While the DAESH terrorist organization continues to lose territory and power in Syria and Iraq, it has increased the frequency of bombing attack in major cities. After Paris and the Brussels airport attack, last week DAESH terrorists targeted Istanbul's Atatürk International Airport, one of the world's busiest, and killed 44 people. While Turkey is still mourning the victims of last week's terrorist attack, Daily Sabah spoke with Dr. Murat Yeşiltaş, Director of Security Studies at Ankara's Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), who recently published a report titled "Enemy at the Border: Turkey's Fight against DAESH" and discussed DAESH changing strategies, trying to understand why Turkey has recently seen more frequent attacks by DAESH.
Murat Yeşiltaş (R) and Daily Sabah's Ali Ünal
Asked why Turkey is suffering more frequent attacks by DAESH, Dr. Yeşiltaş said that when Turkey started to take strict security measures and participate in international anti-DAESH coalitions, DAESH perceives Turkey as a huge threat. Dr. Yeşiltaş said that most of the countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran or Israel, are not perceived by DAESH as a threat. However the security measures employed by Turkey pose a serious threat for the terrorist organization.
Dr. Yeşiltaş said that Turkey is part of the war against DAESH as well as being on the frontlines. However, he stressed that Turkey's anti-DAESH policies made it a target. Yeşiltaş believes that Turkey has made great military contributions to this fight, and he warns that we should expect more attacks in those countries such as Turkey which cause the most damage to DAESH.
Daily Sabah: Since last year's Suruç attack, we have seen a change in DAESH strategies and types of attacks. How do you evaluate this change?
Dr. Murat Yeşiltaş:
When we look at DAESH attacks since their first attack in Turkey, the context is continually changing. At first, it was the conflict between DAESH and PKK, therefore the People's Protection Units (YPG), which spilled over into Turkey. The Suruç attack followed. Similarly, in the Ankara attack, which happened near the central train station, they targeted a certain ethnic group. Afterwards, there was a quick shift regarding their targets. In the Sultanahmet and Taksim attacks, they targeted foreigners. With their latest attack on Atatürk International Airport, there was once again a shift in their targets. This time their target was anyone and everyone, just to send a global message to all. Regarding this context, we can observe three changes in terrorist actions by DAESH. Firstly, there is a change in those who commit the heinous acts; a shift from using Turkish citizens to foreigners. Secondly, they do not only target Turkish citizens, their targets have become more global. Thirdly, they have changed their tactics, instead of using a single tactic, they now employ multiple tactics. The most recent attack incorporates all of these changes. The use of Kalashnikovs, grenades and bombs is the most significant change. Therefore we are seeing a gradual change in tactics and strategies by DAESH. I believe we can also say that DAESH has become a more tangible threat for Turkey.
DS: What is are your thoughts on the Istanbul airport attack, regarding its timing and location?
I think that we should focus on the fact that the airport was targeted. This is obviously a deliberate choice, as they didn't target any specific person or people. We have to ask how they decided on this, did the terrorists themselves take the initiative for this terrorist attack or whether they were copycats. I believe that they might be copycats, as they might have observed similar terrorist acts by other cells before deciding on such an act. This might be how their cells operate. Therefore the target is the most important aspect of this attack, which is connected with location, rather than timing.
DS: Do you see any similarities between the attack on the Brussels airport and the Istanbul airport?
Definitely, this was an act which imitated the attack on Brussels airport. It is highly probable that other countries may suffer similar attacks. While this attack is seemingly uncomplicated, it is actually planned. They fired on people to cause a panic and moved on to carry out their heinous act. Therefore their choice of location was deliberate.
DS: While DAESH continues to lose territory and power in Syria and Iraq, we are seeing an increase in their attacks on Europe and Turkey. Isn't this contradictory?
DAESH is a different kind of terrorist organization, as they possess territory and foreign fighters, thus a certain material power, as well as ideological power. When they start to lose their material power, they will resort to violence. These violent acts may be carried out either by their sympathizers or their militants. Therefore there aren't any contradictions. We should expect more attacks in the countries which cause the most damage to DAESH. Their ideology and sympathizers think that damaging DAESH means harming the caliphate and the core teachings of Islam. Thus the more they lose, the more they will attack. This is why Obama defined their strategy as "degrade and destroy."
DS: Is this why Turkey are suffering more frequent attacks by DAESH?
Turkey is at the center of all of these discussions. Firstly, Turkey was always a target. Secondly, when Turkey was not yet a part of the anti- DAESH coalition, , they were feeling more secure. Until 2013, no one knew what kind of an organization DAESH was and until last year, the coalition was not actively fighting against DAESH.
When Turkey started to take strict security measures and participate in international coalitions, it became a huge threat to DAESH. Most of the countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran or Israel, do not pose a threat to DAESH. However, Turkey, by employing security measures, poses a serious threat to them. Turkey has removed a 320-kilometer-long illegal pipeline, taken extreme measures against foreign fighters and carried out many operations to disrupt DAESH finances. All suspicious financial activities, such as receiving money from thousands of accounts, are monitored by the intelligence. Turkey's policies have disrupted their activities and in retaliation, they have increasingly targeted Turkey.
