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It was an hour into 2017 that the Islamic State (IS) carried out its first act of mass-murder: an IS jihadist attacked the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, massacring thirty-nine people. IS has been attacking Turkey with increasing frequency over the last two years and, since Turkey intervened directly in Syria in August, IS’s media output has elevated the Turks into a priority target for terrorism. The public claim of responsibility by IS for the Reina attack suggests that we are moving into a new era in terms of how IS treats Turkey. Turkey’s increasingly warm relations with Russia have angered many Muslims around the world, providing jihadists an incentive and opportunity, and providing al-Qaeda political space it seemed to have lost to co-opt the Syrian rebellion. It is therefore likely that more bloodshed is to come for Turkey.
THE REINA ATTACK
Security around Istanbul had been increased for New Year’s Eve, though there is some suggestion of a shortfall, especially in the intelligence realm, because of the purges that followed the coup attempt on 15 July 2016. Outside the Reina (“Queen”) nightclub there was an armed policeman. Inside the club there were additional security officers, though they were unarmed in line with Turkish law. Soon after midnight, as 2016 became 2017, an IS operative killed the policeman outside Reina, killed two security officers at the entrance, and proceeded inside.
The killer fired at partygoers from an elevated dais near the entrance. Then, throwing smoke bombs into the crowd, “the gunman seemed to move like a soldier, methodically going table-to-table, taking aim and shooting as many people as he could,” according to CNN, which has “viewed yet to be released video of the attacker as he picked his targets”. A total of 180 bullets were fired, including outside the club.
Thirty-nine people were murdered, at least twenty-seven of them foreigners, and sixty-nine more were injured. The attack lasted for just seven minutes. In the chaos, which included people jumping into the Bosporus, the jihadist assassin had discarded an outer layer of dark clothing and his weapon, slipping into the panicked mass and out of reach of the Turkish authorities before they realized they had lost him.
The search for the IS operative continues to this hour. The Turks quickly released footage of the murderer having his passport checked as he entered Turkey and of him wandering around Taksim Square—the picture above is a selfie taken by the man while filming this second video. Initially the IS operative was identified as Lakhe Mashrapov from Kyrgyzstan. It quickly became apparent that Lakhe Mashrapov was not the perpetrator—he was still in his home country.
Yesterday, the Turkish media, quoting police sources, named the killer as Abdulgadir Masharipov from Uzbekistan, who also uses the kunya Abu Muhammad al-Khurasani. According to the latest from the Turkish press, Mashrapov arrived in Istanbul on 15 December 2016 from Konya, where a cell of Uzbek IS jihadists operates and provided him logistical support.
ISLAMIC STATE’S RESPONSIBILITY
IS claimed the attack on 2 January:
In continuation of the blessed operations waged by the Islamic State against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier from the soldiers of the Caliphate struck one of the most well-known nightclubs, wherein the Christians were celebrating their polytheist holiday. He stormed them with hand grenades and his machine gun, turning their joy into sorrows, and reaping from them one-hundred-and-fifty killed and wounded. It came in revenge for the religion of Allah the Almighty and in fulfilment of the order of the Commander of the Faithful (Emir al-Mumineen) to target the servants of the cross, Turkey … Let the Turkish apostate government know that the blood of the Muslims shed with their airstrikes and artillery will become a fire in their own home.
This was very noticeably released by a core outlet of IS’s media apparatus, not Amaq, the “news” agency that poses as an independent entity and has become the recognized forum for IS’s claims of its external terrorist atrocities. (Amaq would put out a claim the following day.) It is also notable that the attack is claimed in the name of Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), rather than “in response to calls to target the citizens” of states involved in the U.S.-led Coalition against IS. One possible reason for this is that the main “call” came in an infamous speech in September 2014 by Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) in his role as IS’s official spokesman, and Falaha was killed in August. But these two variations on usual protocol suggest an effort to portray the attack as centrally directed, rather than inspired, according to Charlie Winter, who tracks IS’s propaganda very closely. And it is plausible that this was a centrally-directed attack.
IS’s Amn al-Kharji, which can be read about in greater detail here, operates as IS’s foreign intelligence service, as defectors have explained. Amn al-Kharji has two tasks: to infiltrate areas on the near-abroad of the caliphate to prepare them for expansion and to orchestrate foreign terrorist attacks, including the wave of attacks in Europe and elsewhere in Ramadan 2016, which has continued into the new year, and which are often mischaracterized as “lone wolf” attacks.
The infrastructure of Amn al-Kharji is particularly extensive in Turkey, and a previous attack, the 28 June 2016 inghimasi raid on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, has some instructive resemblances. The IS operatives had been trained and equipped inside the caliphate, were dispatched into Turkey from IS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, and acted under direct instructions from IS’s senior leadership. They killers were all from Russia and former Soviet Central Asia. Turkey has long hosted a large number of Chechen, Caucasian, and other Russian-speaking Muslims, many of them refugees from wars against the Kremlin, and some of IS’s first foreign recruits were Chechens in Turkey, notably Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), who of course maintained various ties in Turkey even after they left. Whether the same or similar networks were involved this time is as-yet unclear.
