Last week’s Islamic State (IS) assault on Istanbul’s international airport, killing at least 45 people, was its fifth major terrorist attack on a Turkish target over the past year.
Last July, Ankara agreed to a long-standing US request to allow the anti-IS coalition to use Incirlik airbase to strike the terrorist organization. Even before the agreement was formally announced, an IS suicide bombing in Suruc district killed 34 youths. They had gathered there, preparing to cross into Syria to help with reconstruction in the Kurdish city of Kobane, which had been largely destroyed in the fighting with IS.
Four more IS attacks in Turkey followed in the next 12 months, culminating in the assault on Istanbul Ataturk Airport. In turn, the airport attack proved to be the first of three major IS terrorist attacks in three different countries in the subsequent five days.
It is widely believed that after IS loses territory (it just lost Fallujah), it lashes out to show that it remains a vigorous, capable entity. As a Washington Post headline put it “Islamic State’s ambitions and allure grow as territory shrinks.”
There is much more, however, to be understood about IS latest attack on the Turkish target.
Turkish authorities were swift to suggest that IS was behind the airport bombings. They had not even identified the suicide bombers, when on the night of the attack, a senior Turkish official told the media that “initial indications” suggested that IS was responsible.
Prior to the bombings, Israeli intelligence had picked up increased chatter within IS, but nothing among Kurdish groups. That was one indicator that it was an IS, rather than Kurdish, attack.
Once the attacks occurred, the Israelis understood what they had heard: senior IS leadership planning and ordering the airport bombings. So a US intelligence source, who spoke at length with his Israeli colleagues, revealed to Kurdistan24.
Through voiceprint technology, the Israelis were even able to identify a handful of those individuals. They were senior members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. They include Saddam’s one-time deputy, Izzet Ibrahim al-Douri.
Elements of Israeli intelligence hold the same view of IS as the Kurdish leadership: at its core, IS is the old Iraqi regime. Or as Rudaw’s editor-in-chief stated, “If the foreign jihadists are taken out of IS, what is left are former Ba’athist security and army officers who fled to Syria after Saddam’s fall in 2003.”
IS attacks in Turkey have aimed at more than simply killing people. One objective is to exacerbate ethnic strife, or so elements within Israeli intelligence have concluded.
IS attacks on Kurdish targets prompt Kurdish anger with the government for failing to protect them. Thus, at a time when the situation in Turkey was still largely quiescent, the PKK responded to the Suruc bombing by shooting two Turkish policemen, claiming the government had been complicit in the bombing.
Two days later, Ankara launched major airstrikes on PKK camps for the first time in four years. The PKK responded, “The truce has no meaning anymore after these intense airstrikes.”
So the old conflict was rejoined. The month before, Erdogan had failed to win an absolute majority in the elections. He wanted such a majority in order to become an executive president. As one Turkish analyst noted, “One cannot help but think that part of Erdogan’s calculus [in striking the PKK so hard] is galvanizing the nationalist vote before a possible early election.”
Turkey sees its own Kurds as a bigger danger than IS, and that inhibits the effective prosecution of the war against IS. Deputy State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, alluded to tensions between Ankara and Washington over this issue. As Toner stated, the US views Syria’s Kurds as “very capable” fighters and makes a “clear delineation” between them and the PKK, which it views as “a foreign terrorist organization.”
Might IS’ latest assault alter Ankara’s perceptions of the relative threat posed by IS and the Kurds and facilitate prosecution of the military campaign against IS?
Not in the view of Kani Xulam, Director of the American Kurdish Information Network. The “biggest threat” that Erdogan sees is still Kurds and Erdogan’s priority remains “crushing” them, Xulam told Kurdistan24.
Since the airport attacks, Ankara has stepped up military action against IS, but it has also denounced the PKK and even the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which sits in Turkey’s parliament, with nearly the same ferocity.
Erdogan recently asserted that IS “belongs in hell” for its terrorism, but he also attacked the PKK and HDP. Referring to recent legislation making HDP parliamentarians vulnerable to criminal prosecution, including for what Westerners would regard as free speech, Erdogan affirmed, “Now that their immunities have been lifted, they will pay the price for what they have done.”
One can only imagine what he has in mind.