The new Istanbul attack: Counter-terrorism options and dilemmas  for Turkey – by Maria Chr. Alvanou

The Saturday night dual blast in Istanbul came as a tragic reminder that Turkey’s internal problems are a constant source for violent threats. Despite Daesh rhetoric, what really troubles the country is the terror activity perpetrated by Kurdish groups. From an operational point of view the methodology used tells us nothing new about how Kurdish groups carry out attacks.Car blasts and suicide attacks are standard. Actually regarding suicide attacks, Kurdish groups have always been used in scholar literature as a typical example of how non Islamist organizations also use them. The perpetrators may not be “shahids”, but for the sake of the cause they are willing to kill by giving up their own lives. What is worth analyzing about this attack is its connection with the general Turkish counter-terrorism strategy and Turkish politics.

The measures taken by the Turkish government during the last years in order to respond to terrorism are harsh and problematic. From a legislative point of view, changes were made and for some years now law enforcement has been given super powers in order to investigate terrorism cases and prevent attacks. These legislative measures were criticized by Europeans who have considered them incompatible with the rule of law and human rights protection. After the attempted coup, a large campaign to clear the country from terrorists started and it did not target only the followers of Fethullah Gülen (real or perceived-accused to be), but also anyone who is supposed to be connected to the Kurdish movement (again, in reality or according to assumptions and accusations). Thus, members of the press, members of the political scene and representatives of political parties have been arrested for alleged relationship with terrorism. It is commented by many that the above strategy is actually politically driven in order to silence the voices of the government’s opposition (and it has nothing to do with really fighting terror). The result is just prominent figures of Turkish society in jail, while terror attacks are still taking place.

Putting aside for now the Daesh threat, Kurdish organizations are an imminent danger for security, openly in war with Turkey. The time period of relative peace and hope that things can peacefully change seems to be over. As the political branch of the Kurdish movement is hunted down and is suffocating, the militant branch is getting stronger and more active. While there is absolutely no excuse for terror, the long standing turbulent situation in the Kurdish populated areas in Turkey and the settings of the whole conflict must be taken into account in order to explain why legal and military or police measures cannot- on their own- adequately combat the phenomenon.

We anticipate to see how the Turkish government will react. Will it proceed with more strict measures and more prosecutions to address terrorist violence, which is destructive in many levels? For example the country needs to fight terror not only protect the physical safety of its citizens, but also for example to regain the financial profits of tourism (especially relevant for Istanbul) that are valuable to the economy. A travel destination must be above all a safe one and terror attacks are not an appealing attraction for tourists. A serious, organized counter terrorism approach is sine qua non, just as long as it does not use the struggle against terror as pretext for political purposes and respects human rights and liberties.

Taking into account the experience of other countries that have faced violence by separatist and liberation groups, what appears to be lacking in Turkey is an approach that chooses to support dialogue with the political arm of the Kurds, in order to marginalize the militant branch. Another missing point is a campaign to tackle radicalization and prevent it, as well as support deradicalization options for those wanting to leave the terror scene. Turkey is called to balance between security and democracy, between instinctive revenge and a calm, calculated policy to put an end to the long standing violent animosity. Such balance becomes extra difficult under the weight of   tragic deaths and innocent victims.