it’s quite late at this point.
ISIS seems to be entrenched in Turkey – it has cells, militants, sympathizer base, and has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to strike at targets across Turkey – in the Southeast, in the nation’s capital Ankara, and in different quarters of Istanbul.
This makes me conclude that Turkey will have to learn to live with ISIS, since there will not be a quick solution to the problem. It is an unfortunate prediction, but it seems that ISIS will continue to hit Turkish targets and take lives in the future.
Cracking Down On Others Yet Again?
Unperturbed, Erdogan will use this as an opportunity to tighten Turkey’s terror laws to crack down on what is considered to be terrorism, but all of this effort will not solely be focused on ISIS.
The Turkish president will use the opportunity to crack down even harder on dissidents. So this could be yet another excuse for Erdogan to tighten his hold on Turkish politics and society, and strengthen his one-man rule.
What about ISIS Itself?
What makes this attack – with overwhelmingly Turkish and Muslim casualties – surprising on the part of ISIS is that it has seen Turkey not only as a target but also as a fertile recruitment and breeding ground. This is why ISIS has always planned its attacks very carefully in Turkey.
ISIS doesn’t want to alienate wide sections of the Turkish society. There are polls that put favourable views of ISIS among the Turkish population at 8 percent, with an additional 19 percent failing to express unfavourable views.
In a country of 79 million, this is a significant amount and a substantial sympathizer base for ISIS to recruit from.
It will be interesting to see whether the Turkish public’s feelings will change following the Atatürk Airport attack.
Editor’s note: Adapted from the author’s interview in The Cipher Brief.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.