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Bolstered international support for LNA Field Marshal Haftar amid ongoing hostilities in Tripoli likely to prolong conflict – Libya Analysis

Executive summary

Over the past three years, the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has gained increased domestic and international legitimacy amid his forces’ territorial advances in the Oil Crescent, Benghazi, Derna and the Fezzan Region.

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

Despite this development, recent actions by prominent Western leaders, particularly of the US, the UK, and France, have increased the international legitimacy of the LNA vis-a-vis the UN-backed GNA in Libya.

This increased Western support for Haftar may be interpreted as a “green light” for his regional supporters, namely the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to further extend financial and military assistance to the LNA.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar have, and will continue to bolster their own measures to assist GNA-linked forces in Tripoli in order to further their own interests in the oil-rich country.

Overall, the bolstered international and regional involvement in the Libyan conflict will fuel further hostilities and the prolongation of fighting throughout the country, and specifically around Tripoli, in the coming months.

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Focal Points in Libya

Current Situation

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

On April 10, France blocked an attempt by the European Union (EU) to publish an official statement condemning the LNA offensive on Tripoli.

On April 19, an official statement by the US State Department indicated that on April 15 the US President Donald Trump conversed with LNA Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, recognizing his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.

On April 23, the UN-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, gave interviews for French news agencies, denouncing the French government’s support for Haftar.

On April 25, the LNA arrested two Turkish nationals in Tripoli. Reports quoting the LNA Spokesperson have indicated that they were arrested for alleged involvement in espionage activity. According to reports citing Turkish officials, the two were restaurant workers in Tripoli and were not involved with Turkish security forces.

On April 29, the GNA’s Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, visited Turkey to strengthen security and defense cooperation agreements. Bashagha was reportedly accompanied by the Chief of the Western Military Command, Usama al-Juwaili, and another top GNA-linked military official.

On April 29, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, conversed with the GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and expressed Turkey’s support for the GNA.

On May 18, the GNA-linked “Volcano of Wrath” Operations Room announced that they had received a ship containing military reinforcements. Picture material and additional reports indicate that the ship arrived from Turkey’s Samsun Port and contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as other military hardware.

Background

The LNA’s Supreme Commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s local and international legitimacy has significantly increased over the past three years. This can largely be attributed to the fact that since 2016, the LNA has made gradual territorial advances in Libya, which has resulted in an expansion of Haftar’s influence over almost two-thirds of the country. In September 2016, the LNA took control of the Oil Crescent from the former GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). This was followed by the LNA’s announcement of the conclusion of its three-year long Operation “Dignity” on July 5, 2017, which resulted in the eviction of the Revolutionary Shura Council of Benghazi (RSCB) and the Islamic State (IS) from the city. On June 28, 2018, Haftar announced that its forces had taken full control of the eastern city of Derna from the Derna Protection Force (DPF), formerly known as the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD). Finally, the LNA took full control of southern Libya as part of its Operation “Murzuq Basin” in March 2019.

Although, Haftar received initial support from the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France, over the years, countries that were initially opposed to the LNA’s Operation “Dignity”, such as the US, the UK, and Italy have shown an increasing interest in negotiating with Haftar. This is underscored by a meeting between the former UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and the British Ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, and Haftar in August 2017. More recently, Italy invited both the UN-backed GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj and Haftar to a conference on Libya in Palermo, Italy in November 2018 to discuss a potential date for a nationwide election process in the country.

Assessments & Forecast

Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia to extend further support to LNA amid ongoing clashes with GNA-linked forces in Tripoli

Initially, a significant support, mainly by Egypt and the UAE, had been extended to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, in light of the latter’s efforts to dislodge Islamist militants and militias from Benghazi. This most significantly came in the form of military hardware and logistical assistance by the two aforementioned countries, and the UAE’s manning of a al-Khadim airbase in 2016, to support the LNA’s military efforts. This extensive support was based since its initial phase upon Haftar’s self-positioning as the figure with the desire and ability to defeat Libya’s belligerent Islamist factions and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, which have gained significant foothold in the country amid the civil war. This is due to the fact that both Egypt and the UAE view these groups as a region-wide threat. Thus, the success of Haftar’s Operation “Dignity”, and his more recent success in taking control over the Fezzan Region, while emphasizing his determination to continue fighting such elements, has bolstered his position as a reliable ally for Egypt and the UAE. As for Egypt, another significant interest in strengthening the LNA was its determination to bolster an ally that would be able to secure the vast swaths of the desert-dense border areas between the two countries. These porous border areas serve as a major pipeline for both the smuggling of weapons and the movement of fighters from Libya into Egypt, and subsequently, to militant groups operating inside Egypt.

This emergence of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance, characterizing the LNA’s relations with Egypt and the UAE, was paralelled by the increasing of relations between the Tripoli-based GNA and Turkey and Qatar, who are perceived by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to be supporting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups across Libya, including in Tripoli. This has reportedly involved Turkish shipments of weapons to such elements in western Libya, as was highlighted by the seizure of a Turkish arms-carrying naval vessel, detained in Libya in December 2018. The increase of relations between Turkey and the GNA was likely further prompted by the current ongoing clashes in the designated capital, and was most significantly highlighted by both the April 29 security-related visit by the GNA Interior Minister to Turkey and the phone conversation between GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, and President Erdogan, during which the latter emphasised his support for the former. This, in turn, may have been the preceding arrangement for the May 18 reinforcement shipment, reportedly arriving from Turkey, which contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as military hardware.

This more overt Turkish involvement has, in turn, drawn further accusation from the LNA of Turkish sponsorship of Islamist factions in and around the capital. In this framework, the LNA’s April 25 detention of two Turkish nationals on espionage charges indicates a further deterioration of relations between the LNA and Turkey. Regardless of whether or not the arrestees were indeed involved in espionage activities, the event is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to further paint Turkey as intervening in Libya’s internal affairs in support of “extreme elements”. This, in turn, is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to prompt its traditional aforementioned backers to supply it with additional assistance and potentially even draw the attention of other international stakeholders towards Turkey’s policies. Such efforts may have been the reason behind what appears to be greater support for Field Marshal Haftar by Saudi Arabia’s King Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who has expressed the Kingdom’s support for the former and has also reportedly offered to financially support the LNA’s Tripoli campaign during an official meeting between the two on March 27.

FORECAST: Significant support and material assistance will continue to be extended towards the LNA by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This will highly likely manifest in the form of direct aerial support, as well as military and financial aid aimed at bolstering the LNA’s capabilities and enabling it to continue its offensive on the designated capital. In terms of physical military assistance to the LNA, it remains likely that the UAE will assist the LNA with additional employment of attack and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as it has done in the past, and given that it still possesses an active UAV base in eastern Libya. Such support is likely to be already taking place given multiple reports indicating the discovery of remnants of missiles believed to be a type used by the UAE UAVs, and is in any case not in use by any Libyan faction. However, such assistance is likely to remain relatively limited and covert, as the UAE will likely attempt to refrain from being painted as overtly challenging a UN-backed government.

FORECAST: Given the heightened tensions between the LNA on the one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other side, specifically surrounding the ongoing fighting in Tripoli, we assess that over the coming weeks, Turkish and Qatari nationals or corporations will face a growing threat of being subjected to arbitrary measures in LNA-controlled territories in Libya. This will most likely entail extrajudicial measures, such as arbitrary arrests and military prosecution over alleged charges of espionage and militant activity.

Increased political support for LNA by major Western stakeholders bolster LNA’s legitimacy, incentivise regional backers to extend further support to LNA

Most of the Western governments involved in Libya, such as the UK, Italy, France, and the US, initially primarily backed the UN-led initiative to reinvigorate a viable political process for Libya’s unification under one functioning government. This initiative partially came in the form of the establishment of the GNA in December 2015, which has since been the officially recognized government in Libya by the UN. That being said, the aforementioned ability of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to take control of the Oil Crescent has consolidated his international standing among these countries. This was most significantly highlighted by the actions of Italy, a prominent supporter of the GNA, which has, after Haftar’s aforementioned successes, dedicated significant effort to convince him to participate in the political effort to unite the country under the Italian-initiated Palermo Conference in November 2018. Despite Italy’s backing of the GNA, Italian symbolic acceptance of Field Marshal Haftar was more recently highlighted even amid the ongoing offensive on the capital, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on May 7 that he is seeking to meet Field Marshal Haftar in the near future. In a similar vein, a process of gradual political acceptance towards the Field Marshal was also recorded in the UK. This mainly materialized after Haftar’s territorial gains in the Oil Crescent and Benghazi, resulting in a more accepting discourse by the UK Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, in an official meeting between the two in August 2017.

