Originally Published 2003-12-23 12:41:32 Published on Dec 23, 2003
November 2003 was a black month for Turkey, which has been grappling with problems arising out of its geo-strategic location in the Middle East and its Islamic identity and its close proximity to the Western world. Even before the country could recover from the terrorist blasts outside the Beit Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul that killed 25 innocent civilians and wounded
Turkey- The New Target Of Pan-Islamic Jihadi Terrorism?
November 2003 was a black month for Turkey, which has been grappling with problems arising out of its geo-strategic location in the Middle East and its Islamic identity and its close proximity to the Western world. Even before the country could recover from the terrorist blasts outside the Beit Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul that killed 25 innocent civilians and wounded hundreds more on November 15, twin blasts rocked Istanbul once again killing another 30 civilians and wounding more than 500 on November 20. This time the London-based HSBC bank's headquarters at Istanbul and the local British Consulate were the targets of suicide truck bombs. The British Consul- General, Roger Short, was among those killed.

These terrorist attacks in Istanbul cannot be seen in isolation and have to be analysed in the context of the previous terrorist strikes in Indonesia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and the present wave of violent incidents in Iraq some of which involving suicide car bombs have been attributed to terrorists from outside. The attacks in most of these cases have been on Jewish people and interests and foreign nationals and have been carried out by suicide bombers with the help of car and truck bombs in the form of simultaneous attacks.

Ankara wasted no time to point the needle of suspicion at Al Qaeda, even though the Turkish militant group, the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders Front, (IBDA- C), had claimed responsibility for the attacks. The suspects, who have been arrested by the Turkish authorities, have reportedly spoken of some kind of an Al Qaeda involvement even though it is beyond doubt that the attacks could not have succeeded without local complicity. Both the key suspects have been identified as Turks and this belies the hitherto-held notion of Turks not being a part of the larger jihadi terrorist network, which has nationals from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Indonesia and other Muslim countries.

In the light of these observations, it is important to examine

  • The nature of these attacks
  • Why Turkey was chosen as a terrorist target?
  • What are the implications of these terrorist attacks?

The nature of the attacks

Kurdish separatists and the members of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia had carried out many terrorist strikes in the past. Turkish consulates abroad as also synagogues in Turkey have been the targets of terrorists belonging to the Armenian Secret Army, the Kurdistan People's Party (PKK) and the Abu Nidal Organisation. If one examines the history of terrorist attacks in Turkey, the November 2003 attacks would stand out for two reasons.

  • Firstly, most of the attacks in the past were in the form of assassination attempts on Turkish consulate personnel and Military Attaches in foreign countries and armed clashes between the Turkish army and the PKK and Armenian guerillas. An exception perhaps was the attack on a synagogue in Turkey in September 1986 by the Abu Nidal Organisation, which killed 21 people. Last month's attacks were clearly targeted against civilians.
  • Secondly, last month's attacks are different not only on account of the large number of civilian casualties, but also because of the modus operandi employed i.e. suicide bombings on the synagogues and a foreign consulate more like the terrorist attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 said to be the work of Al Qaeda. Clearly, these attacks speak of the possible presence of an international terrorist network in Turkey and are not simply the work of indigenous elements as has been the case in the past

Why Turkey?

Turkey is an anomaly in the Middle East. It is the only republican parliamentary democracy in the region with about 99.8% Sunni Muslims and the rest 0.2%, Christians and Jews. The ethnic composition is also largely dominated by Turks with Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Kurds and Jews as minorities. The country has retained its secular identity ever since the days of Kemal Ataturk.

Turkey has been an important member of the NATO and has a foreign policy that is supportive of Western ideas. In fact, it has skilfully avoided any dilemma arising out of its being a Muslim majority state in the Middle East and its proximity to the West not only in geographic but also in ideological terms due to its having a foreign policy which is largely in favour of the West, the US and Israel. The resulting anger of sections of the Turkish people, who favour pan-Islamic objectives and advocate jihad against the foreign presence in the region and who dislike Turkey's western leanings, found expression in the heinous acts of terror.

