Abstract: Although the investigation is in its early stages, Turkish authorities suspect the Islamic State was responsible for the October 10, 2015 attack in Ankara that killed more than 100 people. The two suicide bombers are believed to be part of a cell responsible for two attacks in Turkey this year. Turkey’s decision to join the anti-Islamic State coalition has exposed it to a growing threat from the group because of its significant presence inside the country, its large number of Turkish recruits, and its growing attractiveness to Turkish Islamist extremists of Kurdish descent.

At 10:04am on Saturday, October 10, 2015, thousands were gathering outside Ankara’s main railway station to join a peace demonstration when two suicide bombers standing 60 feet apart in the middle of the crowd carried out the worst terrorist attack in Turkey’s modern history. Each of the bombers was wearing a suicide vest comprising around 10-15 pounds of TNT mixed with the military-grade explosive RDX and 30–40 pounds of steel balls.[1] The devices proved devastating: 102 were killed and 160 wounded, 63 of them seriously.[2] No group claimed responsibility.

The rally had been organized by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), leading members of the Alevi community, and left-wing parties, including the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), to protest against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s handling of the ongoing fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and call for an immediate ceasefire.

Those responsible for the Ankara attack appear to have deliberately aimed at a key fracture point in Turkey’s body politic, with the question of responsibility immediately becoming sharply politicized and the subject of angry recriminations between the government and the groups organizing the rally. Investigators nevertheless began to work on the identification of the bombers using data from the crime scene investigation, forensics reports, closed-circuit television tapes, and cell phone records.

The bombing had parallels with unclaimed attacks on pro-Kurdish rallies in Diyarbakir on June 5 and Suruc on July 20, which authorities both blamed on the Islamic State.[3] Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus noted similarities in the target, the use of suicide bombers, and the design of the suicide vests (TNT combined with RDX) in both the Suruc and Ankara attacks.[a]

At this early stage, investigators suspect that an Islamic State cell they believe was responsible for the earlier attacks, also carried out the Ankara bombings. Known as the Dokumacı network, the cell consisted of some 15 Kurdish-Turks allegedly recruited in the southern Turkish city of Adıyaman by Mustafa Dokumacı, a Turkish self-styled cleric who ran a tea-shop that served as a gathering point for Salafi extremists.[4] A security official in Ankara told the author that Dokumacı is believed to have made several trips to Syria between 2013 and 2014 and to have connected with the Islamic State there. At some point after his last trip to Syria in October 2014, Turkish intelligence agencies lost track of him, although they believe there are indications he was captured by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces near Tel Abayad.

On October 19, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkish authorities had confirmed the identity of one of the suicide bombers through DNA testing and investigations into the second were continuing. He stated, “we are exploring ties between the attacks on Suruc, Ankara, and Diyarbakir.”[5]

The same day, prosecutors publicly named one of suicide bombers as Yunus Emre Alagöz[6] and said the two attackers entered from a neighboring state, implying they came from Syria.[b] Alagöz was one of Dokumacı’s recruits in Adıyaman.[7] According to Turkish media reports, he was identified through DNA analysis and closed circuit television footage from before the attack.[c] Prosecutors stated the other suicide bomber may have been a foreigner, who also arrived from Syria.[8]

On October 18, Turkish police arrested four in relation to the attack and charged them with “fabrication of explosive devices with the intention to kill” and “an attempt to disrupt constitutional order.” One of those arrested reportedly confessed to escorting Yunus Alagöz and a foreigner to Ankara for money. He claimed they had already been equipped with explosive devices and that Yunus Alagöz had said the HDP party was the target for the attack.[9]

Alagöz was a close friend of the now-imprisoned Orhan Gazi Gonder, who allegedly planted the June 5 bomb in Diyarbakir that killed four. One of Alagöz’s younger brothers, Abdurrahman, was the alleged suicide bomber who in July killed 34 left-wing activists, mostly ethnic Kurds, in Suruc. Five days before the Ankara blasts, several Turkish news outlets reported that a group of around 100 Islamic State militants, possibly including Alagöz, had entered Turkey at the end of September to mount attacks.[10] According to a security official in Ankara, Yunus Alagöz had travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, and until a few days before the bombings was thought likely to still be there.[11]

