The threat of al Qaeda in Turkey is significantly understudied, considering the nature and number of targets against which the terror group has plotted attacks, including many targets affiliated with the United States. Perhaps this is because the Turkish police are successful in thwarting such attacks; foiled plots are not as sensational as those that are carried out and cause tragedy. Or it could be because terror in Turkey has historically been synonymous with the terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which distracts from the al Qaeda threat. It is also easy to dismiss Turkey as an unlikely target for al Qaeda, given its 99 percent Muslim population and currently Islamic-rooted government.
A look at al Qaeda’s targets, which appear to be concentrated on US, Turkish, British, Jewish, and Christian facilities, demonstrates the point. Plots involving American targets include a plan to attack the İncirlik Base in Adana in 2003; a foiled attack on the NATO summit in Istanbul in May 2004 that was to be attended by then-President George W. Bush; and an attack on the US Consulate in Istanbul in July 2008, which killed three policemen. In July 2011, an attack on the US Embassy in Ankara was thwarted just before Secretary of State Clinton’s visit. In April 2013, Turkish police found evidence of a new plot linked to al Qaeda to bomb the US Embassy in Ankara. As recently as May 2013, Turkish police uncovered a plot by the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front to conduct sarin gas attacks against Turkish and American targets, a relatively new phenomenon which appears to be a result of the spillover effects of the Syrian war into Turkey.
Other targets include suicide attacks on the British Consulate, the headquarters of British HSBC international bank, and two big synagogues in Istanbul in November 2003, which killed some 60 people and injured at least 700; a possible attack on the Pope during his visit to Turkey in November 2006; and a plot to attack the Bilderberg Summit in Istanbul in June 2007. Turkish authorities have also intercepted al Qaeda plans to conduct attacks on churches and clergy in Ankara, Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan after their takeover of the Kabul Regional Command in November 2009, the Turkish parliament building, and an Israeli cruise ship to Turkey.
These incidents suggest that the al Qaeda threat in Turkey persists. In fact, an al Qaeda-linked document found during a recent raid in Turkey said that it was more beneficial for the group to target Turkey than the West. Routine operations and mass arrests of suspected al Qaeda members and sympathizers indicate the presence of a support network for its cause within Turkey. These indications, combined with the recent emergence of jihadists in Syria, and the presence of Al Nusra Front elements along certain parts of Turkey’s 570-mile border with Syria, make this a threat worth examining.
There are challenges in trying to decipher the al Qaeda threat in Turkey, however. Reports based on open sources such as this one have to make analyses based only on the information that is available. The media does not give much attention to thwarted attacks. And the Turkish press does not publish names of people arrested, to protect the privacy of the individuals and investigations; instead, only the suspects’ initials are published. Moreover, many al Qaeda operatives have one or more code names. In addition, many of the details of operations or what they reveal is not reported. Nevertheless, some conclusions can still be made about the characteristics of al Qaeda in Turkey today.
2. WHY IS TURKEY A TARGET? HOW DOES AL QAEDA VIEW TURKEY?
Al Qaeda’s narrative on Turkey suggests that it views Turkey as a Muslim traitor that abolished the Caliphate at the end of the Ottoman Empire, which for al Qaeda marks the start of the “Muslim world’s humiliation and contempt over the last 80 years.” Al Qaeda views Turkey — a country with free elections and a liberal economy, a member of NATO, and a strategic ally of the United States — as a US or Western puppet. Turkey was also one of the first countries to recognize Israel, and takes part in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which leads al Qaeda to accuse Turkey of “cooperating with Israel” and “killing Muslims in Afghanistan.”
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