July 6, 2016 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

Turkey in Islamic State's Sights

The Islamic State (aka ISIS) strikes again — or so it seems.

Although, as of this writing, ISIS hasn’t claimed “credit” for the shooting and bombing at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on Tuesday, we do know that innocent Turks and other foreign nationals suffered another brutal terrorist attack.

Istanbul airport, where dozens were killed and hundreds injured, follows other recent, horrific Islamic State-inspired or directed terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino — and earlier this month in Orlando.

It’s not much of a stretch to finger the Islamic State for the attack.

ISIS has plenty of reasons to strike Turkey — and has done so before. It is driven, perhaps most prominently, by Ankara’s opposition to the Islamic State’s efforts to establish a caliphate next door in Iraq and Syria.

Of course, Syria and Iraq are just the beginning of the caliphate that ISIS aspires to build.

Plus, Turkey is a front-line state in the battle with the terror group, sharing a border with Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Turkish forces have reportedly stepped up strikes against the Islamic State in Syria in recent months.

Ankara, while previously a difficult partner due to disagreements with U.S.-led coalition members over Syria policy (e.g., the Bashar Assad regime and refugees fleeing that country), is now cooperating more fully with the anti-Islamic State alliance.

For instance, U.S. forces now have greater operational flexibility, flying from Turkish air bases (for example, Incirlik), which host American fighters and possibly drones.

The Turks have also taken steps to shut down the smuggling routes in Turkey that allowed fresh foreign fighters to get to ISIS territory. The Islamic State can’t be happy about the loss of that supply line.

Interestingly, a 2015 issue of ISIS’ online magazine “Dabiq” that writes about the anti-ISIS coalition reportedly featured a picture of President Obama conferring with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the cover.

The fact that the Islamic State hasn’t claimed credit for the attack could stem from its desire to sow confusion among the Turkish security services, which have also been battling the separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a domestic terror group.

In other words, did ISIS or the PKK do it?

Attacking the Ataturk airport, one of Europe’s and, indeed, one of the world’s busiest airports, will also cause economic pain for Turkey as summer travelers question the wisdom of visiting Istanbul, a tourist hot spot.

Another but more remote possibility, as a motivator for the attack, is that Turkey and Israel just (re)normalized relations after a break of several years due to differences over Palestinian policy. It’s also the two-year anniversary of
the proclamation of the caliphate.

It’s tragic that the attack took place during Ramadan, the Muslim holy season — and that, the location being Turkey (a Muslim country), the attack likely killed mostly Muslims. Not surprisingly, most of the Islamic State’s victims are Muslims.

Some believe that the Islamic State is lashing out in “desperation” due to recent setbacks including the loss of Fallujah in Iraq to Baghdad’s forces; hitting the enemy at home could distract or discourage it from its campaign against ISIS.

Of course, that’s the last thing we should allow this attack to do.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally published in The Boston Herald