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The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
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

Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus
Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel
Analyst, Turkey
BerkayMANDIRACI
Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat

With jihadists and armed groups exploiting political and security vacuums across the Sahel, Mali and neighbouring states will continue to face insecurity. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rethink international development strategies and to support local government initiatives that combat radicalisation.

 

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Despite significant international sweat, the Sahel remains on a trajectory toward greater violence and widening instability. Jihadists, armed groups and entrenched criminal networks – sometimes linked to national and local authorities – continue to expand and threaten the stability of already weak states. Across the region, citizens remain deeply disenchanted with their governments. International actors must review their current strategies, which tackle the symptoms of the Sahel’s problems without addressing their underlying cause: central governments’ long-term neglect of their states. In particular, they should act urgently to prevent the collapse of the peace process in Mali – a genuine danger this year that would have serious implications for security across the Sahel.

Widening Cracks in Mali’s Peace Process

At the heart of the Sahel’s instability is Mali’s long-running crisis. It is spilling over into Burkina Faso and spreading to fragile Niger and more stable Senegal. Twenty months since the government and armed groups signed the Algeria-brokered Bamako peace agreement in June 2015, implementation is faltering and the deal’s collapse is a real possibility. Despite publicly claiming to support the process, Malian parties lack confidence in a deal that was signed under international pressure and has serious shortcomings. It does little to tackle the violent war economy in which prominent businessmen rely on small private armies to protect trafficking routes. It also fails to restore a viable balance of power between northern communities and leaders who compete for resources, influence and territory.

Map of Sahel. International Crisis Group

The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), has seen the creation of new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, and may further aggravate insecurity. More worryingly, the appointment of interim local authorities and the launch of mixed patrols comprising army soldiers and former rebels in the north have failed to demonstrate much positive impact at the local level.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and al-Mourabitoun, remain active. Having been chased out of major towns, rather than trying to hold urban areas they are striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the bombing on 18 January that killed 61 personnel of the mixed unit in Gao region.

Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas.

At the same time, insecurity is rising in areas long neglected by the state such as central Mali, which is not included in the northern Mali peace process. Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas. Bamako still has no effective response to the jihadists’ strategy of threatening or killing local authorities or civil society members that stand against them. In addition, the rise of a new group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the possible influx from Libya of defeated Islamic State (IS) fighters are further sources of concern.

Jihad Sans Frontières

Despite international military intervention including by UN peacekeepers, jihadists are making inroads into other Sahelian countries. In late 2016, jihadist fighters based in central and northern Mali launched attacks in western Niger and northern Burkina Faso, underscoring the region’s vulnerability and the serious risks of overlapping conflicts across the greater Sahel. On 6 February, the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) met in Bamako to announce the creation of a regional force to tackle terrorism and transnational crime. It remains to be seen how effective this ambitious project will prove.

Mali’s neighbours are right to point out that Bamako is responsible for failing to prevent radical groups using its territory. However, they should also pay closer attention to their own internal dynamics. These include years of state neglect and poor political representation of certain communities – especially nomadic Fulanis in the region of Djibo in Burkina Faso and Tillabery in Niger. Chronic resource limitations hobble Sahelian states’ ability to respond effectively: Niger’s state revenue, for example, is €1.7 billion, about as much as France invested in stadiums to host the 2016 European football competition.

In 2016, Burkina Faso suffered eight attacks originating in Mali and it remains the most vulnerable of Mali’s neighbours. The ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 left the security apparatus in disarray. National authorities have been slow to rebuild the intelligence system and they lack a defence strategy to help security forces adjust to rapidly evolving threats. Despite recurring attacks, military posts in the country’s northern Sahel region remain poorly protected. With limited resources the government will struggle to meet demands for significant social development, which partly drove the October 2014 uprising, and, at the same time, increase spending to revamp the security forces. Should Burkina be tempted to use the social welfare budget to plug security holes, it could face new protests.

Reviving the Malian Peace Process

International forces have been slow to adjust to changing ground realities and for now there is little appetite in Bamako or the region for a major course correction. However, further deterioration – such as jihadist groups expanding westwards into Ségou region in the centre – would require a response. The European Union (EU) and its member states should anticipate this and encourage Malian parties and the Algeria-led mediation team to meet again before the process loses all credibility. New talks would offer all parties an opportunity to express their concerns about the implementation of the Bamako agreement and reenergise it. They should agree on additional appendices that include a new timetable and mechanisms to ensure that each party respects its commitments. To limit the risk of further armed group fragmentation, discussions should also focus on ways to bring splinter groups into the process. This could mostly be done by integrating them into one of the existing coalitions, the CMA or Platform.

The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure.

To avoid the further spread of violence in Mali, the EU and its member states should encourage and support central government and local authorities to mediate local conflicts. They should also assist local authorities, through training and direct support, to provide public services and ensure the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such peacebuilding support should not be framed as preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) as these concepts lack clarity, mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment and risk stigmatising communities that receive such assistance.

Vital too is the need for a shift in international development strategies. The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure. The EU and member states should pay particular attention to assisting the state’s local-level redeployment through programs that support public services. They should encourage and assist the government to improve its draft “Plan for Central Mali” and make it a useful tool to coordinate government efforts.

They should also ensure that the EU’s capacity-building mission, EUCAP Mali, closely collaborates with authorities at both central and regional levels to make Mopti region in the centre a pilot site to test policies aimed at improving local security, and specifically reforming the local police. Lessons drawn from here could be applied in northern Mali and other Sahelian regions.

Halting Jihadists’ Cross-border Spread

The EU and its member states should pay more attention to Burkina Faso, which faces a real threat from armed groups. In particular, member states with a military presence in Mali should deploy forces near its border with Burkina Faso, and provide the Burkinabè security forces with helicopters so that they can conduct aerial surveillance of the long shared border. Although the link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex and indirect, increasing aid in health, education and professional training particularly in areas affected by attacks, could potentially improve relations between state authorities and communities and therefore undercut an important grievance that extremist groups often exploit.