CEFTUS briefing on Turkey’s worsening security environment

The New Year’s Eve night club attack in Istanbul reflects Turkey’s worsening security environment and the aftermath its society’s widening divisions.

  • Islamic State (IS) claimed the New Year’s Eve night club attack, marking a possible escalation in the group’s activities in Turkey and a further blow to Turkey’s tourist industry.
  • This and other recent attacks have shown weaknesses in Turkey’s security services, possibly as a consequence of the post-coup purges.
  • Reactions in the aftermath of the attacks have demonstrated the divisions in Turkish society.

The attack on the Reina night club in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve comes amid an increased threat from Islamic State (IS) to Turkey and may mark the beginning of an escalation for the group there. It will likely further damage tourist numbers coming to the country. While IS is believed to have already orchestrated a number of attacks in the country, this is only the second it has claimed and it is the first it has claimed that did not directly target a political group.

Some analysts believe IS was, by targeting particular groups or by not claiming attacks, hoping to not damage its potential or existing support in Turkey. If so, and if this is no longer the case, the scale of its attacks may increase. IS, a radical Jihadi Salafi group, is understood to enjoy support among some groups in Turkey. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found around 8% of those surveyed in Turkey had a favourable opinion of IS. In 2015, IS’ attacks in Turkey were focused on pro-Kurdish left-wing groups in Turkey at political events. In the first half of 2016, the attacks attributed to IS were focused on foreign tourists. However, the second half of the year has seen attacks attributed to the group that were far more indiscriminate.

By targeting an expensive night club on New Year’s Eve, IS could still seek to present its actions to its sympathisers as not directly targeting the ‘humble and pious’. However, claiming an attack whose first victim was a Turkish police officer nonetheless marks a change and may herald an escalation. This thesis is reinforced by the group’s recent publication of a video of its murder of two captured Turkish soldiers, likely intended to scare members of Turkey’s armed forces, but which also was certain to cause outrage.

Amid these indications of a change in focus for IS, the speed and thoroughness of the initial police response to the attack have been criticised. The purges to Turkey’s security forces since last year’s attempted coup d’état may have inadvertently dented their effectiveness by removing experienced commanders. Similarly, questions have been raised as to the effectiveness of Turkey’s intelligence services, also purged, with high-profile attacks now occurring on a near-monthly basis. The Turkish government is likely racing to re-build lost experience within its security forces. Ongoing societal divisions may negatively impact the vigour with which the government can do so.

The aftermath of the attacks also brought out the ever-widening divisions within Turkish society. Some opposition pundits accused the government and pro-government media of having incited the attack through their campaign of criticising those celebrating New Year’s Eve and Christmas, calling these Western and non-Muslim traditions. Some pro-government pundits suggested Western involvement in the attack. A fashion designer was arrested and nearly lynched after having published a video insulting the government an hour after the attack. Some ultra-conservative pundits questioned calling the victims ‘martyrs’, as is typically done after such attacks, because they had, by being in a night club on New Year’s Eve, been acting irreligiously.

That this attack was another moment for recrimination between the increasingly polarised camps in Turkey’s politics, rather than a moment of unity, reflects the extent to which Turkey is now dangerously divided. IS is known for its strategizing and the attack was seemingly very well planned. It is possible the group was hoping to widen divisions.


4 January 2017

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