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The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence
Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence
Workers repair the damaged parts of the terminal building at Turkey's Istanbul Ataturk airport on 29 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid

In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

Turkey has blamed the so-called Islamic State (IS) for the triple suicide gun and bomb assault on Istanbul airport on 28 June that killed 45 people. Some of the gunmen had family links to Russia’s troubled North Caucasus, from where many people have moved to and through Turkey. More broadly, the assault brings into the open a struggle with IS that Turkey had hoped it could avoid. In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

How much do we know about the North Caucasus jihadists who carried out the Istanbul attacks and their links to Turkey?

Turkish police declared that two of the bombers are Russian citizens, at least one of them with links to the North Caucasus. According to the Turkish media, one or more had travelled to Turkey from Raqqa, one of the main strongholds of IS in northern Syria. It is not yet clear if they previously resided in Turkey.

The raid’s organiser is thought to be Akhmed Chataev (also known as Akhmad Shishani), a highly positioned Chechen in IS. Chataev had previously fought against Russia in Chechnya, where he was injured and lost one arm (for which he is better known as “One-handed Akhmed”), and subsequently fled the country in 2002. A year later he was granted asylum in Austria.

In 2007, he became a “representative”, recruiter and fundraiser in Europe for the newly founded Caucasus Emirate, a group loosely associated with al-Qaeda which used terrorist methods during operations in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2013, Chatayev swore allegiance to IS and reportedly played an important role in the incorporation of the North Caucasus jihadist groups into IS.

Since the nineteenth century, Muslims from the North Caucasus and other areas under Russian rule have moved or were forcefully resettled to Turkey in significant numbers. In the last decade, thousands more moved to Turkey to escape pressure from the Russian government. Most are North Caucasus Salafis, believers in a purist Sunni orthodoxy. The overwhelming majority of them are non-violent.

Why would persons from the North Caucasus take part in a terrorist attack against a mainly Turkish target like Istanbul airport?

There are many signs of rising Muslim radicalisation in the former Soviet space, not just in the North Caucasus but also in Russian cities and in Central Asia. This has resulted in young people travelling to IS, prompted by a wide array of grievances and motivations. These are not just fighters, but individuals and families seeking a different way of life.

For North Caucasians, ultra-radical ideology feeds on memories of brutal wars in Chechnya over the past two decades, heavy subsequent counter-insurgency operations across the region, unresolved intra-confessional and ethnic conflicts, social inequality, corruption, failing social services and lack of democratic procedures.

Istanbul became the main transit hub for jihadists who wanted to go to Syria. A first sign that this posed dangers to Turkey came when a female Dagestani suicide bomber staged an attack in Istanbul in January 2015, killing one police officer. After the attack on Istanbul airport, neighbourhood searches and arrests are now under way targeting North Caucasus and Central Asian communities all over the country.

Do you think the IS choice of attackers with links to the North Caucasus was deliberate?

The attackers’ identity could be coincidental, that is, the Russian-speakers could be just implementing the plan of IS commanders, without additional calculations. But in many places IS appears to be deliberately aggravating and exploiting divisions between communities. In Turkey, it has been working hard to radicalise the Russian-speaking communities, and has won over some, including several leaders. North Caucasus fighters are also highly valued in IS ranks.

The tactic of staging attacks with the aim of provoking state repression, which will then be a push-factor for new recruits – a common purpose of terrorist attacks in many places – has been used by jihadist groups in the North Caucasus for years. After the wave of arrests that followed the 2015 suicide bomb attack by a Dagestani woman, there was a new wave of recruitment to jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.

In recent months, Russia has reportedly given Turkey the names of those whom they suspect of fighting in or links with jihadist groups in Syria. Human rights organisations have received numerous complaints from the Russian Muslims in Turkey that Russia puts them on wanted lists on suspicion of involvement in the Middle East conflicts, but that they have never crossed the Syrian border. Turkish authorities have arrested a number of people from these lists, for instance when they came to extend their residence permits in Turkey. As a result many in North Caucasian communities in Turkey are afraid to extend their permits, which means they will become illegal and hence more vulnerable to recruiters. If Turkey starts to deport suspects to Russia, there could be a significant outflow from these communities to Syria.

How open is the conflict between Turkey and IS?

This is a conflict that Turkey did not want, but is becoming steadily more violent. Since July 2015, Turkey has also suffered six major bombings blamed on IS that have killed around 200 people. According to official figures, in the first five months of 2016, 989 individuals in Turkey were detained on suspicion of having links to IS, of whom 228 were arrested. The numbers were not broken down by national origin.

Also since January, apparent IS rocket attacks on Turkey’s border province of Kilis have killed more than twenty people. In response, the Turkish military has in recent months also engaged in heavily shelling of IS positions across the Syria border.

