- Thomson Reuters
Two suicide bombers who killed over 100 people at a peace rally in Ankara last weekend – the worst terror attack ever on Turkish soil – were on security officials’ radar long before they carried out their attack.
The terrorists were on a list of 21 suspected would-be suicide bombers, Turkish media has reported.
One of them, Yunus Emre Alagoz, was the older brother of the man who killed 32 activists in Suruc in late July.
And over two years ago, theirfather described to the Turkish daily newspaper Radikalhow he feared his sonshad been radicalized in Syria.
The other suspected bomber, Omer Deniz Dundar, had traveled to Syria and upon returning home to Adiyaman in southeastern Turkey, was acting so strangely that his father asked police to “lock him up.” Authorities allegedly ignored his request.
Both bombers appear to have been linked to an ISIS cell in Adiyaman, though the jihadist group has not publicly taken responsibility for the attack. A third man, Orhan Gonder, knew the Alagoz brothers and may have traveled to Syria with them several times.
“This was a disaster waiting to happen,” Aykan Erdemir, a nonresident fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of Turkish parliament, told BI by email.
“It is appalling how they missed these guys.”
- REUTERS/Tumay Berkin
Both Alagoz and Dundar drove more than 400 miles from southeastern Turkey to Ankara, a volatile region with checkpoints where theyshouldhave been identified, Erdemir noted.
“It is either a case of an ‘epic failure’ for Turkish security forces, or some in the security forces have turned a blind eye to the jihadists,” Erdemir said.
‘A dangerous game’
Turkey has long been accused by the international community of adopting a risky “wait-and-see” approach when it came to the jihadists crossing back and forth between Turkey and Syria.
Between 2011 and 2014, Ankara adopted relaxed border policies to enable foreign fighterswho wanted to travel toSyria and fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
As the conflict progressed, the fighters taking advantage of this loose border enforcement were more and more radical. At one point, ISIS took control ofabout 40% of the565-mile border with Syria.
There is also evidence that Turkey’s ruling AKP party established ties with ISIS extremists in an attempt to reduce the chance of blowback brewing on its southern border.
- REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
But by the time Turkey joined the US-led anti-ISIS coalition in July, opening its Incirlik airbase to American fighter jets and launching limited airstrikes against ISIS targets in northern Syria, a vengeful jihadist network had already formed within its borders.
The Suruc and Ankara bombers – who were recruited by ISIS at a tea prayer house in Adiyaman before traveling to Syria where they were trained and radicalized – were apparently part of this network.
“It’s a dangerous game they have always been playing,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told BI in August.
After Turkey bombed ISIS for the first time on July 23, ISIS released a video denouncing Erdogan as a “traitor” and calling on Turkish Muslims to take back Istanbul from “those crusaders, atheists and tyrants.” The video heightened fears that another Suruc-style attack – or worse – was imminent.
- Thomson Reuters
Shortly after the bombing in Ankara, the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) blasted the government for not doing more to investigate the ISIS cell that had produced the Suruc bomber and his brother, who went on to commit the biggest terrorist attack in Turkey’s history.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced shortly after the bombing that there was reason to believe the PKK and ISIS coordinated the attack, so both would be investigated. But any links between the PKK and ISIS (who are bitter enemies, due to the fight between the Kurds and ISIS in northern Syria) have never been verified.
Critics have since denounced Davutoglu’s statement as a political tactic meant to justify the government’s continued war against the PKK – a war that, with all of its emphasis on Kurdish insurgents, has allowed jihadists like Alagoz and Dundar to slip through the cracks.
“There were numerous opportunities to arrest these men,” Aaron Stein, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told BI by email.
“Both Orhan and Omer [Dundar] were questioned by police, although in Orhan’s case this was because he had dodged his military service. I don’t know why the government is trying to rope in the PKK here, but this [ISIS] cell has nothing to do with the group [PKK].”
Prosecutors in Ankara have since banned the publication of materials relating to the investigation.
‘A massive oversight’
While the suspected bombers may have been known to Turkish security officials, the police may not even have had the authority to detain them.
Unlike for members of the PKK operating inside Turkey, Ankara has yet to adopt a comprehensive legal framework for how to deal with militants returning home after fighting with ISIS in Syria.
The murky legal status of returning foreign fighters makes it nearly impossible for police to detain anyone who has not actually launched an attack within Turkey’s borders, which may explain why far more suspected PKK members are arrested during Turkish officials’ anti-terror sweeps than suspected ISIS sympathizers.
- Sertac Kayar/Reuters
“Because these individuals are [Islamic State], they cannot be convicted unless lawyers can prove that they committed terrorisminsideTurkey,” Schanzer noted to BI in August.
“These people could be watched or followed by the police after they are let go, but they are free,” he added.
A gendarmerie officer on the Turkish-Syrian border corroborated this to al-Monitor: “Even if we know for sure that someone is an IS militant, we can’t touch him unless he has been involved in a violent crime in Turkey.”
The legal framework that allows Turkish police to round up members of the PKK – but does not address the issue of returning foreign fighters – was also built to encourage defections from the group, Aaron Stein told BI in August.
But that Turkey lacks a legal definition for what these returning foreign fighters do that actually breaks the law “seems like a massive oversight,” he said.
“There is no unified or clear idea across coalition partners about what to do with people who come home, and this is a general weakness in the overall approach to fighting ISIS.”