IS and the Istanbul Attack


The group is activating its sleeper cells abroad in anticipation of the eventual fall of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria


By Abdel Bari Atwan

If it is confirmed that the perpetrator of the New Year’s Eve massacre in Istanbul managed to escape to Islamic State (IS)-controlled north eastern Syria, that would constitute a huge setback for the Turkish security forces.

Reports on Thursday maintained that the gunman, who killed 39 people in a shooting spree at a restaurant for which Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, had arrived in IS’ Syrian stronghold of al-Raqqa, and that celebrations were held to celebrate his return. This has yet to be verified, and the report could be part of an IS misinformation exercise.

Also on Thursday, Turkish Deputy Premier Veysi Kaynak revealed for the first time that the killer was a member of the Uigur Muslim minority based primarily in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang – which Turkish nationalists refer to as ‘Eastern Turkestan’ – and conceded that he could have fled the country.

The Turkish authorities had been anticipated an attack such as last Sunday night’s and extensive precautions were taken to deter or prevent one. Tens of thousands of plainclothes and uniformed officers were deployed in Istanbul, and the state of emergency introduced after last summer’s attempted coup was extended for three months, yet the gunman managed to strike and then disappear. His success in evading capture for five days despite the massive security operation that was launched to apprehend him represents an embarrassing second failure for Turkey’s security agencies.

It also suggests that IS has a formidable underground network in Istanbul and elsewhere within Turkey capable of concealing the fugitive and perhaps spiriting him out of the country – whether westwards to Europe or eastwards to the IS ‘caliphate’ – employing its proven expertise in smuggling both arms and people.

Turkish authorities have reportedly arrested 36 people in connection with the attack, including the gunmen’s wife and two children who live in the city of Konya. But that does not mean they played any part in the incident. They include employees of the targeted restaurant, some of whom are said to have lent him cash to pay a taxi fare.

These security failures will undoubtedly encourage IS, which has effectively declared war on Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – the ‘ally of the Cross’ as it described the country in the statement it issued claiming responsibility  for the Istanbul massacre. Not that it needed further encouragement to launch attacks on Turkey following Erdoğan’s military intervention in northern Syria to eject it from Jarablus followed by al-Bab.

New Strategy

The Istanbul attack can be linked to directives that were reportedly issued by IS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi for operatives to activate sleeper cells in Arab and European countries and carry out ‘qualitative’ attacks on civilians in response

to the international coalition’s attacks on IS territory.


He specifically urged the targeting of oil installations – which could be a reference to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states — and to ‘the foreign interests of states taking part in the coalition’ — taken to mean Western embassies or companies in Arab and Islamic countries, attacks against which would be guaranteed to grab headlines worldwide.


But perhaps the most worrying aspect of the IS leader’s instructions was his call on Muslim ‘migrant’ fighters in Iraq, Syria or other states to return to their respective countries of origin and declare the establishment of IS ‘provinces’ there – citing recent examples in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya’s Sirte, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe.


This suggests that Baghdadi is not excluding the possibility that his ‘caliphate state’ may — eventually and after fierce resistance – be destroyed, and is planning for the aftermath


How long that takes is anybody’s guess. Iraqi Premier Haidar al-Abadi has said he needs two more months to destroy IS in Mosul. During his recent visit to Baghdad, French President Francois Hollande said that this may just be a matter of weeks, predicting that 2017 would be ‘the year of victory against terrorism.’ But the head of the international coalition in Iraq, Gen. Stephen Townsend, believes that overrunning IS may take another two years to achieve.


Whichever outlook is more credible in military terms, the French president was surely being over-optimistic when he spoke in terms of defeating terrorism. IS greeted him to the region with simultaneous bombings in Baghdad and Samaraa in Iraq, followed by the Istanbul shooting, another attack in Tartous in Syria and a fourth in Berlin. God alone knows where it will strike next.


IS’ prospective defeat in Mosul will not in itself diminish its capacity to carryout such attacks, but in all likelihood prompt it to escalate them.


Before the international coalition began mounting airstrikes on IS in Iraq and Syria, drying up its financial resources and tightening the siege on the cities under its control such as Mosul and Raqqa, the group did not carry terrorist attacks abroad. It focused on consolidating its hold on the territories under its control and trying to expand them. Now, with the survival of the ‘caliphate state’ looking difficult if not impossible to achieve, IS has begun to shift to its ‘Plan B’, giving a green light to its sleeper cells to act.


Turkey stands to suffer more than any other country from this shift, especially after opting to fully join the war on IS after remaining reluctant to do so for years and maintaining an ambivalent attitude to the group.


When doing research on IS for my book on the group, I recall being told by a senior jihadi: ‘Turkey will never dare to fight us. There is an unwritten agreement between us: If you attack us, we will carry the war deep into your territories and destroy the tourism industry that brings you 36 billion dollars annually.’


The New Year’s Eve shooting, and previous attacks in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere in Turkey, indicate that this threat is now being acted upon.