What the Istanbul Bombing Means for Turkey’s Security and Economic Climate
January 14, 2016
On January 12th, a single suicide bomber detonated his suicide vest in the touristic centre of Istanbul. The explosion occurred in the vicinity of the Obelisk of Theodosius in the Sultanahmet Square of Istanbul’s Fatih district. The blast left at least ten dead, all of whom were German tourists.
Government officials stated that the perpetrator has been identified as a Syrian national that entered the country on January 5th through the Syrian border as a refugee. The bomber is believed to have been linked to Islamic State (IS) militants.
Tuesday’s attack follows a thwarted terrorist plot in which Turkish security forces managed to arrest two suspects who allegedly planned to carry out an attack in Ankara during the New Year’s Eve celebrations. The attack in Istanbul is also the third major terrorist bombing that rocked the country in less than 12 months. In July 2015, an IS-linked suicide bomber targeted a gathering of a socialist and pro-Kurdish group in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, killing 33. In October 2015, two explosions hit a pacifist rally in Ankara, leaving 102 dead.
A complex terrorist threat
Recent attacks in Turkey underscore that the country faces a complex terrorist threat. Three specific groups have the will and capabilities to conduct terrorist acts in the country.
Sunni extremist militants supporting the IS ideology and loosely linked to groups operating in Syria and Iraq pose and increasing threat to Turkey. In August 2015, IS officials called for attacks in Turkey following Ankara’s decision to carry out airstrikes against the terrorist organisation.
The threat posed by IS to Turkey is a two-level one. On the one hand, Sunni extremist militants actively plan to conduct mass-casualties bombings in Turkish key population centres, as exemplified by the Istanbul and Ankara attacks. These terrorist attacks follow the international IS strategy of hitting soft civilian targets. On the other hand, IS militants have the goal of protecting their strategic supply routes in southern Turkey and weakening rival organisations. As such, radical Islamist militants periodically engage in low-level shoot-outs, terrorist bombings as well as assassinations in Turkish provinces bordering the Syrian regions of Idlib, Aleppo and Kobane.
Kurdish militants, mainly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), are currently engaged in aninsurgency against Turkish authorities. Since July 2015 and the breakdown of peace talks, PKK militants and other Kurdish separatist groups have been carrying out multiple attacks against security forces and administrative personnel and facilities. The majority of this violence occurs in Kurdish-majority southern and southeastern provinces. However, in August 2015, PKK militants bombed a police station in Istanbul highlighting the threat posed by Kurdish separatist attacks to the country’s main cities.
To a lesser extent, far-left militants also represent an ongoing terrorist threat in Turkey. The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP/C), an anti-government, anti-Islamist and anti-Western organisation, carried out multiple attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. In January 2015, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul that killed two. Gunmen of the DHKP/C also opened fire on the US embassy in Istanbul in August 2015.
Forecast for the Turkish security and economic environment
In the wake of the January 12th bombing, Turkish security forces are expected to carry out enhanced anti-terrorist operations within the country targeting Islamist networks and IS-support groups. These operations may lead to localised outbursts of violence and could prompt retaliatory attacks. In addition, the fact that the suicide bomber entered Turkey as a Syrian refugee may result to additional tensions in southern provinces. Turkish nationals have in the past staged violent protests to demonstrate against the presence of large numbers of Syrian refugees in the country’s border regions. This could result in heightened communal tensions.
As for the Turkish business environment, spillovers from the Syrian conflict as well as the ongoing terrorist threat posed by Kurdish and far-left militants are unlikely to drastically affect the national economy. While national governments are likely to issue travel-specific advisories following Istanbul’s bombing, there will be no major impact on international business operations in Istanbul and Ankara.
However, the terrorist threat in the country is an evolving security risk for those operating in Turkey. Specific measures will have to be taken to ensure the safety of personnel and the protection of assets, but normal business operations are likely to continue unhindered in the foreseeable future.
The sector most likely to suffer from the current situation is tourism, as leisure travellers may decide to avoid destinations that they deem less safe. However, the Turkish authorities’ response to the evolving threat will be key to understanding if these fluctuations will be short-term or will lead to wider readjustments that could negatively affect the national economy in the long-term.