Consider this! The search during the American offensive to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan revealed an Al Qaeda presence in what was the former Taliban Defense Ministry building in Kabul. Near the door of the building was a seal that showed two Kalashnikov rifles below a copy of the holy Koran and the words, 'Jihad is our way'. A world map showed all Islamic countries except for Turkey, an American ally, painted in dark green. Clearly, Turkey was identified with the West and was not seen as a part of the jihadis' vision of a pan-Islamic world.

Turkey's relationship with Israel and the US has been criticized not only within the Islamic countries, but also, more recently, by sections of its own people. Turkey has been an important ally of the US and was one of the first countries to sympathize with the US after the September 11 terrorist strikes. Except for a brief period during the Johnson administration's lack of support to Turkey during its war with Greece over Cyprus, when relations between Turkey and the US were at an all time low, Turkey saw the Soviet Union as a threat to its own existence and was always supportive of the Western block This led to its membership of the NATO in 1952.

Turkey was also supportive of the US-led military action in Afghanistan and accorded blanket landing and over flight permission in its territory for coalition planes. It also contributed to the so-called war against terrorism through its leadership of the International Affairs Assistance Force in Kabul for a period from June 2002, which could have also angered Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist networks.

Turkey is also seeking the membership of the European Union (EU), another step to cement its bonding with the West. By December 2004, a decision in this regard is expected. Many EU members, however, fear that Turkey's admission could import the problems of the troubled Middle East directly into their region, causing security, political and even cultural concerns for Europe.

It is perhaps Turkey's position on Iraq that clearly brings out the conflict that exists in its domestic constituency over its foreign policy. Public opinion against Operation Iraqi Freedom compelled the Government to stay away from a direct military involvement in the conflict. The public anger against the US invasion of Iraq ultimately resulted in the Government's decision not to send its troops to Iraq.


Thus, it is Turkey's pro-West foreign policy that has perhaps made it a vulnerable target of terrorist groups with a pan-Islamic ideology and a transnational identity. The involvement of the local Turkish people in the recent attacks clearly suggests that it is not only the growing network of international jihadi terrorism, but also its local surrogates, which have been behind the explosions. Unhappiness with Turkey's pro-West and pro-Israel foreign policy and anger over the occupation of Iraq by the coalition troops seem to have been the main motivating factors. Apart from the two Turkish suspects of the November bombing who have been arrested, the Turkish police had detained four Turkish members of a group called the Union of Imams in April last year. It was suspected then that this group provided logistical support to Al-Qaeda.

The IBDA-C or the Great Eastern Raiders Front, which has claimed the responsibility for the November attacks, regards the Republic of Turkey as illegal and has often said that it would not hesitate to cooperate with other organizations, which share its objective of fighting against the present state of affairs in Turkey. Its propagandist overground actions include organizing meetings, conferences and exhibitions along with publications. The people who adopt the ideas of IBDA-C by reading its periodicals or books form groups and act independently. The organization has been known to undertake terrorist assignments for other groups. The possibility of its having acted as a surrogate of Al Qaeda cannot, therefore, be ruled out.

It is also the nature of secularism itself in Turkey which might have given an impetus to radical Islamic activities in the country undertaken by the IBDA-C and other such organizations. Turkey's leadership has retained its secular character through action against the traditional practices of Islam, like banning head scarves, calls to prayers and traditional madrassa education.

From the evidence available so far, it would be difficult to quantify the threat of jihadi terrorism to Turkey. It does not appear to be as yet widespread. Just because the terrorists have succeeded in carrying out some spectacular strikes involving a large number of civilian casualties, one should avoid over-estimating their strength, following and capability which could lead to over-reaction by the security forces, thereby driving more persons into the arms of the terrorists.

Evidence of the past links of some of the perpetrators of the terrorist strikes with jihadi elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan should be a matter of concern to the Turkish authorities. The fact that their intelligence agencies were unaware of these links and were completely taken by surprise by last month's explosions would show serious deficiencies in their intelligence and security apparatus. A question bothering them would be: Were these perpetrators only members of a small group or are they the tip of an iceberg? (23-12-03)

(The writer is a post-graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and, presently, a member of the staff of the International Terrorism Project of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). She is based in New Delhi. E-mail address: [email protected] )

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Observer Research Foundation.

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