European leaders, embroiled in a migrant crisis for over a year, are desperately seeking a deal with Turkey to help keep their Union secure. With thousands of refugees, and potential terrorists, streaming in daily, Europe appears willing to pay a high cost to earn Ankara’s cooperation to stem the flow. But Europe’s vision of Turkey as a security bulwark against threats from the Middle East rests on the presumption that EU candidate Turkey will remain stable itself. In reality, Turkey has an acute terrorism problem, which, if ignored, could have dire consequences for Europe.
This month, suicide bombs hit both Ankara and Istanbul within the span of a week, killing 42 people and injuring over 140. The bombing in Ankara was the third that hit the capital in five months, and the Istanbul bombing became the eighth large-scale terrorist attack countrywide in the last year.  Fed up with the frequency of bombings, Turkish citizens are increasingly questioning their government’s ability to protect them.
ISIL-linked attacks against Turkey are a predictable blowback of Ankara’s last-minute decision to declare war on the group after years of turning a blind eye to it.
The threat is real. Not only is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waging its “jihad” just across the border with Syria, but Turkey is fighting a Kurdish insurgency movement led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country’s southeast. Moreover, nine terrorist groups in Turkey joined forces with the PKK earlier this month, launching a new umbrella organization called the Peoples’ United Revolution Movement.
The sheer number of enemies raises questions about Turkey’s ability play the role of Europe’s barricade. Suicide attacks occurring periodically in the main squares of the country’s capital, Ankara, and financial hub, Istanbul, point to the dismal failure of the state in securing its key locations. Indeed, the car bomb attack in Ankara in February took place only a few hundred feet from the parliament and the prime minister’s office. The March 19 suicide attack in Istanbul took place in the city’s busiest shopping district, Taksim, while the previous two Istanbul attacks occurred in the same historic quarter, Sultanahmet, killing more than a dozen people in total – nearly all of them tourists.
Most of the recent bombings could have been prevented if Turkey had a properly functioning security apparatus. For example, one of the perpetrators of the massive October 2015 bombing in Ankara that killed more than 100 people was the brother of the suicide bomber who had attacked a pro-Kurdish rally in the southeastern town of Suruç three months earlier. Despite being on the police’s suspected suicide bombers list, the brother and his accomplices managed to drive over 450 miles from the Syrian border to the Turkish capital without being detected. Similarly, the perpetrator of last month’s suicide attack in Ankara traveled through 43 of Turkey’s 81 provinces with a stolen car and forged license plates. As the country’s main opposition party has argued, such egregious breaches are not an intelligence “failure” but a full-blown “scandal.”
Turkey’s failure to maintain the security of its citizens is not coincidental. It can be traced back to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s policies over the last five years.
Too Many Enemies, Too Many Fronts
Ankara cannot be held responsible for the decisions of terrorists to attack civilians and wage war on the Turkish state. The government can and should, however, be held accountable for its dealings with its two most deadly threats – its failure to keep ISIL at bay in Syria and to maintain the peace process with the PKK.
At the beginning of Syrian civil war five years ago, the AKP decided to use Turkey’s 550-mile border to advance its anti-government aspirations in Syria, allowing Syrian rebels to travel and smuggle arms across the frontier unimpeded. This was a reckless policy which, from the onset, permitted (if not encouraged) jihadists to exploit the frontier and foster a war economy in southern Turkey. Even as ISIL came to dominate the anti-government rebels across the Turkish border in early 2014, Turkey was curiously slow to respond.
In the most charitable analysis, the continued militant smuggling and trade at the border were due to a lack of attention. Still, that inattention allowed ISIL to entrench itself inside Turkey for two years. Today, there are reportedly thousands of ISIL cells in the country, and hundreds of Turks are believed to be fighting with the group in Syria. ISIL-linked attacks against Turkey are a predictable blowback of Ankara’s last-minute decision to declare war on the group after years of turning a blind eye to it.
