A leaked Turkish National Police intelligence report reveals alarm in Ankara about potential attacks by Islamic State sleeper cells across the country.
The police report, which was disclosed by Jane's Intelligence Weekly, warns of 3,000 operatives living in Turkey who are directly linked to the jihadist organization. The report also lists a number of vulnerable cities, including the country's political and cultural capitals of Ankara and Istanbul.
This threat was all too predictable. In an effort to bring down the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria, Turkey opened its southeastern border to a wide range of Syrian rebels beginning in 2011. As the war has dragged on, the fighters came to include jihadist groups like the Islamic State, which has since conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, as well as the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda official branch in Syria. Today, Turkey's 565-mile border with Syria is the transit point of choice for the illegal sale of Islamic State oil, the transfer of weapons to various fighting factions, and the flow of foreign fighters to jihadist groups of all stripes.
This problem is now more than four years old. Extremists have by now had ample time to establish infrastructure in Turkey to facilitate this illicit activity. In the process, they have also established cells and other logistical bases throughout the country. The Turkish National Police now seem to acknowledge this threat.
Turkish and America media have been reporting for months about Islamic State recruitment activity in Turkey. For example, a report by the Turkish daily Hurriyet from September 2014 identified Islamic State activities in cities such as Istanbul and Kocaeli in the western portion of the country, and Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Diyarbakir to the east. A New York Times report also detailed how the Islamic State was recruiting militants in Ankara, located in central Turkey.
The anti-AKP and Kemalist newspaper, Aydinlik, noted that Islamic State militants were operating in other towns, such as Konya, which is known for its conservative Islamic culture. As Newsweek explained, other conservative pockets in Turkey, such as Dilovasi neighborhood in Ankara, are particularly susceptible for recruitment.
One jarring metric is the raw number of Turks who have joined the Islamic State. Just last week, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that there are about 700 Turkish citizens fighting for the radical group. Without question, the Islamic State's ideology and recent expansion are luring many conservative Turks to fight. But financial inducements may also play a role; according to one New York Times report, the Islamic State offers $150 a day to Turkish recruits who agree to fight.
In addition, Turkey is home to many IS sympathizers. Ali Ediboglu, a Turkish opposition deputy, claims that "at least 1,000 Turkish nationals are helping ... foreign fighters sneak into Syria and Iraq to join ISIS." YouTube videos depict Islamic State gatherings in Istanbul and demonstrations of support by Turkish citizens for the jihadist fighters in Syria, including those with the Islamic State. Last fall, it was reported that some 20 people with black masks on their faces and bats in their hands attacked an Istanbul University demonstration against IS. The group, identified in the article as "Musluman Gencler" (Muslim Youth), reportedly returned to campus for more attacks.
There is also reason to fear the radicalization of Syrians living in Turkey. As a result of the civil war, Turkey is now home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and that number may be a low-ball estimate. Reports suggest that the Islamic State may be targeting young men and boys in refugee camps for recruitment.
Turkey recently had a glimpse of what the future could hold if the Islamic State launches concerted assaults on its territory. On January 6, a suicide bomber who attacked a police station in Istanbul's historic district of Sultanahmet is believed to have had ties to the Islamic State. As commentators noted, a spate of such attacks could do irreparable damage to Turkey's vital tourism sector, and sow fear into the hearts of Turks country-wide.
As the Janes report notes, the Islamic State also has much to lose by attacking Turkey. Indeed, the terror group benefits greatly from illicit oil sales to Turkey, the flow of foreign fighters, cash and weapons over the border into Syria, and a rather permissive environment in southeastern Turkey, where authorities don't seem terribly alarmed over the presence of extremists. The leaders of the Islamic State are also fully aware of the fact that Ankara has refused to play an active role in the US-led coalition that is now bombing Islamic State fighters. In fact, Turkey has refused to even allow its bases to be used for that purpose. The Islamic State would like to keep it that way.
This modus vivendi notwithstanding, the existence of Islamic State sympathizers and operatives inside the country puts Turkey at risk. The longer the conflict plays out in Syria, the higher the likelihood that Turkey gets dragged into it. If the Islamic State strikes back by activating its local assets, Ankara will only have its own policies to blame.