Since Turkey officially joined the coalition against IS in August 2015, it has become an explicit target of domestic IS mobilisation, IS leaders’ rhetoric and IS publications. In January, IS hardened its position toward Turkey, branding it as an “infidel” Muslim nation because of its secular democracy, calling its ruling pro-Islamic party a “hostile regime”, and using the word tağut to demonise a state that had supposedly “transgressed” the path of true faith. IS social media campaigns #tağutnedir (“what is tağut?”) and #tağut are in circulation since last September, and have recently focused on top officials like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Even so, Turkey remains a critical, informal logistical base for IS. One reason IS has not made claims of responsibility for its apparent attacks in Turkey may be that the group hopes to dodge or mitigate Turkish reactions, and to give more space to a small minority of Turkish Sunni Muslims who may support or sympathise with it. It needs to protect its access to the outside world as it faces mounting challenges on its southern fronts. According to Turkish intelligence reports, sermons delivered in IS controlled mosques in Syria reveal that the Turkish towns and provinces of Gaziantep, Nizip, Karkamış and Kilis are among IS’s primary targets.

IS’s official propaganda magazine in Turkish, Konstantiniyye (“Constantinople”, an Ottoman-era name for Istanbul), has targeted the Turkish security forces. January’s edition opened with a section called “The Pharaoh’s Soldiers” that called members of the security forces “blasphemous”. Posts on the Konstantiniyye Twitter account have emphasised that IS will take action against soldiers or employees at any level of the Turkish military apparatus.

In Konstantiniyye’s April edition, IS adroitly tried to find favour in Turkish public opinion, which is traumatised by the past year’s upsurge in the three-decade-old conflict with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It highlighted what it said was a Turkish policy that “sacrifices soldiers to support the PKK in Syria” in the name of its Western allies while waging war against the PKK within its own borders. “There will be no rest for Turkey until the establishment of the Islamic State [in the country]”, the magazine said.

Turkey has seemed reluctant in the past to put all its resources in the fight against IS. Its main effort has been to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a principal domestic threat. Do you think this will change?

During the early years of the Syria war, Turkey tolerated many kinds of people transiting its territory to Syria, partly because it believed volunteer fighters would speed the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. Even if there was no active assistance from Ankara, this situation made life easier for IS.

Another reason for Ankara’s lack of overt hostility was that IS was locked in combat with Syrian Kurdish groups loyal to the PKK. Ankara perceives the PKK as its main enemy, especially since a ceasefire and peace talks broke down a year ago. Since then, fighting related to the PKK insurgency has killed at least 1,600 people, according to Crisis Group’s open source casualty tally.

For sure, the Istanbul airport attack is notable for being the IS action most directly aimed at Turks or a Turkish institution so far. But if Turkey is going to turn toward an all-out focus on IS, it has not happened yet. In the days after the attack, there was still as much focus on PKK as on the IS in Turkey’s official statements. Ankara’s discourse about the two terrorist organisations being the same is unchanged, with consistent criticism of its Western allies for applying double standards in urging a negotiated resolution to the PKK conflict. Turkey has even tried to use the international sympathy generated by the IS attack as a platform to draw attention to PKK-related attacks.

Given that some of the attackers may have links to Russia, what impact will the Istanbul airport attack have on the apparent warming of relations between Ankara and Moscow?

Since 2012, Moscow and Ankara have had deep differences over Syria. Russia firmly supports President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey resolutely opposes him. The relationship soured further in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border, and Russia reacted by imposing bans on trade and once-popular visits to Turkey by Russian tourists.

The two sides had already begun a rapprochement before the Istanbul airport attack, and the trend is likely to improve strongly. This is evidenced by a condolence call after the outrage from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Erdoğan and an end to Moscow’s Russian tourism ban. Russia is Turkey’s principal supplier of natural gas and a major trading partner, so this is a gain for Ankara, but wariness toward its historic regional rival will not disappear anytime soon.

It may be that IS chose suicide bombers from these nationalities to send a message to Ankara not to join Russia’s alliance with the regime in Damascus against them. But given Turkey’s feud with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that would be a long shot. Privately, officials are signalling that Ankara’s hard line against Assad may be changing, but this will be limited and not go so far as allying itself with Russia.

Where does the Istanbul airport attack leave Turkey?

The speed that Istanbul airport got back up and running symbolises the resilience of a country accustomed to crisis and conflict. But this comes after several years in which several pillars of Turkish prosperity have been badly damaged.

Political differences within Europe, democratic regression in Turkey and other factors have gravely undermined faith in Turkey’s European Union accession process, once a major locomotive of reform. The Syria war has tested both its longstanding alliance with the U.S. and also its formerly strong commercial partnership with Russia. Foreign investment and tourism have plummeted as turmoil has spilled over its borders with the Middle East. At the same time, Turkey has had to deploy massive resources to offer refuge and support to several million of people fleeing the conflict in Syria and beyond.

