Turkey's complicated history with terrorism

The Nato summit in Madrid falls on the anniversary of the 2016 deadly airport attack in Istanbul

Relatives of a victim of the Ataturk airport attack in June 2016 mourn in Istanbul during his funeral. AFP
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Six years ago this Tuesday three gunmen strolled into Terminal 2 of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and began shooting travellers standing in queues, perusing newsstands and heading to their gates. By the time two of the attackers had blown themselves up and the third was shot by security forces, some 45 people had been killed and more than 230 injured.

The assault marked ISIS’s fourth attack in Turkey that year, making it clear that Ankara faced a serious terror problem. But after a bloody coup attempt not three weeks later, Turkey reoriented its counter-terror efforts to focus on the group charged with the coup plot, the followers of exiled imam Fethullah Gulen, and many of other foes.

Within a few months, former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas was arrested along with more than a dozen other officials from the pro-Kurdish HDP, as Ankara’s vast purge swept up “problematic” Kurds along with countless Gulenists.

Today, Ankara’s opposition to Sweden and Finland joining Nato is about those same two groups, and it is fitting that the start of this year’s Nato summit falls on the anniversary of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Turkey’s history, highlighting the extent to which the gap in perspective has widened in the interim.

Terror has always been in the eye of the beholder, but with Turkey and the West it is like an MC Escher drawing. As detailed in this column a few weeks ago, Turkey’s primary complaint is Sweden’s willingness to embrace Kurdish politicians and sturdy support for Syrian Kurdish militants, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

The US and Europe have since 2015 been allied with the SDF, which played a key role in the defeat of ISIS and continues to help fight the terror group in Syria. Turkey views the SDF as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an armed insurgency in Turkey for decades and is, in turn, considered a terror group by the US and EU.

Just last week US coalition forces, probably guided by SDF intelligence, captured a top ISIS figure in an area of north-western Syria controlled by Turkey-backed extremist rebels. US forces had mounted assaults in the same area that led to the death of ISIS leaders earlier this year and in 2019.

But hold that thought. Ankara believes the mastermind of the failed 2016 coup is Gulen, who has been living in the US for decades. Turkey has repeatedly requested his extradition and Washington has repeatedly refused, arguing that the evidence is insufficient. To top it off, tens of thousands of Gulenists have in recent years fled Turkey and settled in a handful of EU states, such as Germany and Sweden, much to Ankara’s dismay.

Mr Erdogan has been mending regional fences in an effort to generate investment and good vibes

Thus, the US is not only allied with Turkey’s enemy in Syria, but by providing a place of refuge to Gulen, it is also protecting Turkey’s most wanted terrorist. Put another way, while the West protects A (Gulen) and works with B (Kurds) to pursue its top enemy C (ISIS), Turkey sees A and B as its two primary foes while occasionally hinting at co-operation with C. That this is now a serious hurdle for Nato should come as no surprise.

Let’s not forget the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia view the Islamist group as a terror outfit and the US has considered a similar move, but Turkey had until recently been a staunch supporter of the group and welcomed hundreds of Brothers exiled from Egypt.

Crippled by an economic crisis and soaring inflation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been mending regional fences in an effort to generate investment and good vibes for his ruling AKP, which is polling poorly in the lead-up to elections less than a year away.

As part of its regional rapprochement, Ankara has in the past year shut down a number of Brotherhood media outlets, but Istanbul still hosts the headquarters of Brotherhood-linked Hamas.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman separately visited Ankara last week. There was no public mention of Hamas or the Brotherhood, though Israel recently sent Ankara a list of Hamas members it wanted detained.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shake hands during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, June 22, 2022.  Saudi Crown Prince arrived in Ankara on Wednesday, making his first visit to Turkey following the slaying of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.  Saudi Arabia and Turkey press ahead with efforts to repair ties that were strained by Khashoggi's killing.  (AP Photo / Burhan Ozbilici)

Iran is the main foe of Israel and the Gulf powers, while Turkey maintains relatively friendly ties with the Islamist regime in Tehran. Yet the day before Mr Lapid’s visit, Turkish authorities arrested five Iranian nationals, charging them with plotting to kill Israeli citizens.

The week prior, Israel had warned its citizens against travelling to Turkey due to urgent terror threats, so the arrests seemed like a nod to Israel as the two moved to reinstate ambassadors a dozen years after they had been called home. Mr Erdogan welcomed Prince Mohammed to his presidential palace, and the Saudi royal reportedly expressed interest in buying Turkish drones.

Mr Erdogan is to meet with the leaders of Sweden and Finland in advance of this week’s summit, but the terrorism issue remains unresolved as Nato leaders descend on Brussels. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had a “good call” with the Turkish leader last Friday and said talks would continue this week.

It is unclear whether Ankara is looking for a sincere Nordic crackdown on Kurds and Gulenists, fishing for US defence concessions, or sending a signal to Moscow, which cites Nato expansion as the reason for its invasion of Ukraine.

Many have called for Russia to be officially labelled a terrorist state, but the West’s unprecedented sanctions on Moscow and Russian oligarchs amount to much the same. Turkey, like India and the Gulf powers, has refrained from joining the sanctions regime. Ankara maintains relatively friendly ties with Russia as well as Ukraine, which is why Turkey is now poised to negotiate the release of all that Ukrainian grain and may later be able to broker peace talks.

Turkey’s opposition to Sweden and Finland entering Nato has been widely denounced as a cynical ploy and a sign of its growing opposition to the western alliance. But the stance is of a piece with Ankara’s broader security policy, which is, now and then, beneficial to its supposed western allies.

Published: June 27, 2022, 4:00 PM