It is possible, though unlikely, that Reina was carried out by an “inspired” individual, rather than somebody in direct contact with IS. While the Reina attack has resemblances to the Paris atrocities of 13 November 2015, which were directed attacks, specifically the mass-slaughter at the Bataclan, Reina most clearly resembles the 12 June 2016 assault on the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, carried out by Umar Mateen. Mateen was a security guard and long-time radical (not always of an entirely consistent nature) who was apparently motivated by the Coalition killing IS commander Shaker al-Fahdawi (Abu Waheeb). Mateen’s attack was, on the current state of the evidence,1 a “lone wolf” attack, i.e. did not operate in a network and was not guided by an Amn al-Kharji handler. Assaults on soft targets that cannot be fortified without changing the nature of free societies by individuals whose only preparation was in their own mind are the stuff of nightmares for security agencies: there is no realistic way to stop them. Since the attack, thirty-six people at least have been arrested. They could all turn out to be innocent and the connection of the killer in Istanbul to the cell in Konya would still rule-out this being a “lone wolf” attack, whether or not the cell was operating under IS’s direct instruction.
AN ESCALATION AGAINST TURKEY
IS publicly claiming the attack in Turkey is relatively new. Though IS has launched a wave of attacks in Turkey starting in January 2015, it has usually avoided claiming them. One theory is that this is because Turkey has acted as a kind of rear-base for IS, which was true for a time but the crackdown in Turkey in late 2014 is what precipitated the attacks. More likely, IS is doing what it always does: waging political warfare and manipulating and dividing its opponents in the most effective way possible. A lot of the terrorist strikes were in Kurdish areas; allowing ambiguity fostered the maximum instability in relations between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurdish population. Ankara could suspect its old nemesis the PKK, an inflamed issue as the ceasefire collapsed and the U.S. began helping the Syrian PKK expand its territorial holdings as part of the anti-IS war. And, while Turkey’s Kurds knew the attacks were carried out by IS, they “leveled almost as much blame at the [government], who, they thought, was secretly in league with the terrorists,” as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan explain in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.
IS did claim “credit” in a strange case last summer. Thaddeus Borowicz, an American working in Adana at a Turkish airbase, was found dead on 13 June 2016. The U.S. said his death was accidental; IS claimed three days later they had killed him. The first mass-anti-civilian atrocity IS claimed in Turkey was a car bombing in Diyarbakir on 4 November 2016. The timing of this hardly seems to be an accident.
Two days before the Diyarbakir attack, the caliph had re-appeared for the first time in nearly a year to deliver a speech that concentrated on the need for IS not to retreat in Mosul. During the speech, al-Badri said:
Turkey today has become a target for your operations and priority for your jihad, so seek Allah’s assistance and attack it. Turn their security into panic and their prosperity into dread, and add it to the scorching zones of your combat.
In his first speech on 5 December, IS’s new spokesman, replacing Falaha, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, added:
We make a call to every truthful [jihadist] to target the supports of the apostate, secularist, Turkish state everywhere, including the security, military, economic, and media apparatuses, rather, even every embassy and consulate representing them in all lands of the earth.
IS subsequently burned alive two Turkish soldiers in a video released by their Wilayat Halab (Aleppo Province) on 22 December.
NO END IN SIGHT
Turkey intervened directly in Syria in August 2016, clearing IS from the border town of Jarabulus, sealing the Turkish-Syrian border, and creating a buffer zone in the northern Aleppo countryside. While the operation continues to focus on IS, a dual target is the PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK. The Turks wish to prevent the PYD forming a contiguous statelet all across Turkey’s southern border. Ankara had been prepared to intervene in the summer of 2015 but was stopped under a deal with the U.S. and the PYD, where the Turkish government, which has its own channels to the PYD, agreed to PYD control of territory east of the Euphrates. The PYD promptly violated this agreement, with the assistance of Russian airstrikes, and no penalty was applied by the international Coalition. A year later the Turks felt they had no other choice.
The environment was much more treacherous by the time the Turks finally waded in, however. Initially, the political fallout looked promising. Al-Qaeda in Syria had rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), claiming to cut links with the mother organization, in an attempt to further integrate into the insurgency and pull the rebellion under its banner. The JFS-led offensive that broke the siege of Aleppo City had given an enormous boost to this merger project. Then the Turks stepped in and effectively ended this merger talk, isolating JFS politically even among jihadi-salafist groups and providing mainstream rebels with a realistic alternative to what was otherwise the tactical necessity coordination with JFS. This dynamic was unfortunately soon reversed.