In short, Turkey will need all the hardiness it can muster to withstand the new front IS has opened against it.

Contributors

Former Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus
Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel
Analyst, Turkey
BerkayMANDIRACI
Burkinabé soldiers patrol the army's headquarters in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 3 March 2018, a day after dozens of people were killed in twin attacks on the French embassy and the country's military. AFP/Ahmed Ouoba
Commentary / Africa

Burkina Faso’s Alarming Escalation of Jihadist Violence

Attacks on the Burkina Faso army headquarters and the French Embassy on 2 March 2018 were better organised, involved heavier weapons and were more sustained than anything seen so far in Burkina Faso. In this Q&A, our West Africa Project Director Rinaldo Depagne says the jihadist assault further exposes worrying weakness in the Burkinabé security forces.

What do we know about the 2 March attacks in Ouagadougou?

The attacks represent an alarming escalation for Burkina Faso in terms of organisation, lethality of armaments and length of engagement. The attacks were claimed on 3 March by the Group to Support Muslims and Islam, known by its Arabic acronym JNIM, which is part of a wider coalition in the Sahel linked to al-Qaeda.

Operations were carried out by two groups of at least four to five assailants each. While the incidents were confined to the city center, they hit two symbolic targets at the heart of power in the country: the army headquarters and the French Embassy. The official death toll is sixteen, including nine assailants. Reliable sources indicated more than 30 dead. The number of wounded is around 85.

At the army headquarters, it seems up to five men in a vehicle either used a grenade or rocket-propelled grenade to blast their way through the entrance gate, where they then shot at soldiers in the courtyard and detonated a vehicle full of explosives by the main building. This version is confirmed by two different French and Burkinabé security sources.

Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina is now part of the wars of the [region].

At the French Embassy, a group of at least four men tried to force their way into the embassy. Unable to enter, they took up positions nearby and exchanged heavy fire with Burkinabé security forces. French soldiers, who have played a leading role in Burkina Faso’s security for decades, quickly reinforced the building with men lowered from helicopters. Shooting continued for several hours.

Burkinabé forces relied heavily on French support to respond to the attacks. A French military source told Crisis Group: “Burkinabé forces were crushed at the beginning. We helped them”. Even so, compared to the previous two attacks in Ouagadougou in 2016 and 2017, the response time and organisation of the reaction seem slightly improved.

Violence in the Sahel long seemed to spare Burkina Faso. How has Ouagadougou become a target?

It is not only Ouagadougou that has become a target; so has the north of the country. Long spared by the Sahel’s armed groups, Burkina is now part of the wars of the Sahel.

Since January 2016, the country has experienced several deadly attacks from regional and international terrorist networks. Nineteen people were killed and 25 others injured when suspected jihadists opened fire on a Turkish restaurant in central Ouagadougou on 13 August 2017. Thirty people were killed in similar circumstances in January 2016, not far from the Turkish restaurant, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Since 2015, northern Burkina Faso, which borders troubled Mali, has also experienced 80 attacks that are increasingly frequent and lethal. These attacks are mostly done by Ansarul Islam, a group founded in December 2016 that is locally rooted, albeit with ties to other groups in Mali.

One reason why Burkina Faso has become an easier target may be the weakness of the country’s security apparatus. Since the departure of former President Blaise Compaoré in October 2014, the army is significantly less organised. The special forces unit known as Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) under Compaoré was dismantled after his departure, and no equivalent has replaced it. Intelligence gathering appears to be weak, judging by the failure to detect or disrupt the major attacks that happened on Friday. Two teams totaling at least eight men were able to cross the city center carrying heavy weapons and driving a car full of explosives without being spotted.

Burkinabé authorities declared that they suspect some army members of helping Friday’s attackers, leaking key information.

Under Compaoré, intelligence capacities were based on strong individuals. Spymaster Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s personal chief of staff, headed an impressive regional and international intelligence network. Those individuals have left. It is taking time to rebuild efficient institutions in their wake.

Is the attack in Ouagadougou a purely domestic affair, or linked to broader violence in the Sahel region?

The relationship between the Burkinabé government and the various armed groups of the Sahel has changed. From the mid-2000s to 2012, Compaoré’s regime cut deals with armed groups, allegedly providing them with logistical support in exchange for their neutrality. This evolved with the 2012-2013 Malian crisis. Thousands of Malian refugees fled from their homes to the Burkinabé border, raising fears in Ouagadougou that war would spill over. New armed groups appeared, with which Compaoré’s regime had less established relations.

