ISIS in Turkey

The government’s response has global consequences

By Ahmet S.Yayla, Ph.D., George Mason University

The Reina nightclub attack, which occurred in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey, and the counterterrorism operations after the attack provide valuable security lessons. The attacker, Abdulkadir Masharipov, spent a year in a sleeper cell in Konya, Turkey, before receiving orders from his emir in Raqqa, Syria, using the Telegram app. He not only carried out an attack in the name of ISIS, killing 39 people and wounding many others, but also dodged police scrutiny at the scene by pretending to be one of the victims. ISIS has a heavy presence in Turkey, with several established cells and safe havens, and it has been openly threatening Turkey since the al-Bab military campaign in Syria. Turkey is a bridge between the East and West, and the danger of Turkey becoming the gateway for European terrorist activity cannot be ignored. With ISIS starting to lose vast territories in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s capacity to counter terrorist threats and stem terrorist activity within its borders is critical for global security.

Terror and tolerance

Turkey has been afflicted by terrorism for a long time, costing over 40,000 lives in the past 40 years. When the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad began in 2011, Turkey was enjoying a statistically peaceful era, with the lowest number of causalities from terrorism in its recent history. However, this historically less-violent period quickly deteriorated due to new regional conflicts and Turkey’s flawed domestic and international policies. Turkish leaders considered the Syrian uprising to be an opportunity to further their interests in the region, and it effectively promoted a prompt regime change by supporting radical Salafist jihadist groups in Syria. In the beginning, this policy might have seemed appropriate because most Turkish support went to the Free Syrian Army, which was considered the foundation of the regional and local resistance. But radical Salafist jihadist groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat-al Nusrah (now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS), Ahrar al-Sham, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement and, ultimately, the Islamic State (ISIS), eventually received Turkish-facilitated assistance.

A bomb exploded near the homes of judges and prosecutors in a mainly Kurdish town in Sanliurfa province in southeastern Turkey in February 2017. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ISIS has been advancing its presence in Syria ever since. It declared a caliphate at the end of June 2014 and immediately started capturing major routes from Turkey to Syria, becoming Turkey’s new neighbor to the south and controlling some border gates and smuggling routes. As ISIS was becoming a major enemy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Assad, Turkey adopted a policy of nonintervention, allowing foreign fighters passing through to join ISIS and other radical groups in Syria. This policy has resulted in the passage of over 25,000 foreign fighters through Turkey and has allowed several radical groups to carry out their logistics and operations within Turkey’s borders.

Turkish support of ISIS has played a critical role in its operations. Had Turkey not been so tolerant of ISIS’ activities within its borders, including the recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, ISIS would not be as powerful as it is today. Enabled by Turkish policy, ISIS empowered itself beyond imagination in a very short period. Turkey and ISIS did not consider each other enemies, at least not openly, until the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army conducted the al-Bab offensive. Al-Bab was the turning point from which ISIS began openly targeting Turkey for attack in its magazines and through the statements of its leaders. The Turkish government did not label ISIS a terrorist organization until the beginning of 2016. Even after attacks in Turkey, then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu openly failed to call them terrorists, stating, “They are a bunch of frustrated young kids.” The relationship between Turkey and ISIS started to sour at the beginning of 2016, as Turkey reluctantly curtailed its support under pressure from the Obama administration.

Turkey began showing signs of domestic political and economic turmoil starting in 2014, mainly due to the Istanbul Police Department’s investigation of corruption and bribery allegations against the ruling party’s inner circles. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claiming the investigation was a coup against his rule, immediately started purging and firing police officers, chiefs, prosecutors and judges involved in the investigation. However, in New York, the United States Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation carried out a parallel investigation. It led to the March 2016 arrest of Reza Zarrab, one of the main suspects and detainees in the Istanbul investigation, on charges of conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, money laundering and bank fraud. The U.S. investigation and Zarrab’s arrest lent validity to the Istanbul investigation.

Throughout 2014 and 2015, the purges and arrests reached police departments across Turkey, replacing experienced counterterrorism, intelligence and organized crime divisions with new officers and chiefs loyal to Erdogan. Consequently, ongoing counterterrorism operations against ISIS, al-Qaida and other jihadist terrorist organizations were halted as newly appointed police officials focused on quashing any pending investigations of the politicians or people close to them. In fact, several police officers and prosecutors were arrested for investigating the flow of weapons and support operations provided to terrorist organizations, including the infamous Adana Highway scandal involving Turkish National Intelligence trucks carrying weapons to Syria and the Van Police Department’s operation of the local Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which supported terrorists through humanitarian relief activities. Because of these government crackdowns on police, there was not a single planned counterterrorism operation in Turkey during 2014 and 2015. The few operations carried out in 2016 were mostly in reaction to specific incidents, with detainees released shortly after capture.

Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab is detained in 2013 by Istanbul police investigating corruption, a chronic problem in Turkey.
Three years later, U.S. officials charged him with conspiring to evade sanctions against Iran, money laundering and bank fraud. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

However, the crippling of Turkey’s counterterrorism apparatus did not end there. When the July 15, 2016, coup attempt took place, Turkey immediately arrested thousands of experienced counterterrorism and intelligence officers, including its police, military, judges and prosecutors overseeing counterterrorism operations. This experience drain further crippled the counterterrorism and intelligence capacity, and terrorist attacks and associated casualties post-2014 have skyrocketed to more than quadruple the rate of the preceding few years.

ISIS took advantage of the political upheaval in Turkey after 2014, increasing its operations and establishing terrorist cells composed of Turkish and foreign ISIS members in Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Kayseri, Adana, Izmir, Gaziantep, Adiyaman, Sanliurfa, Sakarya and many other locations. Through these cells, ISIS recruited thousands of new members and sent at least 3,000 local fighters to Syria. In addition to recruitment activities, ISIS also established a wide network in Turkey to support its operations in Syria and Iraq. Through this network, ISIS was able to purchase vital materials and transport them to its territories. It contracted factories to produce materials, including missile heads for handmade weapons, explosives, chemicals, electronics for improvised explosive devices, four-wheel drive trucks, 60,000 uniforms, food, electronics and clothes. Ample evidence of these activities is included in recent European Union-funded Conflict Armament Research reports, with details of how Turkey and Turkish companies supported the production of ISIS weapons and explosives. In addition, ISIS was able to sell the oil it was producing in Syria and Iraq to Turkey. In fact, the 2016 release of personal emails of Turkish Oil Minister Berat Albayrak — who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law — prove that previous allegations about transferring and selling ISIS oil were true.

In addition to ISIS gaining strength in Turkey and along its borders, 3 million refugees have established themselves throughout the country. Due to Turkey’s open border policies for Syrian refugees, anyone fleeing Syria has been welcomed, given Syrian refugee identification and allowed to reside anywhere in Turkey. This migration has been a golden opportunity for ISIS, which has sent hundreds of Syrian ISIS members to Turkey to support ongoing logistical operations, collect intelligence about Turkey and ISIS’ enemies hiding in Turkey, transfer funds and carry out assassinations against ISIS enemies. An example is the double assassination in Sanliurfa of activists from Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group that works to expose atrocities committed by Assad and ISIS. Furthermore, terrorists have been sent to Turkey to receive free medical treatment.

The cells

While Turkish terrorist cells are essential to ISIS, the terror group has also established cells with foreign fighters in Turkey. The foreign cells consist mostly of terrorists from the Caucasus region, including Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, and from post-Soviet Central Asian countries, and also include Russian Turkic people and Uyghur Turks. These cells are led by the Caucasus Emirate of ISIS, Wilayah al-Qawqaz. The Qawqaz terrorists are battle-hardened, experienced and well trained before arriving in Turkey, having spent time on other fronts and sometimes with different jihadi terrorist organizations like al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Qawqaz fighters are the “special forces” of ISIS. In fact, several ISIS defectors have said Qawqaz fighters, especially the Chechens, Kazaks and Uzbeks, are known for their discipline and brutality during attacks, and because of that they usually lead the battles with local Syrian fighters in support. While ISIS has used Turkish cell members mostly for suicide attacks, confrontational attacks have been delegated to the Qawqaz fighters. Caucasus Emirate cells conducted two major attacks in Turkey, including the assault on June 28, 2016, at Istanbul Atatürk Airport and the Reina nightclub attack. These two attacks killed 84 people and wounded over 300. The third formation of ISIS cells in Turkey consists of other foreign fighters, usually from Europe or, in some cases, North Africa. However, these cells mainly act as safe havens and are used to facilitate the transfer of foreign fighters.

The leadership and hierarchy of ISIS cells and establishments in Turkey vary. City-level emirs (commanders) lead the Turkish cell structure and the support base; there are also regional emirs and an emir in charge of all of Turkey. While the city and regional emirs reside in Turkey, the emir in charge of Turkey does not. In addition to this vertical hierarchy, there are individuals in charge of recruitment activities: dawah leaders (teachers of ideology and indoctrination), financial emirs, those who facilitate the passage of foreign fighters, border emirs, logistical support directors and facilitators, and zakat (almsgiving) collectors. While these leaders are tied to the Turkish emirate, the Qawqaz fighters and foreign cells are independent of the Turkey-based ISIS cells and do not communicate with them. Qawqaz fighters are chosen and assigned by the Caucasus Emirate of ISIS, and the respective emirs in Raqqa manage the foreign cells. This is a security measure so as not to expose the foreign cells in Turkey.

