In terrorist attacks from Baghdad to Brussels, the Islamic State has used a well-defined messaging strategy: First the bombs go off; then comes the propaganda blitz as the group claims credit for the attack as yet another sign of its divine providence.
But in the aftermath of a triple suicide bombing at the Istanbul airport that killed 41, the Islamic State’s propagandists have remained conspicuously quiet. Turkish officials immediately blamed the group for the massacre, but Islamic State media channels stayed quiet about the attack — as, in fact, they have after every strike on Turkish soil attributed to the group.
Terrorism experts say the Islamic State’s silence about its attacks in Turkey stems from a desire to maintain the support of its local sympathizers, to exploit the bitter conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish insurgents, and to undermine Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule as the Turkish president steps up his campaign against the group.
As Western-backed forces have made gains against the Islamic State and Turkey has tightened its border with Syria, the extremists loyal to the quasi-state headquartered in Raqqa, Syria, have turned to spectacular terror attacks to strike back at Ankara.
“Turkey has been cracking down on some of the transit of foreign fighters who are flowing into, as well as out of, Turkey, and they are part of the coalition providing support, allowing their territory to be used by coalition aircraft, so there are a lot of reasons why Daesh would want to strike back,” CIA Director John Brennan told Yahoo News on Wednesday, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Despite the lack of a claim of responsibility, there is strong reason to suspect that the Islamic State was responsible for the carnage. Kurdish militants have mostly struck military and law enforcement targets in Turkey. The use of suicide vests is a piece of trade craft more associated with the Islamic State, and the attack’s tactics — the targeting of an airport with multiple suicide bombs — carried echoes of Islamic State’s March massacre at the Brussels airport.
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time the group had battered Turkey. Since July 2015, Turkish officials have linked the Islamic State to several major suicide bombings in Turkey. In not one of those instances did the group claim responsibility.
By contrast, when Islamic State operatives carried out bombings in Paris and Brussels, the group’s propagandists rushed to claim credit for the bloodshed. After deadly bombings in Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, the group has touted its successes. When hangers-on carried out mass killings in the Islamic State’s name in Orlando, Florida, and San Bernardino, California, the Islamic State embraced the killers as their own.
In Turkey, the Islamic State retains some support among radicalized Turks, and that makes it hesitant to declare responsibility for its attacks there, said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent with extensive experience investigating al Qaeda. The Islamic State finds recruits in Turkey, raises funds there, and smuggles men and material across the border. “They don’t want to risk that by claiming responsibility,” Soufan said.
The Islamic State currently retains one access point to the Turkey-Syria border, said Ege Seckin, an analyst with the consultancy IHS Country Risk. Advances by Kurdish and Arab forces on the Syrian towns of Manbij and al-Bab threaten to cut the Islamic State off from that access route, and the Istanbul bombing may be an attempt by the group to warn the Turkish government against closing that route, Seckin said.
By avoiding any claim of responsibility, the Islamic State paves the way for Ankara to potentially blame the attack on its Kurdish adversaries. That could lead to Turkey’s ramping up its military campaign against the Kurds who are fighting — and making gains against — the Islamic State in northern Syria. The Islamic State seeks to exploit this fissure between Kurds and Turks to advance its agenda, said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kurdish gains against the Islamic State have caused panic in Ankara, which has fought a long-running civil war with the Kurdish separatist group PKK. Erdogan views the Kurds with deep suspicion and has refused to back their troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
Turkish security services in January said they had found a laptop at a safe house in Gaziantep belonging to an Islamic State operative, Yunus Durmaz. Documents on the laptop described plans for hitting 26 targets and outlined the group’s goals in the country: to inflame Turkey’s conflict with Kurdish rebels and to destabilize the country, said Aaron Stein, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“They’ve been successful at both,” Stein told Foreign Policy. “It appears to be in their best interest not to claim responsibility [for the attack] because it contributes to these underlying political goals that they have, which according to the documents is to create chaos and sow ethnic tensions within Turkey.”
Turkey has come under criticism repeatedly for failing to confront the Islamic State more forcefully as soon as the group appeared as a threat, and for leaving its border open to foreign fighters until two years ago. For Turkey, the priority was confronting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and countering any move that would empower Syrian Kurds on its border. That has put it at odds with Washington, which has tacitly signed off on Assad’s retaining power at least for the moment because the American priority is containing the Islamic State, not trying to cause regime change.
U.S. and European officials privately acknowledge that Turkey made itself vulnerable to attack from the Islamic State by tolerating the movement of foreign fighters across its border, as Ankara saw the volunteers as a means of toppling the Assad regime. Vice President Joe Biden once said that Erdogan admitted that his government had underestimated the threat posed by the Islamic State, recounting a conversation with the Turkish president.
“President Erdogan told me … ‘You were right. We let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border,’” Biden said in 2014. But the vice president had to walk back his comments and apologized to Erdogan over his remarks.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, said the Islamic State attacks represent “classic blowback” for Turkey’s policies.
“They made a bad bet,” said Schanzer, now vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They believed they could allow for Islamist and jihadi fighters to use that border rather freely to traffic in fighters as well as cash and weapons as a means to quickly bring down the Assad regime. They obviously failed to do that.”
Instead, the Islamic State built up a smuggling and recruitment network, taking advantage of an extremist web that had been set up by al Qaeda.
For veterans of the post-9/11 campaign against Islamist terror groups, Turkey’s attempt to play both sides of the war against the Islamic State bears a depressing resemblance to how other Western allies have tolerated jihadi groups and ideology to advance their interests. “We’re seeing history repeating itself. We saw it with Pakistan, and we saw it with Saudi Arabia,” Soufan said.
After the Islamic State kidnapped 49 Turkish diplomats in Iraq and held them for three months in 2014, Ankara’s approach began to shift. Turkey clamped down on the border that year and agreed in 2015 to allow the United States to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State from the sprawling Incirlik Air Base. The Islamic State responded by launching an escalating propaganda war and a bombing campaign in Turkey.
The group has been churning out a stream of Turkish-language videos and other propaganda material over the past 18 months, accusing Erdogan’s government of betraying Islam by cooperating with the United States and Iran. That propaganda has increasingly focused on Erdogan and has built expectations that the group will soon carry out an attack in Turkey, said Michael Smith, the COO of the security consultancy Kronos Advisory, who tracks jihadist propaganda.
“Because of the spectacle of this attack, the strategic calculus may be that this fundamentally helps them undermine confidence in the Erdogan government,” Smith said.
Before Tuesday’s attack, the Islamic State was suspected of orchestrating four bombings in Turkey since July 2015: one in Suruc near the Syrian border, two in Istanbul, and another in Ankara, which claimed 102 lives.
While Turkey has stepped up its fight against the Islamic State, launching artillery barrages at the militants along the Syrian border, it remains reluctant to send troops into Syria for a full-fledged ground operation.
Stein said Turkey has a formidable military but is wary of being dragged into a quagmire in Syria, where it would have to simultaneously take on the Islamic State, the Syrian regime, and Kurdish forces — with no clear way to exit the conflict.
“You’ll have Kurds shooting you in the back and ISIS shooting you in the face,” he said.
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