Compaoré therefore revised his strategy, slowly switching from arrangements with armed groups to more direct military intervention. Burkina Faso deployed 1,000 troops along the Malian border after January 2013, and 650 troops in Mali as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This may have put Burkina Faso in some jihadists’ firing line. In February 2013, a spokesperson for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the groups that controlled northern Mali for almost a year in 2012, said: “Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey are targets for our suicide bombers”.

Where do the Ouagadougou attacks fit into the context of jihadist violence in the Sahel, and the regional response to it?

This attack happened at a moment when the level of violence in the Sahel is very high. On 3 March, the Group to Support Muslims and Islam (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the Ouagadougou attacks. Part of a wider coalition linked to al-Qaeda, JNIM comprises several jihadist factions, including groups formerly known as Ansar Eddine, al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. It is headed by Iyad ag Ghali, a Malian Tuareg. JNIM said the attack was in retaliation for a French airstrike on 14 February, which killed several leaders, including al-Mourabitoun deputy leader al-Hassan al-Ansari, and Malick ag Wanasnat, a close associate to Ghali.

This French airstrike was part of a surge in military operations in neighbouring Mali, conducted by either the Malian armed forces (FAMA), the French counter-terrorism force known as Barkhane, or a combination of both together with the support of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The Malian and French operations aim to reverse a rising tide of jihadist attacks and jihadists establishing control of swathes of territory. They also aim to pave the way for presidential elections in Mali in July 2018. The main jihadist groups on their target list include: the JNIM itself; a faction of the JNIM previously known as the Macina Liberation Front, which operates in central Mali under the leadership of Hamadoun Kouffa; and a local affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS) that operates in Menaka along the border with Niger, led by Adnane Abou Walid al-Sahraoui.

At the same time, progress is being made toward the operationalisation of the G5 Sahel joint force, formed between Burkina Faso, four of its neighbours, and backed by France. Launched in February 2017 and analysed in a 12 December 2017 Crisis Group report, the G5 has secured funding, begun formal planning for its relationship with MINUSMA, and has now conducted two operations in the border areas between Mali, Niger and Burkina. According to the Burkinabé minister of security, a meeting on the G5 may have been in progress at the army headquarters when the attack happened. In its statement, JNIM wrote that it wants to discourage the “Burkinabé regime and others that raced to join the G5 and fight on behalf of the French”.

With targets attacked including the army headquarters, is there a possibility that the attackers may have been helped by some Burkinabé army members?

Burkinabé authorities declared that they suspect some army members of helping Friday’s attackers, leaking key information. Attackers at the army headquarters wore Burkinabé military uniforms and most of them were Burkinabé nationals. As a retired colonel of the Burkinabé army put it on Friday in a local TV interview: “Terrorism is a multi-facetted issue and we shouldn’t rule out any hypothesis”.

[T]he less the government spends on development, the less it is able to answer strong social demands for better public services and governance that emerged after Compaoré’s departure.

The retired colonel noted that 566 members of the army and air force were summarily dismissed in 2011. Some of these men, who have been barred from rejoining the army for the rest of their lives, became bandits or joined Islamist groups in Mali, including Malian al-Qaeda offshoots, as discussed in Crisis Group’s 22 July 2013 report Burkina Faso: With or Without Compaoré, Times of Uncertainty. Also, other members of the former Presidential Security Regiment have been sacked or dispersed to other units, and they are very frustrated.          

Many Burkinabés, including some senior members of the current government, privately suspect that former collaborators of Compaoré could be behind these terrorist attacks due to the links those individuals built with armed groups. There is, however, no direct evidence to support those suspicions. In its statement, JNIM referred to those past good relations. It said the previous Burkinabé government’s position of non-interference meant it avoided “falling into a swamp of blood".

Some former Compaoré allies, who allegedly built and maintained those relations, are now living abroad. Others, accused of supporting a short-lived 2015 coup against the current post-Compaoré order, should have been on trial in Ouagadougou last week. The trial was suspended after their lawyers protested it would not have been impartial. No direct evidence supports accusations of their involvement in Friday’s attack.

How does Friday’s attack affect Burkina Faso’s stability?

If information of possible help from security forces to the attackers is confirmed, it will further divide and disrupt an already fragile army. This will also harm popular confidence in the government and military. Relations between current authorities and the former Compaoré-era political elite will become tenser and increase the climate of suspicion in the country.

The attacks could, in any event, have significant economic and social consequences. The more Burkina Faso is under attack, the more the government will be tempted to spend on the military. As Crisis Group pointed out in its 12 October 2017 report on The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North, the less the government spends on development, the less it is able to answer strong social demands for better public services and governance that emerged after Compaoré’s departure. Its continued failure to meet those demands risks provoking street protests and perhaps even riots.