2017 has begun in much the same way 2016 ended: with the world in an uproar over yet another act of bloodshed claimed by the extremist group Islamic State.
In the early hours of January 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on crowds ringing in the New Year at a trendy Istanbul nightclub, killing 39 and injuring 69 more.
Like the IS-claimed Christmas market attack in Berlin that left 12 dead and scores injured in December, the massacre has reaffirmed the extremist group’s international reach. For Turkey, which has vowed to carry on with its military campaign against IS in Syria, it is an ominous sign of a long year to come.
The target, popular with celebrities and foreign tourists, appeared to be carefully chosen. A high-profile nightspot where people gather to drink alcohol and dance, it is a symbol of the country’s secular culture, which has come under threat from the increasingly autocratic and Islamist rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan was quick to blame terror groups that were “trying to create chaos” and “demoralize our people and destabilize our country.”
Even before Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, all evidence pointed to it being their work. It is unclear why IS waited more than 24 hours before taking credit, but as New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, an expert on jihadist groups, explained via a series of tweets, IS has been traditionally more reluctant to claim responsibility for mass atrocities than for targeted killings in Sunni-majority countries (likely for fear of alienating its supporters). Set against this, she continued, has been an upsurge in anti-Turkish IS rhetoric that has included calls for attacks against the country, including from the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Both the timing and nature of the attack bore the hallmarks of a classic IS attack. Since Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria in August, Ankara has made itself a target for a variety of forces engaged in the country’s vicious civil war. Turkish troops are now battling not only IS but also Kurdish factions allied with U.S.-backed rebels fighting the Syrian government.
By entering the war directly, Turkey de facto aligned itself with Russia, with which it recently worked to broker a fragile cease-fire, even though the two countries back different sides. Following the failed coup in July, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin before bringing his troops across Syria’s border. The relationship between the two has been unusually pleasant since. Even after Moscow’s ambassador to Ankara was assassinated in late December, Putin and Erdogan appeared to move closer together, not further apart, arguing that the violence was intended to undermine their efforts to work together to fight terrorism. Russia is also — ostensibly — fighting IS. In reality, however, Moscow is more concerned with fighting other Syrian opposition groups to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power and has come to be loathed by the rebels.
Moreover, like Russia, self-interest lies behind Turkey’s intervention: Its stated objective of overthrowing Assad is not the priority. Rather, Ankara is more concerned with defeating Kurdish groups allied to the rebels, which, with their separatist designs, it considers an existential threat to Turkish sovereignty. All of this has some analysts believing that Erdogan and Putin may have made some sort of bargain for Syria, likely resulting in the partitioning of the country, with some areas under Turkish influence or control and the rest in the hands of Assad.
“With [Turkey’s] recent alliance with Russia, it has effectively placed itself at odds with the Syrian opposition, as well as more extreme elements,” explains Rashad Ali, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organization dedicated to combating extremism. “The level of infiltration of [Al-Qaeda] and IS in Turkey, as well as its indigenous problems, already make managing the various security threats more and more complicated and difficult.”
This can only be tackled “with local intelligence and municipal-level cooperation with the state and global apparatus,” Ali adds. “Whilst Turkey is generally commended for how it has dealt with the fallout of the [Assad government’s] war against the Syrian people, its political stance of prioritizing the Kurdish question over its former stance of diplomatic and strategic support for the Syrian rebel factions means it has inadvertently placed itself on the opposite side of the Syrian people, not just the extremist factions.”
Ali also points out that — as a moderate Islamist and increasingly authoritarian regime that is allying tactically with the West — Turkey is seen by IS as being almost worse than the extremist group’s sectarian enemy, the Shi’a.
“IS may describe the Shi’a as rawafidh (those who reject) and majus (magicians), but the secularized sellout Islamists and the sellout Wahhabis are more culpable in their hypocrisy,” Ali says.
As ever, the apostate is despised more than the infidel.
Critically, Turkey’s entrance into the Syrian civil war also comes at a time when IS is suffering repeated losses on the ground. The so-called caliphate it once controlled — and that was, at its peak in 2014, an area the size of Great Britain — has shrunk drastically. The “victory” narrative that was once the foundation of IS propaganda has long receded. Turkish forces are now playing an integral role in the drive to push IS from Iraq’s second city of Mosul. It was the city’s capture in June 2014 that gave Baghdadi the confidence to declare the establishment of the caliphate that same month.
As IS has suffered on the ground, it has been forced to switch its focus. Military defeats damage the group’s “brand” and must be supplemented with successes elsewhere. These have consistently taken the form of terror attacks abroad, which allow the group to project power internationally and ensure it remains in global headlines.
IS’s November 2015 attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris and its surrounding areas, in which a combination of coordinated suicide bombings and shootings killed 130 people and injured almost 400 others, echoes the January 1 attack in Istanbul: A high-profile venue in which revelers drank and danced, activities considered haram (forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law), was targeted by gunmen who fired into the crowd.
Outrage — and its attendant publicity — has brought IS directly into people’s living rooms once more.
“IS has decided to project its war elsewhere, away from the focus point from its loss of territory,” Ali explains. “But also like all terrorism, it serves multiple purposes, including projecting power as well as diverting resources away and eyes and attention away from its losses. It has been preparing to return to its primary focus as a guerrilla-type and terrorist outfit, which we will see more of regionally and more attempts globally. A diffused IS means a diffused strategy of terrorism.”
In short, the bloodshed and killing is likely to continue for a long time to come — with disastrous consequences for innocent civilians from the Middle East to the heart of Europe.