DS: The terrorist acts are yet to be claimed by DAESH. What are your thoughts on this?
This is one of the questions I think about constantly, but do not have an answer. We can assume certain things by looking at some connections. At first, DAESH didn't want Turkey to directly target them. When we look at their early publications, DAESH treaded carefully when talking about Turkey. Once Turkey started to become a more significant threat, they became sharp-tongued, while also starting to comment on terrorist acts. They have not claimed all seven attacks, but they have claimed assassinations of Syrian journalists.
We believe that they had an independent cell structure consisting of sym
pathizers. Later we discovered that most of the terrorists responsible for the attacks were people who fought in Syria and were trained there. We believe that most of the attacks carried out in Turkey are according to strict commands from their leadership, as well as the terrorist themselves taking initiatives.
DS: What are the nationalities of the terrorists who carried out attacks in Turkey?
They are of Turkish as well as foreign origin. At first, the attacks were carried out by Turkish citizens who had participated in the Syrian conflict. The people who return from war either integrate with their society, or they continue their terrorist acts. Statistics indicate that eight out of nine continue to participate in terrorist acts. This means that if these people are not killed during war and return to their country, they will cause serious issues. They may commit crime as a "lone wolf," or establish a terrorist cell, or even terrorize people for their own pleasure. The psychological aspects are very important, as no sane human being would willingly become a suicide bomber. Therefore, these should also be considered and the people returning from the Syrian war should be handled with care. They are a high-risk.
DS: According to a survey conducted by PEW Research, 8 percent of Turkey's population sympathizes with DAESH. How do you evaluate the comments that suggest there are approximately 6 million DAESH sympathizers in Turkey?
It is hard to pinpoint a number; however, it is possible to assume approximate numbers. There are 1,500 to 2,500 DAESH fighters from Turkey, which is about the average when compared with other countries. Turkey is not the country which contributes the most to DAESH.
When it comes to sympathizers, we should investigate social media. On social media, there is a certain community which sympathizes with DAESH and propagates on their behalf. This indicates that there is a target audience in Turkey to which DAESH conveys its messages, although it is unknown whether or not it is extensive. The most important aspect is what the target audience will do. There is a certain Salafist movement in Turkey; however, it is uncertain whether they will radicalize only on the discursive level, or actively support DAESH. Nevertheless, it is crucial to take into consideration these dynamics.
DS: How effective is the international coalition against DAESH, if we consider the gains? What should they do in order to become more effective?
The coalition's main aim was to stop DAESH from spreading, recover their lost territories with the help of local military forces and disrupt the finances of DAESH. The coalition has been active for almost two years now. Due to different circumstances, we have to evaluate their fight in Iraq and Syria separately. In Iraq, we can observe that the fight against DAESH is more successful as the local forces are more ambitious. However, it is not possible to say the same about Syria. There were only air raids which were carried out on very specific targets. These airstrikes mostly helped the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their armed wing, the YPG, to gain control over more territory, which was part of the U.S. strategy. This was one of the reasons why the coalition was not as successful in Syria. DAESH has to be fought with land forces, if it is intended to end DAESH. Moreover, there is a need for political resolution in Syria. As long as this remains unresolved, it is almost impossible that DAESH will lose ground. My greatest concern is that even if DAESH is eliminated, there is an underlying ideology which may survive, reforming itself in a different structure in different places.
DS: What is your opinion regarding Turkey's position in the coalition?
Turkey has always been a part of the fight against DAESH politically, but I believe that Turkey has contributed greatly by military participation in this fight. Turkey's participation has lowered the costs for military operations, while also making the coalition more effective and multinational. As the İncirlik Air Base is suitable for such task, with Turkey's participation, all countries of the coalition were able to participate in the airstrikes against DAESH. Turkey has become a part of this war, as well as being on the frontlines. Turkey has also fallen victim due to its anti-DAESH policies.
DS: You recently published a report titled "Enemy at the Border: Turkey's Fight against DAESH." Could you elaborate on this report?
In the suggestions section, we said that Turkey has to publish its national strategy against DAESH. This should not be only be a document about security measures; Turkey has to clearly define its policies on countering violent extremism. Turkey was a part of platforms about countering violent extremism, while recently transferring its chair on the Global Counterterrorism Forum. Turkey started a project called the Strong Cities Network. However, while being active in numerous international platforms, it was unable to procure its own strategy. There is a need for integration between institutions. Crucial institutions such as the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish National Police need to produce an integrated strategy against DAESH and radicalism. This is not only about DAESH, but about addressing every form of radicalization, including violent ethnic radicalization. The issue of people joining DAESH, along with extremist violence, must be investigated, and a policy to resolve this issue must be carried out. I believe that an institution or a research center which will coordinate this effort should be established. People such as journalists and foreign correspondents should be protected, as they are targets for assassination. Recently, an attack was carried against a journalist and he died in the hospital. It is obvious that DAESH is targeting them. All of these issues are crucial and they have to be addressed.