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After Turkey, Islamic State refocuses on global terror

By Peter Jennings

A striking feature of the New Year attack on Istanbul’s upmarket Reina nightclub is that the still-unnamed assailant wasn’t looking to end it with his own death. Instead he fled the scene – like the truck driver who killed visitors to a German Christmas market a few weeks earlier – perhaps intending to carry out more atrocities.

This is a worrying development. In the last two years most of the so-called Islamic State’s planned or inspired terror attacks ended on purpose with the attackers taking their own lives by blowing themselves up or until they were killed.

This is still the overwhelming pattern of IS attacks in Iraq. Assaults using suicide vests or vehicle bombs are on the upsurge in Baghdad and taking a terrible toll of civilian lives. Since November more than 600 vehicle bombs have been driven at Iraqi forces attempting to retake Mosul.

There is no shortage of individuals still wanting martyrdom and the IS leadership continues to use foreign fighters in that role. But after years of conflict there is now a cohort of savvy, battled hardened fighters more interested in killing than being killed.

Reports of the Istanbul attacker suggest he behaved like a veteran of IS’s savage style of fighting. He reloaded his weapon at least once in the night club, killed wounded people with shots to the head and calmly left the scene catching a taxi. He also clearly has the skills to evade capture at least for the moment.

There is speculation that the terrorist may be a Chinese Muslim Uighur who had lived in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and had moved to Turkey last November with his wife after fighting in Syria. IS operates a Uighur unit called the Turkistan Brigade and a separate extremist Islamist group, the Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party has also actively fought against Syrian forces.

It may be that Turkey is reaping what it sowed. In the early stages of the civil war the Syrian government claimed that Ankara facilitated the movement of Uighurs using false Turkish passports travelling from China via Malaysia to Turkey and then crossing the border into Syria to fight against the Assad regime.

Up to last July’s abortive coup the Turkish Government saw value at least in passively supporting if not covertly facilitating anti-Assad extremist fighters. A weak Syria strengthened Ankara’s position relative to its long term rival for regional influence, Iran. Tehran remains President Assad’s key supporter. 

In the last few months Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan has changed this approach. Russia’s engagement in the Syrian fight ended the prospect of toppling President Assad. Turkey has refocussed on being part of a brokered cease fire in Syria with Russia and Iran that allows a weak Assad regime to survive but limits the growing strength of Kurdish forces occupying much of Syria’s border area with Turkey.

This explains why IS and presumably other Sunni Islamist extremist groups are now looking to launch terror attacks against establishment targets in Turkey. These groups have lost a critically important entry point for foreign fighters wanting to enter Syria from Turkey.

Given this change in Turkey’s approach to Syria it’s not surprising that the Islamic State was quick to claim responsibility for the night club attack. IS often claims to have inspired attacks launched by individuals, such as the truck attack in Nice last July. But the shootings in Istanbul, in particular the way the attacker has been able to move before and after the attack, have the look of a more closely planned terror operation. 

The implications for counter-terrorism operations around the world are profound. Last October the European Law Enforcement Agency, Europol, declared that the Islamic State was ‘going global’ by changing its focus away from its increasingly pressured position in Iraq and Syria and taking the fight instead into Europe and North Africa.

Whether or not Mosul is retaken soon by Iraqi forces it seems likely that a number of IS fighters and leaders have left the city and have regrouped to Syria where they are less vulnerable to attack from large scale ground forces. The Istanbul incident, as well as earlier attacks in Paris and Brussels, shows that fighters are now moving into Europe.

It’s clear that some of this movement has taken place under the cover of the broader flow of refugees displaced by the collapse of stable government in the Middle East and North Africa.

Turkey remains a critical front line state to this crisis. Last November the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reported that 2.764 million Syrians were registered in Turkey as refugees. Many more Syrians are in Turkey unregistered and the current attacker’s reported movements show that the Turkey-Syria border is still porous. 

It’s highly likely that there will be more terror attacks in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan’s crack down following the failed coup has seen thousands of public servants and senior military figures removed from their jobs. This has weakened Turkey’s ability to mount a coherent counter-terrorism response to the risk of mass attacks. 

Turkey’s problems will certainly impact on Australian thinking about security for the ANZAC Day commemorations at Gallipoli only a few short months away. The terror threat is likely to be even higher than last year and the capability to secure the ceremonies has degraded.

More broadly across Europe the movement of refugees and their interactions with resident communities harbouring support for extremist and violent Islamist ideology creates a recruitment pool for people willing to commit acts of terrorism.

If Iraq and Syria no longer attract fighters these individuals will follow the direction of IS leaders to stage attacks at home.

Into this mix we now have to add potentially hundreds of experienced fighters leaving Iraq and Syria for other locations, with the damaged psychology, training and capability needed to stage mass attacks. As the Berlin Christmas attack showed, Europe’s open borders and – to put it kindly – a mixed level of counter-terrorism, policing and intelligence capabilities means that much of the continent is vulnerable to attack.

2017 is likely to be the year in which the European attachment to open borders will come to a dismal end. Liberal minded Western European populations will soon be demanding more effective policing and intelligence cooperation within the EU, a key part of which is more effective surveillance across borders of individuals already known to the authorities for extremist sympathies.

Southeast Asia also looks increasingly risky. Several hundred fighters went to Syria from Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia and several dozen have already returned. While Australia has been heavily invested in counter terrorism cooperation with key Southeast Asian partners since the Bali bombings, we should be looking even more closely on what needs to be done now to strengthen a regional approach to counter returning fighters from Iraq and Syria. 

Australia is not immune from these negative trends but we are blessed by our geography, by a painfully won bipartisanship on strong border controls and by effective policing and surveillance laws that remain under constant review. 

None of this is a cause for complacency but we have a good counter terrorism model to share and every reason to work more closely with European partners.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and was a deputy secretary for Strategy in the Department of Defence.

Originally published: The Australian 13 January 2017 

Originally published by: The Australian on 13 Jan 2017