In July 2015, Turkish security services intercepted a phone call between Yunus Alagöz and his youngest brother Yusuf in which he tried to recruit him to come to Syria. Later that month, Yusuf was briefly detained. In his interrogation by Turkish police he revealed that Yunus Alagöz had spent time in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2010 and traveled to Syria in early 2015.[12]

The Dokumacı network has been on the radar of Turkish security forces and intelligence since 2013.[13] In July 2014, both suspected Ankara bombers and Mustafa Dokumacı were included by the Adıyaman police department in a bulletin posted to all security units in Turkey.[14] This raises concerns about whether other cell members could launch attacks in the coming weeks and about why Turkish security services were unable to prevent the attacks.

One possible reason for the apparent misstep is that Turkish security services, who have historically and institutionally focused on the PKK, only began moving aggressively to dismantle Islamic State networks in Turkey in the summer of 2015. For example, on July 9, security officials in Ankara detained 30 suspects who were believed to have facilitated travel to Syria and Iraq for European recruits. Later that month, Turkish authorities arrested another group of militants suspected to have ties to the Islamic State.[15] Another reason for the failure to break up the bombing plot is that the Islamic State has taken advantage of gaps and grey areas in the Turkish legal system, including legal processes applying to detained militants, to continue to move fighters through southern Turkey into Syria.[16]

The Islamic State’s Turkish Strategy
Since Turkey’s first airstrikes against the Islamic State in August, there has been growing concern about retaliatory attacks by the group inside Turkey. More than 3,000 Turkish nationals have joined the Islamic State in Syria,[17] and the group has built up a recruitment and facilitation network across Turkey, including safe-houses in several Turkish cities such as Istanbul.[18] The Islamic State has also been very active in Turkey in raising money for its fight, providing shelter to the families of those fighting in Syria, and the delivery of logistical support to its operations through the use of some charity organizations and NGOs.[19]

The Islamic State has had particular success recruiting ethnic Kurds into its ranks. Of its more than 3,000 Turkish recruits, around 65% are ethnic Kurds,[d] as are nearly all the members of the Dokumacı network. Given the Islamic State’s atrocities against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, the group’s attractiveness for Kurdish-Turks may surprise some Western observers, but it reflects the fact that many Kurds live in southeast Turkey, the most religious part of the country. In the last 20 years, Salafi Islam has become significantly more popular in south-eastern Turkey. Secular political and militant groups such as the HDP, PKK, and YPG do not have a monopoly over Kurdish support despite dominating much of the literature on the Kurdish cause.

For Kurdish Salafis joining the Islamic State, its religious arguments have trumped the Kurdish nationalist message. The Islamic State claims to be uninterested in ethnic and national differences, and a significant number of Kurdish-Turkish Islamist extremists believe that if the Islamic State extends to Kurdish areas, Kurds will be equal citizens of the caliphate. It is worth noting that Islamic State propaganda has never denigrated Kurds as a people. Some Kurdish supporters of the group appear to have also fused nationalist and religious motivations, hoping that the Islamic State may create a Kurdistan province in Kurdish areas of Iran, Syria, and Turkey.[e]

Despite increasingly hostile language toward the Turkish government, the Islamic State’s leaders have not formally declared war against Turkey, nor have they claimed responsibility for any attacks inside Turkey. The first volume of its Turkish propaganda magazine Konstantiniyye’nin Fethi (The Conquer of Constantinople),[20] published in June, suggests that the Islamic State does not regard Turkey as a Dar el Harb (land of war) in the same way that it views the West. Instead, its leaders apparently view Turkey’s Sunni majority as targets for recruitment through propaganda, and Turkey as a center for recruitment, logistics, and financing.[21] The Islamic State appears to be following a calibrated strategy in Turkey, in which it carries out, but does not claim responsibility for acts of violence designed to further its aims. With a focus on winning hearts and minds, claiming responsibility for attacks risks alienating potential supporters inside Turkey.

