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Istanbul and the violent death throes of Islamic State

By Jacinta Carroll

Symbolism is vitally important to terrorist groups. But territory and power are what they ultimately desire.

As the so-called Islamic State (IS) marks the second anniversary of its declaration of a "caliphate", most of the territory and power have gone, and symbolism is mostly what remains. But it won't go down without a long, hard fight, as we have seen in Istanbul.

In the aftermath of IS terrorist attacks in Brussels and Lahore in March, just three months ago, I posited that we would expect more attacks from IS outside Syria and Iraq as it loses the fight in the Middle East.

At the time, IS had lost more than 40 per cent of the territory it had claimed at the high point of its success. Since then, the critical node of Fallujah has been retaken by Iraqi forces and the coalition is planning campaigns to retake Raqqa and Mosul likely later this year.

Near the Turkish border, US and Kurdish forces are battling IS to retake the northern Syrian town on Manbij, one of the last IS strongholds in the area.

Losing the fight in the Middle East means IS will continue to lash out elsewhere in an effort to demonstrate its ability to supporters and undermine support for the coalition.

Responsibility is yet to be claimed for the attack on Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport, but Turkey's prime minister Binali Yildirim says the indications at this stage point to IS. And terrorism analysts agree.

IS leaders called for attacks during the holy month of Ramadan, which ends next week. Last Monday saw a series of suicide bombings in Al Mukalla, Yemen, claimed by IS; the second attack targeting Yemeni troops in that city in a month. Two weeks ago Omar Mateen invoked IS as his inspiration for a firearms attack in the American city of Orlando. And we can expect IS and its supporters are plotting to inflict further damage and create more headlines.

The tactics used in Istanbul share some similarities with those seen in Brussels and Paris, claimed by IS, as well as Ankara, which is generally attributed to the group.

'He was just firing at anyone'

A witness at Istanbul's main international airport describes the moment one of the attackers opened fire.

Like Brussels and Paris, the methodology included using taxis for transport, semi-automatic weapons and person-borne explosives. The attack on a place of mass gathering indicates the attackers aimed to inflict mass casualties and attract widespread publicity.

Istanbul's airport is the third-busiest in Europe and an international hub, so the targets - again like Brussels and Paris - include foreign tourists and businesspeople, not just Turks.

As we know from Brussels and Paris, the type of attack seen in Istanbul takes logistics support and organisation. This means the three attackers also had support. Turkish investigators and their partners will be focussing their efforts on tracking these down.

Of primary importance are those providing the bombs. Getting the right mix of ingredients for a suicide explosive and keeping it stable requires some technical knowledge and access to materials. In Brussels, we know that one of the attackers was also the bomb-maker, and he was killed during the attack. Of interest to investigators now is whether the technical explosives knowledge for Istanbul came from one of the dead attackers, or from someone still in the region.

It's no surprise that Turkey is feeling the brunt of IS's frustration. Bordering the conflict zone, Turkey is a partner in the US-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, most notably providing hosting support for US air operations capability.

But this is a complicated part of the world, and Turkey's role isn't a simple one. Turkish authorities had previously allowed Islamist extremist groups to move people, weapons and other goods through the region, in the fight to depose Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria.

Turkey is a source and major transit hub for foreign fighters travelling to Syria; notably some of the Brussels and Paris attackers had been foreign fighters and had travelled to Turkey.

Turkey might no longer be aiding Islamist groups in Syria, but extremists still move people and weapons through its borders.

In response to this week's attack, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to crack down on terrorists, and called for the international community to support him in doing so.

This is also problematic. While there is broad international agreement to fight jihadi terrorists such as IS and Al Qaeda, Turkey's approach to dealing with the Kurds has been contentious. More broadly the Turkish government is under international pressure for appearing to conflate terrorism with criticism of the regime; for example, in relation to arresting journalists on terrorism charges.

Turkey's security attention to date has been divided between the threats of IS and the Kurds. The Istanbul attack provides the opportunity for Erdogan to refocus his security concerns and efforts on countering IS, rather than on the Kurds.

The international community should work closely with Turkey to counter terrorism, but it needs to engage carefully. Friends of Turkey, such as Australia and the US, could then look to provide advice and practical support to Turkey to manage the Syrian refugee issue and a pathway for reconciliation with the Kurds.

The attack on Istanbul illustrates both the complexity of the terrorist threat environment and the complex interplay of issues that will continue to affect those working for a solution.

It appears that IS has had a successful attack, of sorts. The attackers were unable to get through security barriers at the airport until an explosive penetrated the area. About 40 people were killed, but many more saved by the actions of first responders and members of the public. And some flights resumed only hours after the attack. The main outcome for IS is symbolic, demonstrating an ability to attack "soft" targets in Europe.

Countering the threat posed by IS and other jihadist groups depends on removing their ability to freely operate in the Middle East and find safe haven. And this can only come from defeating them in the region, and providing stability.

The conflict in the Middle East will not be resolved by coalition countries withdrawing their military, diplomatic, intelligence and advisory support, including support to partners such as Turkey.

Our partners in restoring stability in the region might not be the most conventional. Turkey has significant issues, both domestic and externally, but it is critical to the future of the Middle East and Europe. We can expect that it will continue to be the target of attacks by terrorists such as IS. And when plots and attacks occur, Australia and others should stay close to assist Turkey to maintain a course that will hold it in good stead for the long term, and not further divide the country.

Australia's contribution and that of others is vital to defeating jihadist groups and their ability to freely operate in and from the Middle East and North Africa. The road to success will be littered with the terrorist propaganda fed by threats of attack and attempts to inflict harm. But even these extreme symbols cannot hide the truth that, in less than two years, the so-called "caliphate" is essentially no more.

Jacinta Carroll is senior analyst and director, Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. 

Published: ABC The Drum. 30 June 2016.

Originally published by: ABC The Drum on 30 Jun 2016