The EU's appeasement of Turkey may help mitigate the flow of Syrian refugees in the near term, but it is setting the stage for a Kurdish or Turkish refugee influx in the medium to long term…
Turkey’s war with the PKK was even more preventable. It was the AKP government that began a historic peace process with the Kurdish group in 2012. While the PKK is no innocent party either, the Kurds widely attribute the collapse of the peace process in July to the AKP’s equivocal approach. The Turkish government has not assured its people that its intentions for a settlement were sincere, nor that it had made serious efforts to secure its interlocutors’ trust.
Turkey’s open-door policy toward Syrian refugees, while internationally praised for its generosity, was applied with little regard to potential security consequences. Realizing the risks associated with such laxness, Ankara ultimately introduced biometric ID cards for Syrians. This, however, presented an opportunity for PKK militants, who have recently been facing difficulties in faking Turkish IDs following the country’s computerization of population registries.
Speculation persists that up to 1,000 PKK members might have sneaked into Turkey in the guise of Syrian refugees. Indeed, the perpetrator of the Ankara car bomb attack, a member of a PKK offshoot, had himself registered as a refugee. Following the attack, the government immediately started a review of all biometric ID cards issued to Syrians to that date, while also initiating a moratorium on new IDs. This, however, is reported to have led to a new market for fake refugee cards.
A Security Deficit
Ankara also did its security apparatus no favors with its purges of the military and police over the last decade. Initially, the campaign was part of the AKP’s effort to bring the military under civilian control – a reform backed by many Turkish liberals and the EU. Executed with piles of fake evidence and bogus indictments, however, the probes turned into a witch hunt.
If Europe truly wants to see Turkey as a security bulwark and a safe third country for refugees, it must address Turkey’s destabilizing domestic developments.
More importantly, they stripped the military of its most senior personnel. The AKP’s purges were carried out in cooperation with allies known as the Gülen movement – adherents of an influential US-based cleric who later turned into the archenemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. By the time of that fallout in 2013, the movement had become so pervasive in Turkey’s bureaucracy that the purges stripped the country’s law enforcement of its most senior personnel. The position of Ankara police chief, for example, was vacant for five months, and the government only filled the position after Sunday’s bomb attack. That loss of expertise is a key reason for the security and intelligence failures.
Moreover, Turkey’s security apparatus today is being used as much to monitor and oppress dissidents as it is to fight terrorism. While arrests of suspected terrorists are common, so are raids against opposition media, businesses and dormitories, as well as attacks against protestors. The state has an entire team monitoring social media, but websites critical of the government are shut down more often than those inciting hatred or spreading Islamist propaganda. Rather than indict ISIL militants, law enforcement appears particularly busy hunting down Erdoğan’s critics. Turkey’s justice minister recently stated that during his term in office he allowed the prosecution of no fewer than 1,845 individuals over insulting Erdoğan.
The PKK Model Failed
Since the collapse of the peace process, the Turkish government has repeatedly vowed to eliminate the PKK’s terrorism by “wiping out” its militants in the country by whatever means necessary. But Turkey’s experience fighting the PKK in the 1990s should offer a cautionary tale. Infamous for its extrajudicial executions, torture, and denial of due process, Turkey’s “dirty war” with the PKK throughout the decade only proved that these hardline policies often backfire, and are used as a recruitment tool for terrorists. The most violent faction of the PKK today is represented by its youth, the so-called “Mad Max generation,” who are particularly susceptible to radicalization. Months-long military curfews depriving Kurdish civilians of basic needs do little to moderate their disposition.
The EU’s view of Turkey as a bulwark against security threats from the Middle East is optimistic. The bloc’s appeasement of Turkey may help mitigate the flow of Syrian refugees in the near term, but it is setting the stage for a Kurdish or Turkish refugee influx in the medium to long term, reminiscent of those seeking European asylum in the 1990s. Moreover, without significant security measures to accompany Ankara’s refugee policy, ISIL radicals entering Turkey could just as easily infiltrate Europe. With depressingly regular terrorist attacks in major cities and its ongoing war with the PKK, Turkey increasingly resembles its Middle Eastern neighbors – those failing states whose refugees Europe expects Ankara to protect it from. If Europe truly wants to see Turkey as a security bulwark and a safe third country for refugees, it must address Turkey’s destabilizing domestic developments.