France, contrary to the aforementioned European powers, extended its support in terms of military advisory assistance to Field Marshal Haftar during his initial Operation “Dignity”, aimed at dislodging Islamist militants from Benghazi. A more robust support by France followed Haftar’s takeover of the Oil Crescent, when President Emmanuel Macron invited the Field Marshal to the Paris Conference in 2017. That being said, despite having given such support to the Field Marshal, the French government has never explicitly acted in defense of the LNA and against the UN-backed international effort to establish unified political establishments in the country. Thus, the April 10 measure by the French government, namely the blocking of an official EU condemnation, is highly notable as it constitutes France’s first overt political support for the LNA at the expense of the UN and EU efforts to condemn and exert political pressure upon Field Marshal Haftar. This, in turn, has prompted significant protests in GNA-controlled territories, such as the April 19 “yellow vests” demonstrations in Tripoli and Misrata, with protesters dispensing anti-Macron discourse to denounce the French government’s backing of Haftar. In addition, the development has prompted GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, to give interviews to two primary French news agencies, where he publicly denounced the French government’s support for the “Dictator” Hafter. Lastly, this has also prompted political action by the GNA, with most significantly the Interior Ministry’s decision on April 18 to suspend bilateral cooperation with France, and the GNA Ministry of Economy and Industry’s decision to suspend operation licences of 40 companies, including a major French oil and gas company, on May 8.

The April 19 incident involving the US President highlights another culmination of international support by Western leaders for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, despite the official UN support for the Tripoli-based GNA. Furthermore, on April 4, a press statement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, expressed the US’ opposition to Haftar’s move towards Tripoli, urging a cessation of the offensive. The aforementioned phone call, however, took place approximately two weeks after the LNA has commenced its offensive, which could be interpreted as a shift in the US administration’s approach to Libya and its greater acceptance of Haftar, at least by the president himself. This apparent change in the US president’s approach and the robust support extended to the Field Marshal by France, could be interpreted as predicated upon a few factors.

First, the extensive territorial gains made by Haftar in the Fezzan Region have highly likely bolstered his standing vis-a-vis the GNA, regardless of whether or not the current assault on Tripoli will succeed. The Fezzan Region has been regarded as one of the major regional focal points for contraband, illegal immigration, and militancy-related activities for international stakeholders, such as the EU, and some of Libya’s neighboring Arab countries, primarily Egypt. This is due to the fact that since Muammar Ghaddhafi’s fall in 2011, the Fezzan Region has hosted the major transit routes through which immigrants from West Africa have been travelling, via Libya’s border-crossings with Niger and Chad, towards Europe. This, in turn, has also attracted criminal, militia, and militant networks wishing to capitalize upon the ungoverned territories of the Fezzan to further strengthen their operations, while local authorities were either absent or incapacitated to act upon these threats. For this reason, the LNA has dedicated extensive discursive and physical effort towards emphasizing its determination to mitigate threats emanating from the country’s border areas. Through this, Haftar is able to capitalize upon European interests related to counter-militancy and counter-immigration efforts to gain the aforementioned political support, primarily from France.

In addition, the Fezzan campaign has resulted in Haftar’s possession of the al-Feel and Sharara oil fields, which account for approximately a quarter of the country’s oil production potential. As was recorded after his takeover of the Oil Crescent, this development increased Haftar’s international standing as an arbiter in the competition between foreign companies over stakes in Libya’s oil industry. Such competition has reportedly taken place between major Italian and French companies seeking opportunities in the country’s oil market and wishing to see the stabilization of the region. Furthermore, Haftar’s control over the majority of Libya’s oil fields, with Libya potentially being one of the top world producers of oil, stations Haftar as a potential influencer in global oil prices. This, in turn, can make Haftar a lucrative partner for major international powers seeking to influence trends in global oil prices for their interests. In the case of the US, the stabilization of Libya’s oil industry in the hands of a potential ally could serve important American national security interests that are currently being pursued, such as stabilizing a low oil price amid the ongoing sanctions against Iran.

FORECAST: Given the aforementioned developments involving the US and France, it is likely that despite the overall condemnation of the LNA by major international institutions such as the UN, these countries will continue to extend their support to the LNA. Though such support is overall likely to remain symbolic, it may be interpreted by the actors more vigorously and physically supporting the LNA, such as the UAE and Egypt, as a “green light” to employ greater measures to facilitate the LNA’s takeover of the designated capital. Meanwhile, given the heightened tensions between the GNA and the French government, and given the increased anti-French sentiment expressed in Libya’s GNA-strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, over the coming months French nationals and corporations will face a growing threat from local citizens and potentially armed militias which operate in western Libya and are opposing current French policies towards Libya.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Travel to Misrata and Tobruk should be for essential purposes only, while adhering to all security precautions regarding civil unrest and militancy. We advise against all travel to outlying areas of the country, due to the threat of militancy, kidnapping, and general lawlessness in such areas.

French nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in western Libya’s major GNA strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, due to increased public expression of anti-French sentiment in these locales.

Turkish and Qatari nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in LNA-controlled territories. This is due to a growing risk of arbitrary measures and detentions by the LNA, following the aforementioned countries’ support for GNA-linked forces.

Avoid entering Libyan territorial waters in the area between Benghazi and al-Tamimi without prior authorization, as a no-sail zone is currently in effect in this area and several naval vessels had been intercepted or attacked due to not following proper procedures.

In addition, avoid entering Libyan territorial waters off the coast of Tripoli due to the heavy deployment of LNA naval vessels in the area. If travel is unavoidable, seek prior permission from the relevant authorities in order to mitigate the risk of interception on account of misidentification.

Those planning to conduct air travel to, from and inside Libya should avoid entering the area between Marsa al-Brega, Sirte and Sebha, as it was declared a no-fly zone by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Those planning to conduct air travel to and from Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport are advised to follow all relevant security protocols due to the increased threat to aviation in the capital as a result of the ongoing hostilities.

We further advise against all travel to Libya’s border areas at this time due to persistent violence and lawlessness in these regions.

For those operating in or conducting business with oil facilities, it is advised to consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations and ground support options.

Turkey’s military campaign aims to secure interests in northern Syria, mitigate Kurdish militant threat – Turkey & Syria Analysis

Current Situation

Turkish military officials confirmed that operation “Olive Branch” targeting Syria’s northwestern Afrin Province officially began on January 20. The objective is to eliminate the presence of both People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamic State (IS).

According to Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Turkish ground forces entered Syria’s Afrin District from Kilis’ Gulbaba region on January 20 at 11:05 (local time). The prime minister also stated that the “four-phase operation” will aim to create a buffer zone 30 km south of the Turkish border.

Turkish forces targeted YPG positions with artillery fire throughout Afrin Province on January 20-21, including along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were deployed along Syria’s border with Hatay Province and south of Syria’s Azaz.

YPG forces responded to the aerial bombardments with artillery fire striking Turkish forces in and around the Turkish border town of Kilis.

Russia reportedly withdrew its stationed forces from Syrian’s Afrin To Tel Ajar on January 20, in light of the Turkish operation. Russian authorities called for “reconciliation of warring sides.”

On January 20, the US “encouraged all parties to avoid escalation” and to “focus on the most important task of defeating IS.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on January 20 that Syria’s Manbij, located just west of the Euphrates River, will be the “next destination for a Turkish combat operation” following Afrin.

Assessments & Forecast

The operations highlight Turkey’s continued efforts to safeguard its interests in northern Syria. The campaign in Afrin comes amidst persistent concerns by the Turkish government regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activity along the border with Syria. The Turkish government has repeatedly accused the YPG of cooperating with the PKK, and by launching the offensive in Afrin District, Turkish authorities seek to stem the YPG’s assistance to the PKK. Additional motivation for the operation may include Turkey’s efforts to assert its political influence, as well as that of the elements it supports in Syria, ahead of future negotiations between the various parties in the Syrian conflict.

President Erdogan’s hardline stance regarding the elimination of YPG elements in Syria is linked to his political ambitions regarding the upcoming 2019 election. In the past, Erdogan’s calls for the eradication of PKK militants and all affiliated elements courted ultra-nationalist voters and expanded his base significantly, helping ensure victories such as the April 2017 referendum. A recent endorsement by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)’s chair and a continuing aggressive foreign policy regarding Turkish-Syrian border security will consolidate his base and secure him the presidency. The military operation in Syria’s Afrin will likely cause obstacles for oppositions parties in uniting, mainly the Republican People’s Party (CHP), due to likely labeling of it being weak on militancy. This labeling will likely be triggered by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s recent call for diplomacy as opposed to a military operation into Afrin, as ultra-nationalists will perceive the statement as willing to negotiate with militant elements.

