Small Wars Journal

Turkey Teetering on the Razor`s Edge of Terror: The Istanbul Ataturk Airport Attacks

Turkey Teetering on the Razor`s Edge of Terror: The Istanbul Ataturk Airport Attacks

Ozer Khalid

Since 2015, Turkey, a strategic NATO partner for the U.S. and the West in the war against terror, and a key ally to the EU in terms of intelligence, has been teetering on the razor`s edge of terror.

Turkey is under a Damoclean sword of gruesome suicide bombings, some attributed to ISIS and others claimed by Kurdish terrorists. Turkey finds herself torn between the devil and the deep blue sea, fending and fighting off both Kurdish terrorists and ISIS.

After Istanbul`s Ataturk airport attack it is likelier that Turkey will now strategically prioritize the ISIS security threat, giving it equal weight to both Kurdish terrorism and the dangers posed by the neighboring dictator Bashar al Assad.

Istanbul`s tragic attack bears broader geo-strategic implications. As Europe undergoes seismic political shifts, witnessed most recently by Britain`s departure from the EU, the Istanbul attack may scupper Turkey `s bid for future EU accession, already undermined by Boris Johnson and the fear-mongering Brexit `leave` campaigners, as nationalists throughout Europe will further feed the fear frenzy and use this tragic terror incident to highlight Turkey`s EU entry as a carte blanche for terror spill-over into mainland Europe, a continent already beset by unhealthy nationalism, insularity and intolerance.

During Ramadan this year ISIS spawned lethal attacks in Afghanistan, Kenya, Lebanon and took credit for Orlando as well, though there Omar Mateen`s Freudian self-hate and closeted sexual repression may have also come into play. What motivates ISIS to carry out such callous carnage in this Holy month of Ramadan, a month where Muslims are meant to stir  peaceful introspection, is to commemorate the third anniversary of Al-Baghdadi`s “faux-Caliphate”. Sadistic grandeur is their hallmark so ISIS needed to mark their anniversary with blood-letting. ISIS, contrary to original scripture, brain-wash their adherents into a Pavlovian conditioning to believe that sacrifice in this month is more Sacred.

The timing of the attack is strategically crucial. In a Ramadan message urging misguided “jihad”, Abu-Mohammed al-Adnani, ISIS` chief spokesman, instructed zealots to “aspire to battle in Ramadan not seeking anyone’s permission” saying this is “the month of conquest and jihad especially for Caliphate fighters in Europe and America.”

Turkey is ill-fatedly infested with an ISIS network, active since May 2015.  ISIS cells in Turkey operate from underground informal networks, and are well organized just as in Iraq and Syria. No one as yet has claimed responsibility for the Istanbul airport attack, but just like previous attacks in Suruc and Ankara, the style deployed, techniques used, and targets honed in on, the Istanbul attack bears typical ISIS characteristics, namely to strike simultaneously on multiple fronts, at high visibility sites stretching emergency services to the limit.

What distinguishes ISIS from other terror groups within Turkey such as the Kurdish PKK and the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) is that the latter strike more at "local" targets, often using vehicle based improvised explosive devices, where perpetrators tend to be females as they are less likely to arouse suspicion. ISIS, on the other hand, usually uses men, aim at international sites and transport hubs, as in Brussels, seeking to cause global shock and awe.

Many ask why ISIS targeted Turkey. Some believe that Ankara`s rapprochement with Tel Aviv, witnessed recently, irked ISIS into terror. Others state that Turkey`s mounting operation against ISIS forces, especially in areas like Manbij where Kurdish forces are gaining territory and traction, compels ISIS to reassert retaliation. As ISIS loses the territorial war they need to keep winning the propaganda war.

Istanbul Ataturk airport`s attack already brings far-reaching foreign policy changes. Today President Putin spoke to President Erdogan and bilaterally agreed to normalize trade ties, thawing the ice, ending the stalemate ever since the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian jet fighter. As Russia and Turkey patch up relations it is likelier that Turkey will rejoin coalition air strikes.

ISIS thirsts for recognition to keep fuelling their toxic global recruitment drive, both online and offline, as they face unprecedented territorial losses in the Northern Euphrates, in Fallujah, Qayyarah, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul and Northern Syria. Nobody wants to join “losers” especially given the liberation of Hit, the meaningful traction by Kurdish forces, and the intensified Western and Russian aerial campaigns.

So to preserve their recruitment and relevance, ISIS has to deviate attention from such territorial setbacks by inflicting gruesome attacks abroad, especially on “soft civilian targets” such as the Istanbul Ataturk airport as it provides instant sensationalist international publicity. Such atrocities keep ISIS in the media spotlight, intensifies their recruitment drive, propagates their divisive anti-western propaganda, and continues their image of initiative, of shocking, of reshaping the world – something they have done with alarming alacrity.