Turkey’s Brutal Year

The country is at the confluence of forces driving lethal terrorism around the world.

Official walk inside Turkey's largest airport, Istanbul Ataturk, following a blast on June 28, 2016. (Osman Orsal / Reuters)

There was a comforting New York Times article that came out in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings, which I thought of again yesterday as the death toll ticked steadily higher in the suicide attacks at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. That toll stands at 41 people as of this writing; but as the Times’s Russell Goldman pointed out after Omar Mateen killed 49 people in Florida, historically since the 1970s, “the average death toll in terror attacks … is close to zero.”

The context can’t bring back innocent lives lost or heal devastated families. It remains valuable to consider in the wake of horrific events like those in Orlando, Istanbul, and Yemen, where 40 people were killed in suicide attacks on Monday. Yet as Goldman acknowledged, it’s also true that mass-casualty attacks have gotten more frequent in recent years relative to the 1970s. Erin Miller, the program manager for the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, told him that in prior decades “there was much more of an emphasis [on] symbolic events. … Terrorists would call in a warning. It would be terrorizing, intimidating, coercive but nonlethal.”

Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism scholar at the Rand Corporation, formulated the trend thus in the mid-1970s: “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” There were nuances to the formulation even then, though. “It was a dynamic thing and it didn’t apply equally to all groups,” he told me following the Istanbul attacks. “But many groups, especially those that felt they had a constituency, worried about not alienating their constituency and not going too far.” They observed self-imposed constraints. Today, increasingly, he said, “terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead.”

The Global Terrorism Database, for example, charts a steep uptick in terrorist attacks worldwide that killed at least one person over the past decade, including those like the one in Istanbul, and others Turkey has experienced recently, that killed dozens. The overwhelming majority of fatalities from such attacks take place in conflict zones or unstable states—in 2014, 78 percent of terrorism fatalities occurred in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. “The long-term trend,” says Jenkins, “is that terrorism has become one aspect of conflict in the world.”

Data: Global Terrorism Database (2010-2014); Reuters and media reports (2015 onwards). (Reuters)

Turkey unfortunately finds itself at the confluence of these trends; in the past year, the country has seen some of the worst levels of terrorist violence outside of an active conflict zone. Parts of Turkey’s southeast, where hundreds have died in the government’s renewed battle against Kurdish separatists after a brief ceasefire eased decades of violence there, could themselves be considered conflict zones. Major drivers of the increase in lethal terrorism in recent years—including the Syrian Civil War, the rise of ISIS, and the collapse in 2015 of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish government and the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its affiliates—come together within Turkey. As Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute wrote in The Atlantic last October:

The country’s 500-mile border with Syria has become a permeable barrier due to the government’s policy of abetting rebels battling the Assad regime. But border flows go both ways. Support from Syria’s well-organized and well-armed pro-PKK Kurds could fuel the fighting in Turkey, complicating the government’s efforts not only within Turkey itself, but also in Syria where Turkey-backed proxy groups operate near Kurdish areas in their fight against the Assad regime. For the first time, Turkey risks a two-country Kurdish insurgency.

And that same border with Syria offers a gateway for ISIS attacks inside Turkey. In July, after the Islamic State claimed credit for a suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc that killed more than 30 people, Erdogan agreed to open Turkish bases to U.S. planes and drones, and pledged to join the U.S. campaign to bomb ISIS targets in Syria. In doing so, Erdogan has ensured that ISIS sees Turkey as an enemy, and the group will inevitably, and unfortunately, attack Turkey again. The only question is when, and how severely.

No one has claimed responsibility for the Istanbul attack, though Turkish officials have pointed to ISIS. No matter what, the 41 lives lost at the airport yesterday add to a grim and growing toll to which both ISIS and Kurdish separatist groups have contributed. In attacks from both in Turkey since last summer alone, more than 200 people have died.