US-Turkish relations are likely to further diminish as a result of the operation, given vocal US opposition against intervention in Afrin. Turkish authorities already expressed much discontent regarding the US’ persistent support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group comprised of mostly YPG fighters in northern Syria. The US will likely continue providing the SDF with both weapons and training in order to not only fight IS, but to counter the influence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian government. While the Turkish government has voiced its disapproval of Assad in the past, its objective to eliminate Kurdish influence in the region will be the priority, and US intervention will likely only embolden Turkish forces to engage in military operations against the YPG in northern Syria.

While Moscow provides a degree of support for the Kurdish militia, the Turkish operations are unlikely to significantly impact relations between the two countries. This is because the operations in Afrin District are not likely to jeopardize Russia’s strategic interests in Syria, namely the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia. Instead, the campaign may serve Moscow’s interests by weakening the US’s most important on-ground ally, decreasing Washington’s influence in Syria. The possible consolidation of a foothold by Turkish-aligned elements may also allow Moscow to better negotiate and enforce agreements across the country.

FORECAST: Given precedent of the previous Euphrates Shield operations, Turkish-backed rebels will initiate the ground offensive from multiple fronts, such as the Azaz and Deir Semaan areas, as well as from within Turkish territory, including Hatay and Kilis provinces. By doing so, the Turkish-backed rebels will compel the YPG to fight on multiple fronts, overstretching their forces. In the initial stages of the offensive, rebels will seek to attain and cut off the Rajo Road, as well as routes 62 and 217, all serving as important supply lines leading to the city of Afrin. Turkish forces will concurrently mainly conduct aerial bombardments and heavy artillery fire against YPG positions. Once areas are cleared of the YPG, Turkish army personnel themselves are likely to enter captured territories and establish administrative control. In response to the operation, as underlined by the YPG’s artillery fire at Turkish forces in the Kilis area, the Kurdish group will likely retaliate with rocket and mortar over the coming days.

Turkey’s military campaign aims to secure interests in northern Syria, mitigate Kurdish militant threat - Turkey & Syria Analysis | MAX Security

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The Turkish operations in Afrin District are liable to benefit the rebels’ rivals, namely the Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian government, on nearby fronts. Over the past several weeks, both IS and pro-government forces were able to capture multiple areas from rebel forces in southeastern Idlib, northern Hama, and southern Aleppo provinces. In light of the likely deployments of rebel fighters to northwestern Aleppo Province, at the expense of the Aleppo-Idlib-Hama triangle, their adversaries are liable to take advantage of their more dwindled presence in the region to seize additional territories. This is highlighted by the reported capture of Idlib Province’s Abu Dhuhur Military Airbase on January 20 by pro-government forces. As a result, both IS and the Syrian government are likely to intensify their operations in southeastern Idlib, northern Hama, and southern Aleppo provinces over the coming days and weeks.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Turkey

Travel to Istanbul and Ankara may continue, although travelers are advised to maintain heightened vigilance in central areas due to the threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales.   Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

Avoid nonessential travel to the immediate vicinities of government buildings, police stations, political party offices, popular public places and shopping centers, as well as Western institutions and places frequented by Westerners, and places of worship due to the threat of militancy.

Avoid nonessential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces, while also avoiding all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq, given the increased risk of militancy and spillover violence.

Those conducting essential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces are advised to defer all travel to areas witnessing curfews due to the elevated risk of violence in these locales.

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Additionally, those remaining in Damascus are advised to avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Those continuing to operate or reside in Aleppo are advised to minimize movement in the city and its surroundings, given the frequency and broad nature of fighting in the city.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel-held areas.

Likely passage of constitutional referendum likely to have domestic, global ramifications; violence surrounding vote date remains likely – Turkey Analysis

Current Situation

On April 16, the Turkish public will vote on a referendum which, if passed, will enact major reforms to the national constitution. At the core of the referendum is the decision to replace the existing parliamentary system of government with an executive presidency. The passing of this referendum will thus reform all of Turkey’s branches of government.

The Executive
If the referendum is to pass, the prime minister’s post would be abolished, and thus its powers would be transferred to the president. With this in mind, the president would be responsible for selecting and approving the government’s ministers.
In addition, the referendum would remove the parliament’s power to enact a vote of confidence to force out the executive. Instead, in order for the president to be removed from office, he must first be charged with a crime by a majority of MPs. Then, the president must be tried by 17 judges of the Constitutional Court.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the term length of the president would remain set at five years, and an individual can serve no more than two terms. However, due to the refined role created by the referendum, current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be permitted to seek two additional terms. Thus, if elected, he could remain in power until 2029.

The Judiciary
The referendum would significantly increase the number of appointments to the judiciary allowed by the president. With the new proposals, the president would be responsible for selecting 69% of Turkey’s senior judges, as opposed to 46% today.
In addition, the president would be responsible for appointing 14 of the 17 members of the Constitutional Court, which is the highest judicial body in Turkey.
Finally, the referendum would prevent the judiciary from picking any members sitting on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the disciplinary body of Turkey’s legal system, and instead, assign these appointments to the president and the parliament.

The Parliament
The parliament’s ability to launch investigations against members of the executive would be abolished entirely under the proposed referendum. Furthermore, these powers would not transfer to any other body.
In addition, the power of parliament to submit questions to the president regarding sensitive issues would be ridded as well.
Finally, the ability for parliament to motion a censure, which could effectively unseat a member of the executive, would be abolished by the new referendum as well.

Likely passage of constitutional referendum likely to have domestic, global ramifications; violence surrounding vote date remains likely - Turkey Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

Vast public support still enjoyed by Erdogan and underlying threat of militancy indicate referendum likely to pass
While public opinion polling has largely shown support and opposition to the referendum to be close, we assess that at least 51% of the populace will ultimately vote yes on the proposed constitutional reform, thus gaining the required amount of votes needed for it to pass. This support largely emanates from members of Erdogan’s own political organization, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as individuals from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In opposition to the proposed referendum is the more moderate Republican People’s Party (CHP), and a large portion of the Kurdish community, including the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). With this in mind, this likelihood of the referendum passing is due to several factors.

First, public support currently experienced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will likely encourage Turkish nationals to back the referendum. This favorability can be heavily attributed to his anti-militancy campaign, which has resulted in both downtick in Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-perpetrated attacks, as well as a general absence of large-scale acts of militancy in Turkey’s major cities in recent months. In this context, as Erdogan continues to portray himself as the one who reinforced Turkey’s security apparatus, moderate, secular portions of the Turkish population who may have been less willing to back the president may ultimately vote in favor of the referendum due to this notable decrease in militant attacks in the country. Thus, by continuing to campaign on this anti-militancy platform, Erdogan will likely rally more support in favor of the constitutional referendum, and increase the chances of the reform successfully passing. Moreover, even if a large-scale militant attack were to emanate in the coming days, Erdogan would likely attribute it to the lack of a strong executive, thereby further strengthening his counter-militancy campaign. Therefore, such an incident occurring is unlikely to decrease the potential for the referendum to pass.

In addition, Erdogan’s mass efforts to stifle his opposition have significantly reduced the influence of his opponents. The President has conducted mass arrest raids against multiple segments of Turkish society who have voiced opposition against him or the proposed constitutional referendum. Such raids have particularly been seen with operations targeting those who support US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the Turkish government has linked to the failed military coup in July 2016. As the threshold has been lowered and the scope has been broadened by the president for such arrests to take place, the opposition has had less of a platform to campaign against the proposed referendum.

Moreover, those in Turkish media who have attempted to voice their opposition to the referendum have largely been silenced by the government. For instance, in early February, a prominent news anchor was fired by a Turkish news agency after stating his opposition to the proposed constitutional reform via social media. Moreover, in mid-February, one of Turkey’s leading newspapers cancelled an interview with a Nobel-Prize winning Turkish novelist following his public opposition against the referendum. Thus, Erdogan has further limited the opposition’s abilities to organize and successfully wage their campaign.

That said, it is important to note that the possibility for the referendum not to pass remains, particularly as recent opinion polls show the vote in a virtual tie. If such an outcome were to occur, it is unlikely that President Erdogan would drop the proposed constitutional reform as a result. Instead, Erdogan would likely revamp the “yes” campaign’s image in order for it to gather broader support, and then attempt to push a newly drafted proposal through Parliament once again. Potential addendums for this changed referendum may be slightly more restrictions on the executive, such as allowing Parliament more oversight in the system. However, such changes would be minimal, as the goal of the constitutional reform would likely remain to strengthen the power of the presidency at the expense of the Parliament.

