Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey’s indifference towards and even tacit support for IS and other jihadists battling the Kurds across its borders has alarmed its Western allies, particularly the United States. Knowingly or not, Turkey allowed IS and other jihadist groups to establish their cells in Istanbul, Ankara, and other Turkish cities near the Syrian frontier. Turkey’s own radical Islamists have proved easy for IS and other Syria-based jihadists from groups – such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, also formerly known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham – to recruit.
Beyond their physical networks in Turkey, the jihadists’ online presence in Turkish is growing. Indeed, social media has become the top recruiting platform for IS and other tech-savvy extremist groups. And while Turkey has imposed draconian media laws, Ankara’s online crackdown on jihadists remains relatively meek, with the AKP showing far greater alarm over anti-government expressions of political dissent.
Until 2015, militants had been preoccupied with the jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime (and all minority groups) in Syria, sparing the Turks for the large part. Mounting attacks over the last two years, however, make clear that is no longer the case. As Turkey’s territorial designs in northern Syria increasingly clash with those of IS, and the two sides engage in direct military combat with greater intensity, the Islamic State is increasingly inclined to punish the Turks at home. With residual IS networks now spread throughout the country, the worst for Turkey may be yet to come.
Ankara claims that it foiled nearly 350 terror plots last year. If true, that would be an outstanding achievement. But the amount of terror-related bloodshed Turkey has suffered in the last two years is jarring. The prospect of continued violence threatens the country’s security, as well as the stability of its neighbors and allies.