Erdogan turns a blind eye to Turkey's terror threats

Erdogan turns a blind eye to Turkey's terror threats
5 min read
01 Jul, 2016
Comment: Until public perception of terrorism in Turkey shifts away from Kurdish militants and towards IS, Erdogan will not budge from wilfully ignoring the threat of IS, writes Yvo Fitzherbert
Seventeen bombs have been detonated on Turkish soil over the last year [AFP]
Following Tuesday's dreadful attack, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature, which lets friends know that you are safe through a status update. It is a simple mechanism to find out who may have suffered.

Some were angered by such a simplification of the complexities of terror threats in Turkey. "How could anyone feel safe in this country?" one friend asked, while pointing out he has no confidence in government to take the threat of Islamic extremism seriously. Another friend, was more defiant in her response: "I'm not safe, I'm not OK, I won't be OK, don't be OK!"

Three attackers are thought to have been involved in the coordinated attack inside Istanbul's Ataturk airport, which killed 43 people. Reports have emerged showing how the three men, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, opened fire before detonating their suicide vests when confronted by police officers. The whole rampage is thought to have lasted only a few minutes, while terrified passengers hid behind check-in desks and raced back towards the planes they had just disembarked from.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Turkish government imposed a broadcast ban on reporting on the attack. This was followed by the government rejecting a demand for an investigation of the attack. As a result, Turks - those who live in fear of such attacks - are given no answers, no explanations to soothe their fears. Instead, the government controls the narrative.

Diverting attention from the Islamist threat

Over the last year, Turkey has suffered immensely. Seventeen bombs have been detonated on Turkish soil over the last year, killing more than 300 people. The two culprits of such attacks have been Islamic State group (IS) and TAK, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). While TAK's preferred modus operandi is using car bombs against local targets, this attack has all the markings of an IS attack given their previous terrorist attack at Brussels airport, as well as their preference for suicide vests as a weapon.

it is clear that President Erdogan - just like his Western allies - did not take the threat of IS in Syria seriously enough

IS detonated two deadly bombs on pro-Kurdish rallies in Suruc and Ankara in 2015, killing more than 130 people. In 2016, there have now been three deadly attacks in Istanbul. All three Istanbul attacks have targeted foreigners: In January, a bomber detonated himself in the tourist district of Sultanahmet, killing 11 foreign tourists. In March, another bomb hit Istiklal Street in central Istanbul, killing five Israeli tourists. This bomb, while killing more Turks than foreigners, had very much an international target: The international terminal of Europe's third largest airport.

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With Turkey becoming increasingly vulnerable to IS terror attacks, it is clear that President Erdogan - just like his Western allies - did not take the threat of IS in Syria seriously enough. Erdogan is routinely accused of being soft on Islamic terror, turning a blind eye to the threat they pose. His determination to continue his campaign against Kurdish "terrorism", which he has vowed to pursue until "not one terrorist is left", only exacerbates this situation.

But Erdogan, for all his vices, never had any intention of unleashing such IS-inspired terror on his own citizens. His strategy simply backfired. With his relentless campaign against the Kurds in the south-east of the country, his priorities haven't changed. The ban on media and on an investigation is an attempt to divert public attention away from Islamic terrorism, and towards the terrorism of the PKK.

The reason Erdogan is eager to divert attention towards the terror of the PKK is clear: Historically, fighting the PKK has been an electoral winner in Turkey. When the pro-Kurdish HDP for the first time won 10% in last June's election - denying Erdogan the majority he craved - the President's response was to restart war with the PKK.

Erdogan's obsession with battling Kurdish militants was a ploy to gain the majority he so badly craved

With the breakdown of peace, terror was back on the table in Turkey. In the following November election, AKP clawed back a majority while HDP lost out. Erdogan needs Kurdish terror. It proved an extremely popular move among the country's nationalist voters. Thus, his unilateral obsession with defeating the PKK is a pragmatist strategy to hold on to support.

Likewise, for the majority of Turks, terrorism
is the PKK. The PKK are still considered more of a threat to the stability and to the sovereignty of Turkey than IS. However, IS's tactics in Turkey have changed. Rather than targeting anti-government, pro-Kurdish demonstrators as they did in 2015, all of their attacks in 2016 have been aimed at international targets, especially foreign tourists. This has hit Erdogan where it hurts and Turkey's tourism industry has plummeted.

Erdogan - spurred on by much of the electorate - will never prioritise the fight against Islamic extremism over the Kurdish militants

So is Erdogan really to blame for the rise of IS-related attacks? Erdogan is simply a populist. His obsession with battling Kurdish militants was a ploy to gain the majority he so badly craved. The Turkish public have indirectly encouraged Erdogan's blindness towards IS-linked terror, and until the public perception to terrorism in Turkey shifts away from the Kurds and towards IS, Erdogan will not budge from wilfully ignoring the threat of IS.

And, out of all this, IS profits. Knowing full well that Erdogan - spurred on by much of the electorate - will never prioritise the fight against Islamic extremism over the Kurdish militants, IS can continue to wreack havoc across Turkey with ease. How many more bombs will it take before Turkey understands the threat posed by IS?


Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.