Passage of referendum likely to impede potential negotiations between PKK and Turkish government, cause problems for economic development, and further tensions between Turkey and the EU
While in the immediate short term, the effects of a successful referendum are unlikely to be notable, particularly as Erdogan has already exercised abilities that have surpassed boundaries set by the office of the presidency, multiple domestic issues are likely to be heavily affected in the months to come.

First, constitutional reform that expands the powers of Erdogan is likely to significantly decrease the chances of successful negotiations occurring between Turkish authorities and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As Erdogan has stated in the past that the Turkish government will not stop “until the PKK is eradicated,” it remains unlikely that a system fully run by the president with relatively unchecked powers would work towards compromises with the Kurdish group. Thus, the passing of the referendum is likely to only lead to additional intensified measures against the Kurds, thereby provoking the militants to engage in additional acts of militancy against Turkish security forces. Moreover, it is important to note that if Kurdish communities view the passing of this constitutional reform as oppressive, militants groups such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) will be more likely to recruit frustrated individuals more susceptible to radicalization.

Also, the passing of the referendum is likely to cause additional pitfalls for Turkey’s economy in the coming months. Reports have continously highlighted elevated concerns of international investors regarding the stability of Turkey’s political system under a new government system. While a stronger executive would be expected to alleviate such woes, in light of Erdogan’s increasingly negative rhetoric towards European nations, as well as his staunch opposition against the Central Bank’s rising of interest rates to help promote growth in the declining Turkish Lira, additional authority granted to the president will likely only escalate worries of potential international investors. Thus, international entities may be less willing to invest, which will likely stifle economic development in the country. This would be significantly detrimental as the Turkish government has committed itself to multiple large-scale projects, including the building of a new airport in Istanbul. A lack in revenue to fully pay for such projects will only hurt the general populace who will have to make up for this shortage, thus leading to an even further declining lira as citizens are less willing to save and invest.

Meanwhile, geopolitical implications exist for the passing of such constitutional reform, particularly in regards to relations between Turkey and the EU. During the course of the referendum campaign, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has made persistent efforts to reach out to Turkish nationals living in Europe, in efforts to gain their support. However, European countries have blocked multiple efforts by Turkish politicians to campaign within the countries themselves, including Germany and the Netherlands, which has thus led the Turkish government to retaliate in the diplomatic sphere. Thus, the campaign has ultimately caused tensions between Turkey and the EU, and if the referendum is to pass, relations between these parties are likely to remain strained. Such cooling in tensions will likely lead to complications in multiple regional issues, including the current Syrian refugee crisis, as well as the outward threat of militancy, as Turkey may be less willing to coordinate with its European counterparts.

Acts of violence likely to materialize prior to the referendum vote date
Over the coming days, pre-vote violence emanating from tensions surrounding the passing of the referendum is likely to materialize, similar to what has been seen surrounding parliamentary elections. Such violence is likely to target parties who oppose the passing of the referendum, and be perpetrated by ultra-nationalists with no affiliation to the Turkish government, but who heavily support constitutional reform, namely those who support the MHP, who have been linked to precedent incidents of violence. Furthermore, such violence is likely to remain small-scale and unsophisticated, such as shooting attacks or the use of homemade IEDs against entities affiliated with the opposition. For instance, on March 21, an individual shot at a tattoo studio after mistaking it for a pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) office in the city of Denizli. In addition, on December 17, 2016, an IED was detonated near an HDP office in Istanbul.

These incidents highlight the threat of such armed attacks by these ultra-nationalists, and potential for additional violence around the date of the referendum. Thus, prior to April 16, security forces are likely to intensify measures at campaign rallies, and entities connected to the referendum in order to prevent such attacks from unfolding. However, in light of existing tensions, the potential for acts of violence remains increased at this time. Furthermore, the possibility exists that militant groups, namely Islamic State or the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), may take advantage of any disarray caused by large rallies or heightened tensions in order to stage attacks in major locales.

Recommendations

Travel to Istanbul and Ankara may continue, although travelers are advised to maintain heightened vigilance in central areas due to the threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

Furthermore, on April 16, avoid nonessential travel to the vicinity of polling stations nationwide given the threat of politically-linked acts of violence emanating at these locales. In addition, on April 16 and the days prior, avoid nonessential travel to all campaign events and rallies regarding the referendum due to this risk of violence, as well as the threat of militancy unfolding at these events, albeit limited.

Avoid nonessential travel to the immediate vicinities of government buildings, police stations, political party offices, popular public places and shopping centers, as well as Western institutions and places frequented by Westerners, and places of worship due to the threat of militancy.

Be advised that in Istanbul, areas that frequently record protests include the vicinity of Taksim Square, Galatasaray Square, along Istiklal Caddesi, Kadikoy’s Bull Statue (Boga Square), in the Fatih District, Beyazit Square, and Istanbul University.

In Ankara, such locales include Yuksel Street, Sakarya Square, as well as Guvenpark Memorial, Kurtulus Park, the Grand National Assembly, Ataturk Boulevard, Middle East Technical University, and other university campuses in the city.

Avoid nonessential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces, while also avoiding all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq, given the increased risk of militancy and spillover violence.

Those conducting essential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces are advised to defer all travel to areas witnessing curfews due to the elevated risk of violence in these locales.

 

Read more security blog reports

Turkey Analysis: 41 killed in New Year’s shooting at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub

Current Situation: Islamic State (IS) claims responsibility for New Year’s shooting in Istanbul

Reports indicate that 41 people were killed and 69 more were wounded in a New Year’s shooting attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul’s Besiktas district during the overnight hours of December 31-January 1. Furthermore, 24 of those killed were reportedly foreign nationals. The incident transpired as an assailant armed with an assault rifle stormed the locale and opened fire at the crowd celebrating New Year’s Eve. Further reports indicate that the crowd at the club numbered in the mid to high hundreds. Following the incident, the assailant was able to escape the club. Turkish security forces have launched a search operation to locate and arrest the assailant; at the time of writing, he is still at large.

Turkey Analysis: 41 killed in New Year's shooting at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub | MAX Security

Turkey Analysis: 41 killed in New Year's shooting at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub | MAX Security

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Assessments:

  1. While the situation at the nightclub itself has been contained following the New Year’s shooting, given that the assailant remains at large and is still likely armed, heightened security measures can be anticipated in the vicinity of the night club, along the waterfront, and throughout central Istanbul. Locales likely to be affected include Yildiz Park, located near the nightclub, and more central locales such as those along Istiklal Caddesi, like Taksim Square.
  2. Moreover, the active New Year’s shooting attack comes amidst an escalated threat of militancy in major Turkish cities, as highlighted by the December 10 twin bombing attacks carried out by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), near Istanbul’s Vodafone arena, which resulted in the deaths of at least 38 people. In this context, the IS claim of the attack is highly notable, as the militant group has rarely taken responsibility for such incidents in Turkey. Moreover, the attack remains more comparable to incidents carried out by IS sympathizers in Europe and the Americas, such as the June 12 active shooting attack targeting a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, thus increasing the likelihood that the shooter was inspired by IS ideology, and therefore, carried out the attack in the militant group’s name.
  3. In addition, it is important to note that the attack comes amidst recent calls by the jihadist group’s linked media to conduct attacks during the holiday period. For instance, in late December, a pro-IS media outlet issued a call for the group’s supporters to carry out worldwide acts of militancy against New Year’s Eve celebrations in crowded public spaces such as clubs, markets, theaters, cinemas, and malls. In light of these calls, with regards to Turkey, by encouraging such attacks, the Sunni jihadist militant group likely seeks to retaliate against Turkey’s ongoing operations in northern Syria against its fighters. Moreover, the fact that a nightclub frequented by foreign nationals was targeted may serve the jihadist group’s likely long-term strategy of deterring foreigners from traveling or investing in Turkey, thus potentially damaging the country’s national economy.
  4. Forecast: With this in mind, heightened security measures are likely to be recorded throughout Istanbul’s Besiktas District over the coming hours and days, in an attempt to detect and arrest the shooter. These are liable to include checkpoints, arrest raids, and heightened security presence in the vicinity of areas which are frequented by foreigners. Furthermore, there remains a potential that upon the detection of the assailant, an exchange of gunfire between security forces and the attacker will be recorded, thus potentially constituting a collateral threat to bystanders.

Recommendations:

  1. Travel to Istanbul and Ankara may continue, although travelers are advised to maintain heightened vigilance in central areas due to the threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.
  2. Avoid nonessential travel to the immediate vicinity of government buildings, police stations, political party offices, popular public places and shopping centers, as well as Western institutions and places frequented by Westerners, and places of worship due to the threat of militancy.
  3. Avoid nonessential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces, while also avoiding all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq, given the increased risk of militancy and spillover violence.
  4. Additionally, it is advised to maintain heightened vigilance throughout Istanbul’s Besiktas District over the coming hours and days, given that the assailant is still at large, as well as the currently increased security measures in this area aimed at locating the perpetrator.