The focus on winning hearts and minds fits with the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islamic prophecies, which has always been a powerful driving force for the group’s actions. The lead article of the first issue of Konstantiniyye’nin Fethi states that Istanbul has to be conquered again by the “armies of Islam,” but argues that, as foretold in the hadith (Mohammed’s sayings), it would be conquered “without weapons and bloodshed, only chants of God is Great,” after Islamic armies had engaged with Romans in a major war in Aleppo, close to the Day of Judgment.

The group has nonetheless made clear that it regards Erdogan’s AKP as apostates, and therefore by implication worthy of attack.[f] A video of Turkish fighters in Syria posted online the day after the Ankara bombing encouraged Turkish Sunnis to either join the Islamic State in Syria or remain in Turkey to “revolt and reckon with the infidels,” with exactly what that means being left vague.

These publications and the Ankara attack suggest the Islamic State aims to create tensions between conservative Sunnis and other groups through the use of targeted violence at fracture points in Turkish society. The key cleavage lines are religious differences between conservative Sunnis, Alevis, and secularists; political differences between conservatives and left-wingers; and the differences in economic circumstance between a rising bourgeoisie and marginalized groups angered by wide-spread corruption. The Islamic State strategy for Turkey is not dissimilar to its targeting of Shi’a in the Arab world, which is designed to provoke Sunni-Shi’a tension that it can take advantage of.

The Islamic State’s leaders hope that by eventually winning over a sufficient number of Turkish Sunnis, it will be able to discredit the ruling AKP as corrupt and fraudulent, topple the established order in Turkey, and use the country as a base for jihad. Given increasing pressure on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, expanding its support and presence in Turkey would likely be regarded by the leadership as highly desirable, and something, given their reading of Islamic prophecies, that they believe is their destiny.

Metin Gurcan is an independent Ankara based security analyst and a columnist for the Al-Monitor news outlet. He previously served in Turkey’s special forces, as a liaison officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the Turkish General staff. His book What Went Wrong in Afghanistan? Understanding Counter-insurgency in Tribalized Rural Muslim Environments will be published in June 2016. Follow @Metin4020.

Substantive Notes
[a] In total, four attacks in Turkey have a suspected links to the Islamic State. On March 20, 2014, Islamic State gunman killed three Turkish security personnel after being stopped at a checkpoint in Nigde. The attack does not appear to have been premeditated. See Semith Idiz, “ISIS emerges as a threat to Turkey,” Al-Monitor, March 25, 2014; “Ankara bombing investigation in final stage: Deputy PM Kurtulmus” Daily Sabah, October 12, 2015.

[b] Yunus Alagöz is believed to have made several trips to Syria, with his last departure from Turkey to Syria in early 2015. After Mustafa Dokumacı arrived in Syria in October 2014, several calls he placed to Yunus Alagöz in Adıyaman for updates on what was going on in Turkey were intercepted by Turkish intelligence. Author interview with Turkish security official, October 2015; Idris Emen, “Polis Alagöz kardesleri dinlemis: Belki son görüsmem!,” October 17, 2015.

[c] Turkish media, quoting police sources, reported he was identified on closed circuit television footage in the crowd doing reconnaissance just before the attack, and reported that investigators compared his DNA with relatives. See “Ikinci intihar bombacısı da listeden,” Radikal, October 14, 2015; Türker Karapınar, “Canlı bomba 06.45’te kamerada!” Milliyet, October 12, 2015; Neset Diskaya, Enis Yildirim, Mustafa Turk, “Tespitler ISID’i gösteriyor,” Haber Turk, October 13, 2015; “Ankara Blasts: Bombers Linked to the Islamic State,” BBC, October 14, 2015.

[d] Author interview with Ankara security source in Ankara on September 13, 2015. Several other reports have noted the high proportion of Kurds joining the Islamic State in Turkey. See: Michael Kaplan, “Kurds joining Islamic State? ISIS finds unlikely supporters among Turkey’s disgruntled Kurds,” International Business Times, July 30, 2015. From the Bingol province of Turkey alone, reportedly around 600 Kurds joined the Islamic State. Mahmut Bozaslan, “Kurds fight Kurds in Syria,” Al-Monitor, June 25, 2015.

