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IS terror in Istanbul: a new phase of attacks

No one has claimed responsibility for the deadly suicide attack at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport. Middle Expert Serhat Erkmen says recent attacks indicate a new phase of Islamic State's terrorism strategy in Turkey.

There are a number of reasons why "Islamic State" ("IS") is carrying out terror attacks in Turkey, not least of which is Turkey's role as one of the most effective members of the coalition in the struggle against the militant organization.

Precautions taken at the border have made transportation difficult in territories controlled by the group, for example.

Turkey is also considered a supporter of opposition groups fighting IS in Syria. Not only is it providing logistic support to these groups, but it's also shelling IS positions, allowing opposition forces to advance in northern Aleppo.

Over the past year and a half, Turkey has become the stage for the most frequent and fatal foreign operations that IS could execute. Short-term political developments, such as Ankara's rapprochement with Israel and Russia, do not explain this problem: Tuesday's attack was different from previous ones and was far from being one that could be planned in a matter of days. It must have required complicated planning.

If anything, its occurrence just before the two-year anniversary of the Islamic State's caliphate points to a more long-term terrorism strategy by its propaganda mechanism.

For this reason, the attack at the Atatürk Airport should be interpreted as a new phase in the wave of the group's attacks in Turkey.

Türkei Anschlag am Flughafen in Istanbul

Attacks on Turkish soil have been on the rise since 2015

A wave of attacks

IS attacks on Turkey fall into two categories: those that have taken place on Turkish soil and those that have targeted Turkish interests on foreign soil. Up until this point, the Middle East country has sustained suicide attacks, rocket fire in reprisal for skirmishes at the border, assassinations, border raids, and combat with security forces. Beyond its own borders, it has been subjected to sieges, raids and hostage takings. From Turkey's perspective, the most dangerous aspect is the fact that each attack has changed shape and become more complicated.

The first bomb attack targeted an Istanbul police station on January 6, 2015. It was carried out by a woman of foreign origin. Later on, attacks were carried out against buildings belonging to and rallies held by the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) in the southeastern part of the country.

Nahost-Experte Serhat Erkmen

Serhat Erkmen

On July 20, a leftist youth-group looking to cross over into the border town of Kobane was attacked by a suicide bomber in the nearby town of Suruc. After this attack, Islamic State operations in Turkey took on a more complicated approach.

It also began turning its focus toward foreign tourists last October when it detonated a bomb that claimed over 100 lives in Ankara.

All the attacks indicate that the militant organization is able to gather information within Turkey and has a structure that receives direct commands. Rather than carrying out single attacks, the group appears to have cells focused on a number of targets. Furthermore, the types of attacks are not fixed. While last year's bombings took aim at Turkey's Syria policy and at domestic politics, more recent attacks have targeted foreigners.

With each attack, it appears the group is trying a new approach. Both an attack in the city of Gaziantep on May 1 and Tuesday night's bombing in Istanbul's Atatürk Airport were conducted against protected areas. The attack of Gaziantep's police headquarters with a bomb-loaded vehicle represented an important shift. However, it seems that the attack at Atatürk Airport is the first time that a "suicide fighter" was used. There are also similarities with its terrorist activities in Paris and in Brussels, indicating that IS is developing its network in Turkey.

Turkey: fertile ground for terrorism

Turkey is an easier target for IS than other countries for three reasons. The first is geographic proximity. Even if border security has increased, it is still possible for militants to cross into Turkey. The number of militants captured while crossing the border in recent months should not be seen as insignificant.

Türkei Anschlag am Flughafen in Istanbul

Foreigners have also become the target of IS terror in Turkey

Secondly, its recruitment within Turkey is on the rise. For a long time, the number of Turks joining IS was seen as negligible. However, in recent months, figures based on security sources indicate that that figure numbers into the thousands.

The third reason is that foreign IS fighters have become stuck in Turkey. It must not be forgotten that, due to security measures, there is a major group that can neither return to Syria, nor to their countries of origin.

There also appears to have been Syrian and Iraqi members of the group disguised as refugees in Turkey. In June alone, 61 people were taken into custody in operations against IS cells. Forty-three of them were of foreign origin. In May, this figure was only 46 out of 208.

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No end in sight

Islamic State has carried out four attacks this year alone, bringing the total number since 2015 to nine. In addition to this, it must not be forgotten that it has assassinated opposition journalists and launched rockets at cities along the border.

However, one must not solely focus on the attacks that were successfully carried out. In Istanbul alone, four attacks have been prevented over the past two months. Nearly 10 have been prevented throughout the country this year. Of course, these statistics come from open sources. There could have been a higher number of prevented attacks that security forces declined to announce for intelligence purposes.

What remains clear is that Islamic State is active in Turkey and is acting upon every opportunity to terrorize that government, its citizens and even foreigners. For this reason, it is not difficult to predict that the attacks will continue.

Serhat Erkmen works at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, where he heads Middle East and Africa Studies. Erkmen also teaches at the Ahi Evran University in Kirsehir.

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