Turkey Analysis: Islamic State’s recent publication highlights shifting rhetoric on Turkey; likely to lead to increased recruitment, attempted attacks

Executive Summary:

  • In Islamic State’s (IS) most recent publication of its self-promoting magazine, “Rumiyah,” the jihadist group calls for its followers to stage attacks against political, religious, and security entities within the Turkish state, as well as those who support the country in general.
  • This edition marks a drastic shift in rhetoric as compared to previous publications, which was likely triggered by the Turkish government’s increasing involvement against IS in both Iraq and Syria, particularly as the militant group faces major setbacks in both countries.
  •  Due to these setbacks, IS will likely increase its recruitment efforts, while attempting to launch less sophisticated, but more frequent attacks within Turkey over the coming weeks to retaliate against the Turkish state.
  • Travel to Istanbul and Ankara may continue, although travelers are advised to maintain heightened vigilance in central areas due to the threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

Current Situation:

  • In the Islamic State’s (IS) latest publication of “Rumiyah”, the group’s self-promoting magazine which lists its political and theological stances, as well as boasts its successful acts of militancy and achievements on the battlefield, the militant group called for its followers to “strike the Turkish taghout,” referring to the Turkish state as an apostate government, and all those who support the Turkish state.
  • While the militant group had written about its opposition to the Turkish government in previous issues of Rumiyah, as well as in its predecessor “Dabiq,” the jihadists’ resistance to Turkey in this most recent publication is heavily emphasized, and largely more hostile, unlike magazines in the past.
  • Moreover, IS explained how Turkey had previously attempted to keep its conflict with the militant group “under wraps,” but now, Turkey’s increasing intervention has displayed that the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “did not heed the lessons” of other opposing nations. By increasing its operations against IS, the jihadist group claims that the Turkish government is “cutting its own throats.”
  • IS lists four categories of targets for militants operating in Turkey in their most recent publication: 1) Turkish Imams, religious figures, and those who do not believe in Islam; 2) Police, judges, and the military; 3) Scholars, supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and other political parties allied to it; and 4) Citizens of “crusader” nations, which are countries that oppose and battle IS.
  • Finally, in light of the Turkish government allegedly “taking advantage” of IS while it has been occupied in battle, the militant group claims that the state has become “a target for IS operations” and a “priority for jihad.”

 Turkey Analysis: Islamic State’s recent publication highlights shifting rhetoric on Turkey; likely to lead to increased recruitment, attempted attacks | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast:

IS concerns of Turkey as a substantial threat to activities dramatically rose in recent months due to increasing Turkish actions in Syria and Iraq

  • This recent publication comes amidst increased involvement by Turkey against the jihadist militant group, including its backing of Syrian rebels in “Operations Euphrates Shield,” and its direct support of Sunni, Turkmen, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who are challenging IS in the vicinity of Iraq’s Mosul. In light of IS facing multiple setbacks in northern Syria and Iraq, the jihadist group likely perceives Turkey’s escalating involvement as a major threat, thus calling for its fighters to retaliate against the Turkish state. In this context, while previous issues of the Sunni militant group’s publication in late 2014 and early 2015 had mentioned Turkey, namely by labeling President Erdogan as an apostate, the group claimed that the Turkish government was mostly preoccupied with its own internal conflict against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its own political instability, and threats emanating from other leftist militant groups. Thus, in the eyes of the jihadist militants, Turkey posed a limited threat to the operations of the group. This is further evidenced by Turkey’s minimal use of airstrikes employed against the jihadist group in 2015, particularly as compared to its frequent offensive measures taken against the PKK.
  • However, the militant group’s publication released in September 2015 made a notable shift from this typical rhetoric, suddenly labeling Turkey as a significant threat due to its proposed “safe zone” against IS in northern Syria. Moreover, it went on to claim that Turkey’s army remained one of the only adequate forces in NATO, largely due to US President Barack Obama’s perceived “neutering of the US military,” and the “underfunding” of militaries in other nations that make up the international military alliance. That said, the jihadist group still viewed Turkey as distracted by its own internal problems, and thus, focused less on the potential threat it posed.
  • In light of this continuing downplaying of the threat Turkey presents to IS throughout past publications, the most recent issue displays a drastic change in terms of rhetoric when writing about the Turkish government. In this context, as reflected by its recently issued publications, the Sunni jihadist militant group no longer perceives the Turkish government as distracted by its own internal factors. Instead, IS focused on Turkey’s escalated measures taken towards the jihadist group, including “opening its airspace” to nations opposing IS, “opening its borders” to provide support for Kurdish troops and rebels in both northern Syria and Iraq, and ultimately “entangling its army” in both conflict zones by sending planes to target the militants’ positions and tanks to strike against the group’s controlled territories.
  • This shift in focus is reflected on the ground, as IS struggles to maintain major territories, the Turkish government continues to remain heavily involved on the Bashiqa front in northern Iraq, thus reinforcing the Iraqi pro-government forces, mainly the local Sunni Arab and Kurdish forces, offensive to reclaim the city of Mosul. Also, Turkish tanks have been reported as nearly as 30 km south of the Turkish-Syrian border, thereby reinforcing rebels in their fight to retake northern Aleppo from the jihadist group. Both of these operations constitute substantial threats to the organization, therefore likely explaining IS’ shifting rhetoric in its most recent publication, and will likely lead to further threats by the jihadist group against Turkey in the days to come.

Due to setbacks and persistence of Turkish operations against it, IS likely to increase recruitment efforts in Turkey, while attempting to launch frequent yet smaller attacks in coming weeks

  • In general, the threat posed by IS to Turkey has been significantly reduced in recent months. Major, multi-pronged attacks in central locales, like witnessed in Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport on June 28, have become notably less frequent. That being said, other groups have demonstrated their capability fill this gap and carry out sophisticated attacks in central Turkish cities, as most recently highlighted by the December 10 twin bomb attacks near Istanbul’s Vodafone Arena, which was ultimately claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). With this in mind, despite the recent declining number of militancy incidents in Turkey, the threat of large-scale militancy in such areas persists, which is now further elevated by IS’ increasing focus on targeting Turkey.
  • In this context, as IS continues to lose ground, which has been the overwhelming trend in recent weeks, the group will likely fall back on its typical strategy of attempting to stage major attacks in its opponents’ rear. This has already been seen with the vehicle-borne IED attack in Diyarbakir on November 5, which an IS-linked new agency claimed was carried out by the jihadist militants themselves, although the radical Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for the same attack. Regardless of whether IS did actually carry out the attack, the claim was highly notable, as IS has refrained from claiming such incidents in Turkey, thus further underscoring the group’s stated motive in its latest publication to carry out acts of militancy. Furthermore, it is important to note that such militancy has been witnessed in the past when IS has felt increasingly pressured, likely in an attempt to project resilience. With this in mind, as IS fights to defend its final remaining strongholds in both countries, we assess that the militants will likely up the ante in the coming weeks.
 Turkey Analysis: Islamic State’s recent publication highlights shifting rhetoric on Turkey; likely to lead to increased recruitment, attempted attacks | MAX Security
Cover of the latest issue of “Rumiyah”, depicting the November 5 attack in Diyarbakir
  • In this context, despite Turkish security forces’ relative success in mitigating the threat of attacks in major cities, IS still has the potential to launch asymmetric acts of militancy within Turkey’s territory. For one, the militants still maintain somewhat of a presence in the country’s southern provinces located closer to the Turkish-Syrian border, such as Gaziantep, Urfa, and Adana, as recent arrests of IS militants have highlighted. Also, Turkish security forces have struggled in completely sealing off the border from IS infiltrations. That said, Turkish forces’ persistent efforts against the group, domestically and externally, have reduced this threat. Additionally, following the attempted coup in July, Turkish public support has swayed dramatically in favor of President Erdogan and the AKP government, thus limiting the potential pool of recruits for IS. Moreover, due to the state of emergency taken into effect after the coup, security forces were granted greater authority to take heightened measures, thus likely leading to a reduction of militancy altogether.
  • FORECAST: In light of these setbacks, IS will likely take two approaches in the coming weeks. First, the militant group will likely increase its propaganda tactics, in efforts to recruit supporters from within Turkey itself. Through means of the internet, namely social media, IS will likely seek out sympathizers in order to build its ranks, and get Turkish citizens to carry out attacks in its name. Second, due to Turkish forces’ escalated security presence, IS-linked supporters will likely aim to stage smaller, less sophisticated attacks in higher frequencies, as such are harder for security forces to detect. This will likely include shootings, as well as the use of IEDs and other explosives targeting security forces, political figures, and also civilians. Such was witnessed with the Diyarbakir attack on November 5, as the attack was a vehicle-borne IED instead of a suicide bombing or multi-pronged attack.
  • Ultimately, however, the main goal of IS will be to stage a large-scale attack in a major area, particularly as the group continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq. As IS becomes more desperate, its motivation to stage such an attack will increase. In light of precedent attacks which have proven IS capabilities to stage such acts of militancy, a sophisticated attack occurring in a major locale in the coming months remains possible in the long-term. In addition to this, a heightened focus on government-affiliated targets, particularly entities linked with the AKP, may be witnessed with such attacks given the government’s persistent operations against the militant group.

