Why Would ISIS Target Istanbul?

Briefing Note

Why Would ISIS Target Istanbul?

29 Jun 2016

At least 42 people were killed in an attack on Istanbul's main international airport, with Turkish authorities blaming ISIS. 'Constantinople' has ideological, as well as operational, relevance to the group's aims.

A coordinated firearms and suicide attack by three militants on Istanbul's bustling Atatürk airport has left at least 42 people dead and more than 200 wounded. 

No party has laid claim to the attack, but Turkey's prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said that early signals indicated ISIS was responsible. ISIS does not usually claim responsibility for attacks on Turkish soil.

The assault on the airport, the third busiest in Europe, follows a number of attacks this year on popular tourist areas of Istanbul, leaving international observers asking questions about Turkey's ability to keep its urban centres safe from attack, and the risk of a serious decline in tourist traffic to the country.

The bombing follows a ramping up of violence in the streets of Turkey’s cities throughout the past two years. ISIS militants have lashed out against the country’s increased involvement in the Syria conflict, whilst President Recep Tayyip Erdogan simultaneously faces a resurgent insurgency from Kurdish nationalist groups. Although the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist organisation on the US list of designated terrorist organisations, has been accused of carrying out suicide attacks by Turkish authorities, such tactics do not form a central part of the group’s modus operandi.

Turkey has seen seven terrorist attacks in 2016, four of which have taken place in Istanbul, two in Ankara, and one in the city of Bursa. These bombings have targeted political rallies, military and police targets, as well as tourist sites. 

But it was major bombings in Ankara and Suruc in 2015, which between them left 150 people dead, that first showed the growing vulnerability of the NATO member to the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war. But Turkish authorities have known that an attack of this type has been coming in Europe’s largest city. Police in Istanbul disrupted an apparent ISIS plot to stage a major attack in the city on the same day as attacks in Paris left 148 dead in November. One of the five arrested was a British militant thought to be close to the deceased ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, known as ‘Jihadi John.’

Attacking Istanbul could fulfill ISIS' ideological and operational ambitions.

The jihadi threat to Turkey is not just limited to ISIS. The Turkish national police even issued a warning across the country's 81 provinces in December about a potential attack from Somalia’s al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabaab, after the group’s spokesman named Turkey as one of the "biggest enemy of Muslims."

But within its framework of ideas, ISIS has reason to single out Turkey for attack, believing such an assault could fulfill both its ideological and operational ambitions. In June 2015 the group released the first issue of its Turkish language magazine entitled Konstantinyye, referencing the old name of Istanbul, in which it conveyed its objectives and reached out to ISIS’ Turkish supporters.

Timing its release to coincide with the Turkey’s annual celebration commemorating the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453, the magazine featured an article on “The Conquest of Constantinople” which sought to forge significant religious parallels between the city’s past and it’s present.

To further its objectives and give an air of religious legitimacy to its cause, ISIS plays heavily on presenting images of the impending apocalypse and its own role as the forerunner of the final battle that is to take place. According to a hadith quoted in its Turkish magazine, Constantinople will be conquered before the “Last Hour,” but the article clarifies that the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans is not a fulfilment of the prophecy; rather, that fulfilment will come at the hands of ISIS.

Recent research, however, has shown that jihadi groups have an ambivalent relationship with the Ottoman caliphs, who are referred to in propaganda both in glorified terms and in reference to their religious ‘deviation.’

In an issue of its English-language magazine released in September 2015, ISIS described Turkey as being part of the international “Crusader Coalition” against the group as well as accusing Turkey of being an ally of its jihadi rival Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Despite considering Turkey to be among the Tawaghit - those have rebelled against the commands of God - ISIS understands the strategic importance of the country. Turkey has a strong Islamist core, a majority Sunni population, and a tangibly strong Islamic identity and history, making it fertile ground for ISIS’ ambitions.

Turkish authorities identifying the culprit as Syrian risks exacerbating tensions and social hostilities between Turks and a considerable refugee population in Istanbul. In October 2015 the city was home to some 366,000 refugees, at the time more than the rest of Europe put together. Distrust and discrimination against refugee populations feeds ISIS rhetoric of a ‘War against Islam’ by Western countries and their allies.

ISIS understands the strategic importance of Turkey.

Despite the group’s hostility, the Turkish government has been accused by its critics of turning a blind eye to ISIS operations on the Syrian border, as well as funding groups that are ideologically aligned with ISIS. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of being complicit in, and even profiting from, the illegal smuggling of oil from ISIS-held territory, rhetoric spawned in part by the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane for an airspace violation in November 2015 (Erdogan has strongly denied the claims).

In 2016, Turkey faces serious domestic disquiet, not least with the Kurdish PKK’s insurgency in the south east, as well heightened geopolitical tension. This instability is an atmosphere jihadi groups thrive upon. While there is no certainty of the group responsible, ISIS must be a prime suspect.

This article was originally published on 12 January 2016. It was updated on 29 June 2016.

 

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