Victims are remembered outside the Reina nightclub in Turkey, where a terrorist killed 39 people early New Year’s Day in 2017. The attacker spent a year in Turkey before the assault. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Masharipov, the Reina nightclub attacker, said in his statement that he was sent to Turkey via Iran a year before the attack. He illegally crossed the border with his family and waited as a sleeper in Konya before being activated through orders sent from Raqqa. His emir in Raqqa provided weapons and hideout connections. When looking at Masharipov’s connections in Turkey before the attack, it is clear that all were foreigners — an indication of the strict separation of Turkish and foreign cells in Turkey, aimed to ensure the security of its networks by preventing leaks and ensuring the cells cannot knowingly or unknowingly reveal each other’s identities. It is also essential to understand that foreign fighters traveling through Turkey are not associated with any unrelated ISIS cell members; their passage is arranged by cells designated specifically for that purpose. These facilitating cells include both Turkish and foreign members who speak the language of the foreign fighters being transferred. Most of the time, these foreign fighters are asked to travel to border cities unless there are reasons for them to spend time in Turkey. They usually do not travel with other ISIS members and only meet with the designated ISIS members when necessary or when crossing borders illegally.


ISIS is a real threat to Turkey, Europe and the surrounding regions. The seriousness of this threat, with the ongoing political turmoil in Turkey, must be evaluated, especially considering that Turkey, a NATO country, has recently been forging closer ties with Russia. The risk of Turkey becoming a safe haven for terrorists cannot be dismissed, particulary when Turkey has suffered a considerable loss of its counterterrorism capacity and a 400 percent surge in terrorist attacks in recent years. Some of the former ISIS members interviewed at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism openly stated that, after losing major territories such as Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS fighters would shave off their beards and cut their hair to blend into society and continue terrorist activities. In fact, Turkey is one of the main conduits for fighters to disperse after a major defeat because they can still cross the borders with the help of smugglers. Several former ISIS members also reported that ISIS assigns people to countries where they would not attract as much attention based on their nationalities.

In light of this, Turkey is an attractive hub, currently hosting about 3 million Syrian refugees, and many Syrian ISIS members could easily hide among them. Even more alarming, based on the 2015 Pew Research survey, more than 6 million Turks out of a population of 78 million view ISIS favorably. While this number might have decreased due to recent attacks and the burning of two Turkish soldiers, it is obvious that the Turkish support base is vast and dispersed throughout the country, which enables ISIS to expect reliable support for future activities. While violent activity may be exclusive to cell members, it is essential to understand that the people who ideologically support ISIS in Turkey might be open to providing support and provisions, including financial and logistical support, hiding fugitives, or transporting weapons and fighters. Consequently, the existence of Turkish and foreign cells in Turkey and its vast support base for ISIS are major concerns not only for Turkey, but also for Europe, NATO and the U.S.

ISIS has been openly threatening Turkey as the al-Bab campaign continues. On February 3, 2017, ISIS asked its members in Turkey, through social media and Telegram chat channels, to carry out attacks against the police, military, tourists and Christians in the country, so it would be naive not to expect further attacks. Compounding the direct threat of ISIS attacks, Turkey has been going through a complicated crisis since the July 2016 coup attempt. It has lost more than 150,000 government officials, military personnel, police officers, judges and prosecutors. Over 90,000 officials were detained and almost 50,000 were arrested. The Turkish National Police experienced the largest setback, losing over 30,000 officers, including police chiefs and officers who spent years fighting terrorism. The Turkish military lost over half its active-duty generals and two-thirds of its F-16 pilots. And the judiciary was equally targeted, losing a third of its experienced prosecutors and judges across the country.

These purges and arrests have had significantly negative consequences. Turkey has lost its most experienced and well-trained people, as well as a great deal of wisdom in the fight against terrorism. All of these counterterrorism and intelligence officials were replaced with new officers who have no experience or training in counterterrorism. While this doesn’t mean that the newly appointed officers will not try to fight terrorism, it is a bitter fact that it will take years for the Turkish National Police and the Turkish military to regain the capacity and experience they had before the coup attempt and corruption investigations triggered the purge. The lost capacity will result in the loss of innocent lives and will put additional strain on European countries and the U.S. because Turkey’s ability to prevent the movement of terrorists across its borders has been degraded.

Winning the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not completely dismantle it. While it will certainly diminish its capacity, it might also cause a surge of attacks or unrest in neighboring countries first and then in the rest of the world. We must not forget that terrorist organizations are very patient; as with the Reina nightclub attacker, sleeper cells can be inactive for years without detection, making it possible for terrorist organizations to carry out surprise attacks. Target-hardening and prevention measures should be re-evaluated to make it harder for terrorists to carry out attacks. It is essential to acknowledge that Turkey is a potential gateway for foreign terrorists, especially ISIS, and Turkey’s success or failure in fighting terrorism is directly related to the security of the West and even the U.S. A diminished counterterrorism capacity in Turkey will result in more terror attacks in the West and chaos in the region.

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