[e] The Islamic State leadership have tried to maximize Kurdish recruitment by appointing Kurds to senior positions and sending Kurdish imams to northern Syria and Iraq to indoctrinate Kurds. There are also indications the group may reconstitute a Kurdish Islamic Front battalion, which had been dissolved in 2014. Author interviews with Kurdish community leaders in south-eastern Turkey, 2015; “Bagdadi ‘Kürt açılımı’ yaptı!,” Gazete Vatan, October 26, 2014. See also Denise Natali “Islamic State infiltrates Iraqi Kurdistan,” Al-Monitor, June 4, 2015.

[f] The most recent issue of the English-language magazine Dabiq states, “The Turkish government is one that legislates, executes, and judges by manmade laws. Its army is assembled in defense of the Turkish tagut and their crusader allies. This government and army is one of blatant apostasy.” Dabiq Issue 11, posted by the Islamic State online on September 9, 2015.

[1] Metin Gurcan, “Kimin icin guvenlik,” (Whose security are we talking about?), T24 News Agency, October 14, 2015.

[2] Tim Lister, “Ankara Terrorist Attack: What does it mean for Turkey?” CNN, October 12, 2015.

[3] Humeyra Pamuk, Orhan Coskun “Turkey bombing investigation focuses on homegrown ISIS cell” Reuters, October 13, 2015.

[4] Author interview with Turkish security official in Ankara, October 2015; Benjamin Harvey, “The Ankara Bomber owned one of Turkey’s most well-known hang-outs,” Bloomberg Business, October 15, 2015.

[5] Daren Butler, “Turkey confirms identity of one of Ankara suicide bombers: Davutoglu,” Reuters, October 19, 2015; Ella Ide, “Four Held in Turkey Over Ankara Attack,” Agence France Presse, October 19, 2015, Mesut Hasan Benli, “Four suspects arrested over Ankara bombing,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 19, 2015.

[6] “Bassavcılık: Ankara katliamcılarından biri Yunus Emre Alagöz,” Radikal, October 19, 2015; “Four held in Turkey over Ankara attack, bomber identified,” Agence France Presse, October 19, 2015.

[7] Author interview with Turkish security official, Ankara, October 2015. See also Ismail Saymaz, “Wiretaps reveal jihadist dedication of suspects,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 18, 2015.

[8] “Bassavcılık: Ankara katliamcılarından biri Yunus Emre Alagöz,” Radikal, October 19, 2015

[9] Mesut Hasan Benli, “Four suspects arrested over Ankara bombing,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 19, 2015.

[10] Hikmet Durgun, “ISID militanları Türkiye’de eylem hazırlıgında (Turkish)” Sputniknews, October 5, 2015.

[11] Author interview in Ankara, October 12, 2015.

[12] Author interview with security official in Ankara, October 2015.

[13] “Cihat Tapeleri: 45 Kisiyi Öldürdük, Allah’a Hamdolsun,” Haberler, October 18, 2015.

[14] See the Adıyaman Police Department’s Wanted list: http://onedio.com/haber/-21-canli-bomba-suphelisi-araniyor–604636.

[15] Ceylan Yeginsu, “Turkey arrests 21 suspected of ties to ISIS,” New York Times, July 10, 2015; Susan Capelouto and Gul Tuysuz, “Turkey arrests hundreds of suspected terrorists, Prime Minister Says,” CNN, July 25, 2015.

[16] Metin Gurcan “Is the Islamic state really a terrorist group? Turkish lawyers don’t think so,” Al-Monitor, July 13, 2015; Metin Gurcan “Are Turkish courts delaying trials of IS militants,” Al-Monitor, July 31, 2015.

[17] “Turkiye’den ISID’a katilim suruyor (Turkish),” Voice of America, October 18, 2015.

[18] Thomas Seibert, “Police ignored Turkey’s ISIS Teahouse of death,” The Daily Beast, October 16, 2015.

[19] “Insani yardim ISID’a (Turkish),” Ulusalkanal, July 8, 2014.

[20] Full text of Konstantiniyye’nin Fethi article available at: http://jihadmin.tumblr.com/post/120891829450/konstantiniyye-dergisi-1sayısı-türkçe.

[21] Metin Gurcan, “Islamic State releases its first Turkish publication,” Al-Monitor, June 8, 2015.

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