Recommendations:

  1. Travel to Istanbul and Ankara may continue, although travelers are advised to maintain heightened vigilance in central areas due to the threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales.   Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.
  2. Avoid nonessential travel to the immediate vicinities of government buildings, police stations, political party offices, popular public places and shopping centers, as well as Western institutions and places frequented by Westerners, and places of worship due to the threat of militancy.
  3. Avoid nonessential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces, while also avoiding all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq, given the increased risk of militancy and spillover violence.
  4. Those conducting essential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces are advised to defer all travel to areas witnessing curfews due to the elevated risk of violence in these locales.

Resourcefulness, reassurance and rescue amid chaos

On the night of June 28, three well-trained assailants launched coordinated attacks at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport. After attempting to breach the terminal’s initial security checkpoint, two of the militants engaged airport security in a gun battle. Both assailants then detonated themselves, while the third did the same outside the airport’s international terminal.

Forty-one people were killed and 239 wounded. Autopsies revealed the suicide bombers to be foreign nationals.

As horrific as the attack itself was, the inability of local authorities to take command in its aftermath was equally disturbing. With minimal information or direction, hundreds of dazed, frightened passengers had to make their own way out of what for them must have been a living hell, then find transportation they could only assume was secure.

MAX Responds.

While officials were scrambling for answers, MAX was finding them. We knew we had anxious clients out there. And having dealt with our share of terror, we knew exactly how to proceed.

Our first task was to monitor the situation in order to form an accurate picture of the attack. This helped verify reports. We followed up with an analysis of the event. MAX clients received our initial tactical reports immediately after the attack.

At the same time, our operations division readied itself for client support. Our Operations Team activated Rapid Response Protocols. A Task Force was established within the Command and Control Operations Center to handle all incoming enquiries pertaining to the attack. To manage client requests for security support, evacuation and crisis management, the Command Center ordered all MAX ground teams in Turkey to full operational readiness.

 

Mission One: A timely alert leads to a rapid response.

Among the hundreds of stranded travelers at Ataturk that night, a lucky few were about to be whisked to safety. They were employees of one of MAX’s multinational clients.

MAX had advance knowledge of their travel plans. We notified the client and contacted the travel party. Operations dispatched a Rapid Response Team to the airport. Their route had been predetermined based on a customized plan of action specifically designed for this client and this location. The Operations Command Center, receiving tactical information from the Task Force based on MAX Intelligence assessments, provided the rescue team with updates on routes as events were happening.

The result: The response team arrived in 23 minutes. The travelers arrived safe and sound in a hotel vetted in advance by MAX.

 

Mission Two: Providing reassurance and a safe getaway.

A large multinational had numerous travelers stranded at Ataturk. At the wrong place at the wrong time and in the midst of chaos, the travelers were desperate for direction, with none forthcoming from the local authorities. The multinational – a MAX client – needed our help in securing those individuals.

Our Operations Task Force immediately contacted the travelers, pinpointed their locations within the airport, advised them as to what actions to take and reassured them that help was on the way. At the same time, Operations dispatched and directed a rescue team consisting of multiple vehicles, security drivers and agents. The entire operation was guided by tactical intelligence provided in real-time by our intelligence team.

With foresight and advance knowledge of conditions and locations, the travelers were easily found and transferred to secure sites throughout Istanbul.

 

Mission Three: Planning for every possibility.

Based on a MAX alert a client informed us that two of their employees were on a flight bound for Istanbul that had been diverted to another location in Turkey. The catch – the final destination was still unknown and there were three possible locations.

MAX Operations Command Center prepared for each contingency by assembling three separate ground teams. The task of each assigned team was to be ready to meet the travelers should they arrive at that location.

Once the final destination had been determined, the team assigned to that location escorted the travelers to a nearby hotel vetted by the MAX Task Force. As soon as travel itineraries had been updated and the travelers’ plans confirmed, the MAX team provided a secure transfer back to the airport and remained until it was determined the flight had departed.

 

Testimonials: Mission accomplished.

Fantastic job yesterday by you and your team.  We are very impressed with the level of service provided at such short notice.”  Security Operations Executive of an international hi-tech company

Thank you once again for all your support in ensuring our employees were looked after on the ground.” Global Security and Crisis Management executive of a multinational energy company

I would like to thank you & your team’s support on such short notice. Thank you!” CSO of a multinational pharmaceutical company

And a final thought from Noam Schiller, MAX Security President:

It is unfortunate that these type of attacks are taking place in strategic locations such as Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. But as this is today’s reality and we don’t see any prospect for change in the near future, we all should take every necessary measure to guarantee your employees safety, as we successfully did last night

 

The more chaotic the world becomes, the more you can rely on MAX to keep your business running as usual.

 

Read more posts like this in Max Security Blog.

Turkey Special Intelligence Report – Coup Attempt – July 2016

This report was written by:

Tzahi Shraga – MAX Security’s Chief Intelligence Officer, ret. LTC from the Israeli intelligence community

Roshanna Lawrence – MAX Security’s Associate Director of Intelligence, Middle East & North Africa

Oded Berkowitz – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst on Middle East & North Africa

Garrett Krivicich – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst on Turkey

 

Executive Summary

  • During the overnight hours of July 15 and July 16, several units from among the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched an attempted coup against the Turkish government, targeting several strategic locations in Istanbul and Ankara.
  • By capitalizing on popular support, the Turkish government was able to rally large crowds in their favor, thus ultimately defeating the attempted coup.
  • Failure of the coup highlights President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong political standing and capabilities in the country, despite recent controversies, and he will likely capitalize on recent events to further broaden his authorities.
  • In the aftermath of the attempted coup, it is likely that the Turkish population will perceive the coup as directed, funded and supported by foreign, including western, elements. This would largely contribute to further anti-western sentiments by the government and the populace, and could result in Americans, Europeans, and other foreign nationals being assaulted.

General development Timeline

Current Situation

Istanbul Main Events- Time line - max security

turkey-istanbul

Ankara Main Events- Time line - max security

turkey-ankara

 

Assessments

The Tactical Situation

Rebels’ Actions

While at the time of writing, information on the exact extent of involvement of the military, including units that took part in the failed coup, is still unfolding, several indications point towards a relatively large and well organized mobilization. Some of the more prominent indicators are:

  • Large number of personnel involved. At this time, at least 6,000 soldiers and officers were arrested by the government in suspicion of taking part in the coup, a number that is expected to grow in the coming hours and days.
  • Among those arrested were at least 29 Colonels and six Generals, including high-ranking figures such as Major General Mamdouh Hakbil, Chief of Staff of the Aegean Army in Izmir, General Erdal Ozturk, commander of the Third Army in Erzincan, General Adem Huduti, commander of the Second Army in Malatya, Major General Ozhan Ozbakir, commander of the Denizli garrison, General Bekir Ercan Van, the commander of Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase, and General Akin Ozturk, the former commander of the Turkish Air Force (THK), the alleged leader of the coup.
  • Airstrikes that were conducted in support of rebels highlight the participation of members from both the ground and air forces in the coup, while the arrest of both current and former officers from various branches of the military underscore the broad spectrum of supporters for the coup from within the armed forces.
  • The ability to conduct relatively large-scale military operations in both of Turkey’s major cities, which were likely partially directed from a remote location, as highlighted by the involvement of the Aegean Army’s Chief of Staff, are indicative of very high command and control capabilities, and are likely the result of extensive planning and preparations.

In addition to governmental locales and military headquarters, one of the rebels’ primary objectives was traditional media outlets, as shown by their targeting of various state-owned and private television and radio stations.

  • This move was likely initiated due to the rebels’ desire to capitalize on their initial successful momentum in order to declare their victory, and prevent others from issuing reports that will contradict it. As such, the rebels could have significantly limited the popular opposition against them by giving off the impression of a victory and, thus, discouraging potential resistance.

