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The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
What Would Make A Woman Go Back To Boko Haram? Despair
What Would Make A Woman Go Back To Boko Haram? Despair
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
Op-Ed / Africa

What Would Make A Woman Go Back To Boko Haram? Despair

Originally published in The Guardian

In northeastern Nigeria, the militant group exploits a broken social system. There are lessons here for the rest of the world.

Zahra and Amina seem like lucky survivors of the scourge of northeastern Nigeria, the jihadist movement known as Boko Haram. Both were wives of fighters. Zahra escaped by agreeing to detonate an explosive vest that the militants strapped to her. After walking miles to her intended target, a government checkpoint, she turned herself over to soldiers. Amina fled with her three children after her husband was killed in battle.

Today, both women live in a camp for survivors of the conflict in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. When I met them on a recent research trip to the city, the last thing I expected to hear was that they wanted to rejoin the insurgents. Conventional thinking and security policies that aim to dissuade women from extremist groups tend to focus on ideology, presuming that only brainwashing could compel them to voluntarily join radical, violent militias. But here in the northeast, some women have largely been compelled to affiliate with Boko Haram by social and political conditions. Perversely, the group offers them respite from insecurity and the limited opportunities afforded them in a deeply patriarchal society riven by poor governance.

Zahra and Amina say that when they were with the militants, life was harsh and uncertain, but they had enough to eat. As voluntary wives of fighters, they were protected from sexual predation. They attended religion classes, the first formal schooling many had ever received, and their children went to school, learning literacy and religion. There were courts where women could report abusive husbands. In contrast, in their now emancipated lives in the camp, they often go hungry. There is little chance to work to buy more food, and shortages have contributed to sexual exploitation by the security forces who guard them. “Most Boko Haram women regret coming here, because life is just so hard,” says Amina.

These two women are just one small part of a massive humanitarian and security crisis that has been unfolding across the Lake Chad basin – the area where Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet – since 2014. Overshadowed by the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the scale of humanitarian disaster in the region is nevertheless vast: more than 2.4 million people displaced, 5 million in need of food and shelter, and half a million children at famine levels of malnourishment.

While the Boko Haram insurgency may not directly affect the west – it doesn’t contribute to migration flows and the militants are not involved in attacks in Europe – the experiences of Boko Haram women carry wide implications for our understanding of why people join such movements. While the group, like many others that self-identify as “jihadist”, deploys ideological rhetoric to promote its political goals, it is the deprived and fractious context in which it operates that best explains its appeal – especially to women.

Azadeh Moaveni (right) interviews a woman in northeastern Nigeria. CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Zahra and Amina, like many women in the northeast, joined the militants by choice. They left by choice, too – unwilling to marry other fighters appointed by the group after their own husbands had died. Their stories challenge the dominant narrative around Boko Haram, shaped by the global outcry over the Chibok schoolgirls’ kidnapping, which holds that women only join by force, and that, similarly, only those who were abducted can be regarded as genuine victims. Returning from Nigeria, I met a group of Swiss women who regularly spend their holidays doing freelance volunteer work with female victims of Boko Haram. “We only help the ones who were kidnapped,” one pointedly told me.

But the circumstances that propel women such as Zahra and Amina into and out of Boko Haram show the limits of the neat categories of victim and perpetrator. In the early days of the insurgency, many women found the movement appealing because it offered alternatives to the patriarchy endorsed by their conservative families. The group’s leaders supported lower dowries, which meant more young women could choose husbands from among their peers, rather than the greying, financially secure men they would be traditionally compelled to marry. And while the militants were only able to provide for them so generously by looting and pillaging, some women felt the Nigerian state’s corruption justified these abuses. Life in the forest felt freer and more dignified than living in the dust of an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp, dependent on international aid groups for a meal a day.

While ending the insurgency and countering the militants’ appeal is obviously vital, it is also essential to recognise what precisely has guided women to join the militants in the first place.

Even now, Zahra’s and Amina’s thinking about the group – their belief that returning to the militants would improve their lives – is mostly a calculus of immediate survival. Dalori II, the camp where they live, like most in the city, is chronically short on food, and across satellite camps in the region groups such as Amnesty International have documented an epidemic of rape and sexual exploitation. Some progress has been made to curtail these abuses, and humanitarian groups have tried to adjust food distribution practices to blunt the potential for abuse, but this has only changed the dynamic of the exploitation. “You have to become a harlot to stay in the camps,” says Amina.

One reason Zahra says she was glad to leave the militants was because she saw that their blind rejection of teaching in English was harming her children: “It does not benefit them to stay home. It’s better for them to learn.” She assumed that in Maiduguri, her kids would be able to attend school. But camp managers in Dalori II dismantled the one school on its premises, claiming it was no longer needed since people would be returning to their villages. But nobody has gone home, and now there is no school.

The northeast Nigerian state of Borno is now a vast patchwork of towns and villages with few men, a whole sub-society of single mothers trying to cope as breadwinners in areas with collapsed economies without their husbands’ protection and support. Some reintegration programmes offer skills training, but embroidering and selling a cap a month neither enables a woman to feed three children nor does it protect her from rape after dark. Plus, some international groups devote funds and attention to what they call “countering extremism”, with extremism often conceived in an amorphous way that views ideology, rather than a complex patchwork of political grievance and social frustrations, as a root cause of the violence.

While ending the insurgency and countering the militants’ appeal is obviously vital, it is also essential to recognise what precisely has guided women to join the militants in the first place. This has wider implications for the whole of the northeast, not just displaced women in the camps, or former Boko Haram women, but all women, who are trying to cope with conditions so impoverished and limiting that, sometimes, joining a militant group appears to offer a way out.