Turkey found that though she had established a fait accompli and had easily more importance inside Syria than the United States, she had also opened herself up to new vulnerabilities, namely the ability of the pro-Assad coalition to make trouble. The Turks did not want a direct confrontation with the remnants of Bashar al-Assad’s army or the Iranian Shi’a jihadists that lead the regime coalition’s ground force, and nor did Turkey want the initial clashes with the PYD/PKK to escalate into an all-out war, which they could have done—and still could. The PKK was partly founded as a Moscow proxy to destabilize a front-line NATO state and Russia retains strong ties to the PKK. This consideration is not just short-term: a breach with Russia that fosters a closer Moscow-PKK relationship will internationalize an internal Turkish security challenge for decades.
Turkey had already been moving towards better relations with Russia before the coup attempt; this intensified afterwards when Ankara sought to mend fences with a number of antagonists. Turkey’s intervention itself had been coordinated with Moscow, and once in Syria the Turks acted in accordance with a “sphere of influence”-type agreement that is now on its way to being formalized and called “peace”.
In simple terms, Turkey would not hinder the pro-Assad coalition’s conquest of Aleppo City and the Russians would keep the Turkish enclave from being molested, allowing the Turks to end the PKK’s maximalist agenda and protect their border.
Now that it is clear the Turkish Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD is not supportive of revolutionary aims and that Turkey is moving further into the Russian orbit, factions associated with the operation—namely the mainstream rebels and Ahrar al-Sham—are back on the defensive vis-à-vis resisting a merger with JFS. The lack of unity among insurgents has been a major problem in their prosecution of the war, and though it suits the purposes of JFS’ allies to claim that Turkey drew away forces defending Aleppo City to defend the Turkish border, it also happens to be true. The Free Syrian Army-style rebels have been diverted into border duty for Turkey and Jordan and anti-IS activities by America. The only foreign entity to whose wagon the FSA can hitch their civilian-protection and anti-regime causes to has been al-Qaeda—leaving little mystery why JFS has more standing than the West among many Syrians. Rebels know that a merger with JFS is political suicide; they also are approaching a position where refusal might be physical suicide. It is difficult to counter-narrative reality.
Turkey’s relations with the U.S. have been strained for many reasons, as I explained in a recent Henry Jackson Society report. Among the problems is the U.S.’s uncritical support for the Syrian PKK. A fresh example of this has now been revealed. The U.S.’s plan for defeating IS in Raqqa is to use the Syrian PKK to expel IS and then to leave an Arab “hold” force. But the vetting for Arab fighters being trained by the U.S. has been handed to the PKK and the Arabs are only able to get onto the course if they accept the ideology of the PKK—and the PKK then intends to send these Arabs to fight Turkey, not IS. Local inhabitants regard these forces as “Kurdified Arabs,” no different from, and no more acceptable than, the PKK. Added to this, the U.S. refused to provide support for the Turkish-run operation against IS-held al-Bab, leading to hysterical accusations—with more than a hint of schadenfreude given the U.S. administration’s messaging against Turkey—that the U.S. was supportive of IS, and the Turks turned to the Russians, who are now providing airstrikes.2 The failure of the U.S. to assertively act to pull Turkey away from this drift toward Moscow is hampering even the counter-terrorism mission in Syria, making peace harder to imagine, and posing a serious long-term challenge to NATO.
Turkey has spared herself one set of security concerns by establishing closer relations with Russia, protecting her enclave in Syria and preventing the PKK becoming an issue outside of domestic control. But it has created a whole new set of issues. The savage Russian conduct in Syria is going to taint Turkey by extension, especially as Ankara slowly alters its own view of whether Assad has to go. This will create a lot more sympathy for IS attacks on Turkey, more of which should be expected. The incentive is not just to IS, either. The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara by assailants-unknown on 19 December was a preview of this; not claimed by IS, it could easily have just been an enraged individual. There will be more rage as the pro-Assad coalition moves to mop up rebel pockets in its customarily sanguinary way in 2017. Some of that rage will now be displaced onto Turkey, and extremist groups will look to capitalize.
 That Umar Mateen was a “lone wolf” cannot be known for certain. IS’s tradecraft has significantly improved since the defection of Edward Snowden to Moscow in 2013 and his assistance in Russia’s sustained active measures campaign against Western intelligence. One improvement IS made was the increased use of “burners“; another was encryption, since Snowden revealed those that Western security services were having trouble breaking. So although one mobile telephone belonging to Mateen was recovered, it is quite conceivable others were not—indeed if he had been in touch with IS, the use of multiple communications devices would have been one of their first instructions. Those devices would now be destroyed and uncovering encrypted conversations without them is near-impossible. However, despite whatever hints might be available in the evidence that Mateen acted under guidance, there is not at this point any way to verify such suspicions and probably now never can be.
 Though it was clear that Russia had executed several airstrikes in support of Turkey’s push against IS in al-Bab on 30 December—the same day the supposed ceasefire—it was not clear the extent. It is now evident that Russia’s airstrikes have been sustained over a week since then.