On 28 October 2017, four individuals were arrested while parking two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in the carpark of a shopping mall in Istanbul’s Bayrampaşa district. According to the Turkish police, the individuals, who were identified as Austrian citizens of Turkish origin, were affiliated with the Islamic State. The attack itself was intended to be multi-phased: IEDs that were previously smuggled inside the mall would be detonated to spur a panicked rush of civilians to the carpark, whereupon the two VBIEDs would be detonated. In the final phase, the attackers would enter the crowd claiming to be trying to help those injured, and detonate their IED vests.
Significance: The target choice represents a departure from the Islamic State’s previous effort to refrain from targeting the wider Turkish population. Even the New Year’s Eve attack at a nightclub in Istanbul – the Islamic State’s most recent – was justified in the group’s monthly Rumiyah publication on the basis of targeting "heretics" and those "intentionally mixing with them". This shows an abandonment of the Islamic State’s overarching strategy, since the start of its terrorist campaign in Turkey, of seeking to aggravate the polarisation separating the country's Sunni Muslim, Turkish conservatives from its multiple and overlapping minorities, such as the Kurds, Alevis and those who are secular.
This probably shows that, in the context of the group’s current territorial demise in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State considers it far more important to project an image of continued capability and relevance. Meanwhile, the 11-month break in attacks reflects the success the Turkish government has had in countering the jihadist threat in the country. The fact that the attackers were foreign citizens is a reflection of this success. The 28 June 2016 Atatürk Airport and the 1 January 2017 nightclub attack were conducted by foreign militants.
Future attacks, while only moderately likely to be successful, would probably target Western diplomatic assets and personnel, foreign tourists and touristic locations, airports and transport hubs, assets and locations affiliated with ethnic and sectarian minorities (e.g. Kurds or Alevis), and locations with symbolic association with the secular foundations of the Turkish republic.
Ege Seckin is an Analyst, Country Risk – Middle East and North Africa at IHS Markit
Posted 3 November 2017