Government response

The Turkish government took two major actions that proved instrumental in initially mitigating the effects of the attempted coup, and ultimately defeating it:

Police anti-riot vehicles in Istanbul during morning of July 16
  1. Suspending social media activities. By doing so, coupled with successfully blocking rebels from utilizing traditional media outlets, the Turkish government effectively ended most of the rebels’ ability to directly convey their message to the Turkish people, as well as to foreign actors. This inability significantly diminished the possibility of rebels to rally popular support in their favor and to portray an image that they are acting on the civilians’ best interest, as opposed to in pursuit of perceived power.
  2. Rallying people to protest in favor of the government. This was done by both media publications, as well as direct public address systems such as text messaging and announcements from mosques. These developments eventually led to mass demonstrations, not only in central locales in Istanbul and Ankara, but also in areas with Kurdish majorities, such as Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Van.

By taking these actions, the government had both secured its legitimacy by showing that it is supported by a broad spectrum of the population, as well as neutralized rebels’ abilities to engage in effective military operations of fear from causing mass civilian casualties and repeating a scenario similar to Syria.

Future Projections

Failed coup demonstrates Erdogan’s strong political standing and capabilities, despite recent controversies

While the attempted coup began with some success in Turkey’s central cities of Istanbul and Ankara, that momentum was ultimately reversed, particularly when Erdogan called upon the Turkish population to “come to the streets” to defy the military faction’s takeover. Regardless of political viewpoints, thousands of protesters marched in the streets of both cities, thus highlighting the influence that the president has on the general public, despite recent political controversies, which have called to question his motives.

Additionally, even though opposing parties in Turkey’s parliament have largely opposed the president in the majority of his recent decisions and political maneuvers, all of these political entities came out in support of the current government, and stated their opposition for the coup. With this in mind, while pro-coup forces made up only a fraction of the military itself, the government stood united behind Erdogan, thus strengthening the president’s abilities, and ultimately leading to the foiling of the attempted coup.

Furthermore, Erdogan’s heavy investment into the Turkish National Police (TNP), coupled with his persistent attempts to control the military’s influence and keep it under civilian control, likely contributed significantly to the government’s ability to foil the coup. Ultimately, Turkish police were able to fend off major attacks, including in central locales such as Ankara’s Headquarters of the General Intelligence (MIT) and Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, thereby leading to the surrendering and arrests of thousands of pro-coup soldiers.

Also, it is important to note that many military commanders appeared to remain neutral at the start of the conflict, and likely waited to see which side had momentum before joining forces with pro-Erdogan soldiers. Once these sections of the military aligned with pro-government forces, the takeover began to face significant setbacks. That said, this apparent initial neutrality of Turkey’s top commanders brings to question the loyalties of the military in general, and will likely play a part in how the government responds to the attempted coup in the coming days.

Failed takeover likely to be utilized by Erdogan to strengthen presidential powers

In light of the failed coup attempt, it is likely that Erdogan will capitalize on the government’s success, as well as the perceived unity of the Turkish people, in order to further pursue the strengthening and broadening of his own presidential powers. In this context, while the general public has largely opposed constitutional reform transitioning the parliamentary system of government into a presidential one, recent developments may sway popular opinion in the opposite direction, as Erdogan likely attempts to use the attempted coup to demonstrate the need for a strong, unified executive branch. Additionally, the three rival political parties who have largely opposed such a maneuver may shift positions given the public’s strongly negative reaction to the attempted coup.

With this in mind, while such constitutional reform would take months, Erdogan will likely utilize

Security forces deployed in alert mode into Istanbul during morning hours of July 16
Security forces deployed in alert mode into
Istanbul during morning hours of July 16

the recent success in foiling the coup in the meanwhile to further strengthen the national police force, while simultaneously initiating further protocols to limit the independent capabilities of the military itself. In addition, to discourage such similar actions by the military in the future, the president will likely seek that the harshest penalties are given to the pro-coup soldiers, while ensuring that trials and sentencing are highly publicized. This will likely lead to further mass demonstrations in support of such actions, as the public continues to oppose the attempt military takeover, and support the government of Erdogan.

In this context, as Erdogan likely pursues such harsh measures for pro-coup elements, these soldiers may initiate acts of violence or unrest in order to negotiate with the government, or simply out of desperation. This could potentially include kidnappings of civilians or government officials, as well as other attacks in major cities or locales.

Increased threat of militancy

While this process likely unfolds in the coming days and weeks, it remains likely that militant groups, namely Islamic State (IS), will take advantage of the ensuing instability to stage attacks in Turkey’s major cities. This point is further bolstered by Erdogan’s likely attempts to further tame the military’s capabilities in terms of acting independently, thus placing the burden of mitigating major threats on Turkey’s national police and security forces, and increasing the chances of militant groups in staging acts of militancy. Overall, in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup, the threat of militancy unfolding in the country’s central locales remains elevated.

Kurdish Population

While the ensuing instability provided a significant opportunity for Kurdish militant groups, namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to take advantage of the situation and stage attacks against security forces, at this time, no such actions by the Kurdish fighters were reported. Instead, pro-Erdogan demonstrations took place in heavily Kurdish populated areas, such as Diyarbakir, where the PKK has a known and well established stronghold, and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) released a statement rejecting the coup. With this in mind, the Kurdish populace ultimately backed government forces that they have been largely opposing since hostilities between the sides resumed in July 2015.

anti western sentiment
Resuming routine in Istanbul on July 16

This inaction by the Kurds can likely be explained by two reasons. Most importantly, while the PKK generally opposes the Turkish government, its main objective in its struggle is autonomy, as opposed to complete independence and overthrowing the Turkish state. In this context, the overthrow of the Turkish government in its entirety would likely be counterproductive for the Kurdish fighters, as such a move would place the country under military rule, and thus, the Kurds would likely face heavier violence in an attempt to stop the PKK from establishing autonomy. Second, regardless of political affiliation and national backgrounds, the general consensus of the Turkish populace highly opposes such actions by the military, as highlighted by massive demonstrations throughout the country. With this in mind, while PKK attacks against security forces will likely resume in the southeast, no major initiatives will likely be taken by the Kurdish fighters in the coming days, both due to the likely bolstered deployment of security forces, as well as the Kurds’ current interest in not having the government overthrown.

Anti-western sentiment

As the coup was ongoing, it is important to note that President Erdogan was quick to connect the incident to his rival, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. In this context, this insinuation by Erdogan, coupled with a general Turkish populace largely supportive of the president, will likely lead elements of the public to perceive the coup as funded and supported by Western elements. This likelihood is bolstered by local reports claiming physical assaults of western journalists, and individuals perceived as such, that have occurred over the last few hours in both Istanbul and Ankara.

Moreover, while the US ultimately released a statement showing its support for Erdogan in the ensuing attempted takeover, the measure was not announced for at least three hours after the coup began. In this context, it may be perceived by Turkish nationals that the US waited to see on which side the momentum lied before choosing to support the government. Such a perception would likely largely contribute to further anti-western sentiments, and could result in Americans, Europeans, and other foreign nationals and western-linked businesses in the country being targeted in assaults and harassments.

Finally, it remains likely that Erdogan will utilize the events to portray a firmer stance against Western intervention in Turkey’s internal affairs, thus solidifying his popularity amongst the Turkish populace, who generally holds anti-western sentiments. This less favorable position towards the West may cause serious setbacks in recent relations between Turkey and the EU, including the Syrian refugee deal made in April, as well as the potential for Turkey ultimately becoming a member of the organization in the future.

Recommendations

  1. Those operating in Ankara and Istanbul are advised to minimize movement over the coming hours. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.
  2. In addition, ensure that your mobile phones are fully charged and equipped with a charging cable.

 

Disclaimer: Please note that any views and/or opinions and/or assessment and/or recommendations presented in this text are solely those of Max Security. If you are not the named addressee you should not disseminate, distribute or copy this text. If you are not the intended recipient you are notified that disclosing, copying, distributing or taking any action in reliance on the contents of this information is strictly prohibited. Max Security Solutions accepts no liability for (i) the contents of this text/report being correct, complete or up to date; (ii) consequences of any actions taken or not taken as a result and/or on the basis of such contents. Copyright – 2016 Max Security

Is your contingency plan a best-practice model for others?

Or is it an example of how NOT to plan for any contingency?

Here’s a good rule of thumb: The best time to create a contingency plan is not when danger is already at the door and the time has come to operationalize that plan. That applies to any business in any environment. But never more so than for the many Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) that conduct business in countries such as Turkey, for example. There, the threats are fluid and increasingly frequent, and MNCs need to plan carefully for virtually any contingency.

Terrorism and violent extremism are on the rise. They are reaching into major business hubs in Turkish cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. And more and more, extremists are looking at commercial sites as attractive targets. Worse still, it is growing increasingly difficult to pinpoint the dangers, because there is no single terrorist

player in Turkey. The Islamic State (IS), the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have all staged sophisticated, large-scale attacks since the year began. And the situation is made even more perilous because the extremists are hostile to one another, as well as to Western interests. Even if they are not direct targets of one extremist group or another, MNCs might find themselves caught in the crossfire, in effect.

And it is likely to get worse before it gets better. An analysis by MAX published in April documented a pattern of increased terrorist activity in Turkey’s urban tourist and commercial sites, including Istanbul, the gateway and hub for many MNCs. The terrorist’s aim? Disrupting investment in the Turkish economy by creating uncertainty.

The risks don’t begin and end with violent extremism. It’s a stark reality. In today’s world, business continuity might depend – at any moment – on a comprehensive contingency plan. And targeted extremist violence is not the only example of potentially disruptive events. Obviously, war in neighboring Syria and Iraq has direct and dramatic repercussions in southeastern Turkey. But businesses anywhere also have to position themselves to successfully manage operations when faced with a natural disaster, an outbreak of disease, a full-scale war, or even operational interruptions caused by political turmoil or corruption.

A solid contingency plan allows them to do that, as MAX Chief Consulting Officer, Mr. Ital Dar, explains:

The contingency plan enables a client to minimize the need to invent decision-making during a stressful time. Instead, it relies on pre-defined protocols that assist in solving the situation efficiently while minimizing damages to the company’s business continuity.

Does the situation call for a business to evacuate temporarily, moving staff to a safe location where it can continue its operations? Or, is the threat so dire that it is necessary to leave the country altogether? And if it is, what is the best way to maintain business functions? Arriving at the answers in advance – and with a cool head – means decision-makers don’t have to improvise solutions at the worst possible time, according to Mr. Ital Dar: “Being fully prepared to evacuate if necessary, and knowing when and how to do it without jeopardizing safety and business continuity unnecessarily, is one good example of what a contingency plan can do”.

And a contingency plan must do plenty more as well It begins with extensive information gathering, and thorough research into potential risks and threats, in order to create customized risk assessments and solutions for each client. That process is a 360-degree exercise. It has to take into account the unique circumstances, operational resources, and objectives of the client, of course. But it also must consider broader cultural, geopolitical, and local dynamics that can affect a sensitive situation, factoring in numerous variables to help the client develop both short- and long-term responses to disruptions. From there, it has to extend into provisions of training for management and employees to ensure that they will be prepared to adhere to and implement the plan in a crisis situation.

And it has to be developed with the understanding that plans can change, because circumstances can change. An effective contingency plan example is one that recognizes that contingency, too. It should provide for continuous situation analysis and create a core team that is able to react quickly to a changing environment without losing sight of essential goals. It needs to identify the full range of security resources that will be needed to put the plan into effect, from custom Intel to logistical support, secure transportation, medical assistance, or other necessary services.

Obviously, the complexities of each tailored contingency plan mean that no one example can spell out all of the considerations. But there is one more consideration that no comprehensive plan can afford to overlook. It has to equip the client to continuously monitor the myriad factors that can hint at trouble.

No plan can help, after all, unless the signs of an impending crisis are recognized in time to set it in motion.

Read more about MAX Physical Security Audit Reports & Risk Assessments

Turkey Special Report: The Attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport

This report was written by:
Tzahi Shraga – MAX Security’s Chief Intelligence Officer, ret. LTC from of the Israeli intelligence community

Roshanna Lawrence – MAX Security’s Associate Director of Intelligence, Middle East & North Africa

Garrett Krivicich – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst on Turkey

Asaf Day – MAX Security’s Senior Analyst on the Eastern Mediterranean

Executive Summary

Three suicide bombers of Russian and Central Asian descent launched a well-planned and coordinated attack, detonating themselves at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport during the evening hours of June 28 and causing the deaths of 41 people and wounding of 239 others.

While no claim of responsibility has been released at this time, we assess that the Islamic State (IS) is responsible for the attack, given the sophisticated modus operandi of the incident, namely a coordinated attack in three separate locations, including a diversion stage, as well as the target, which is an international hub for foreign nationals.

Current Situation

Description of event
Three suicide bombers detonated themselves at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport during the evening hours of June 28.  Reports indicate that at approximately 22:00 (local time), the assailants arrived by taxi at the international terminal’s arrivals hall.  One militant remained behind in the parking lot and aroused police suspicion; he began shooting at police and then detonated a suicide belt.

As security forces gathered around the scene of the first blast, in the chaos, the two other attackers were able to enter the international terminal: One at the arrivals hall terminal, and the other upstairs to the departure hall.

The second and third explosions reportedly took place at the arrivals and departures halls, where each attacker attempted to pass through security and began shooting, engaging with security forces before separately detonating themselves.

Coordinated Attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport

 

Description of attackers
The attackers were reportedly from Russia’s Dagestan region, as well as from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and they were armed with standard AK-47 assault rifles.  However, a local knowledgeable source speaking to us stated that one carried a Glock pistol.

Furthermore, the same source stated that one assailant arrived to Turkey one year prior to the attack and then traveled to Syria’s Raqqa Province for training, while the two others joined him several months later. After a period of training, the three returned to Istanbul.

Death tolls
At the time of writing, 41 people have been killed, and 239 others were wounded as a result of the attack. Of these deaths, at least 13 were foreign nationals, including from Ukraine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, China, and Jordan.

Security operations
Reports indicate that during the overnight hours of June 29-30, Turkish security forces arrested 13 people during counter-militancy operations in Istanbul, include three foreign nationals of unspecified nationality.

Airports update
While airport operations, including all arriving and departing flights, were suspended following the attack, the airport was reportedly reopened for limited traffic at 02:20. Initial flights began arriving and departing at 05:00. Multiple flights had also been redirected to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen International Airport and Izmir’s Adnan Menderes Airport at the time of the incident.

While at this time, Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport is open to regular air traffic, various delays were reported throughout June 29 due to intensified security measures in and around the airport. This includes additional security force deployments to the airport.

Assessments

Sophistication of multi-pronged attack indicates Islamic State (IS) responsibility
The attack comes amidst an escalated threat of militancy throughout Turkey, with multiple large-scale acts of militancy recorded in central locales since the beginning of the year. Most recently, this includes a suicide car bomb explosion at Istanbul’s Beyazit Square on June 7. That said, the multi-faceted attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport remains highly notable, given its status as the third largest international airport in Europe, with nearly 42 million people traveling through the airport in 2015, as well as the large number of foreign nationals traveling through this locale. With this in mind, the attack was likely intended to target tourist interests in order to gain more publicity and severely damage Turkey’s economy, which largely thrives on tourism.

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack as of yet, we assess that it was likely carried out by militants belonging to the Islamic State (IS). In this context, IS, dependent on its image for support and recruitment, likely seeks to conduct spectacular attacks globally at this time due to the setbacks the group is facing in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  The threat of attacks is further elevated at this time due to Ramadan, which marks the anniversary of the founding of the caliphate.

IS’s responsibility for the attack is supported by the sophisticated modus operandi of the incident, namely a coordinated attack in three separate locations, including a diversion stage, as well as the target, which is an international hub for foreign nationals.  The attack involved shooting followed by suicide bombings, a common tactic of the jihadist militant group. This assessment is bolstered by the IS attack plot foiled in Istanbul that we reported on June 18, when security forces seized suicide vests and assault rifles in the city’s Pendik and Basaksehir Districts, indicating plans for the use of an identical tactic. In addition, it is important to note the similarities between this attack, and the attack carried out by IS in Brussels on March 22, where three suicide bombers also attacked the city’s airport, as well as opened fire on civilians with assault rifles prior to detonating themselves. This overall strategy, as well as choice of weaponry, continues to highlight the jihadist group’s modus operandi when carrying out such large-scale attacks.

The attack was planned well in advance and followed a long period of intelligence-gathering to include on-ground reconnaissance at the airport.  The event further displayed a high level of coordination and sophistication, as militants detonated themselves at three different points at the airport, two inside the terminal and one outside. This was likely an attempt to split security forces’ response and increase the potential that at least one attacker would successfully breach the airport’s security measures. This is further underscored by reports that the attacker in the parking lot detonated first, drawing security forces to the area, as well as creating a bottleneck of people near the entrance to the terminal.

Moreover, after thorough review of video footage and images of the attack, we conclude that the assailants demonstrated a high level of proficiency in use of their assault rifles and were well-trained. This is further exemplified by their reported training in Syria. Also, as seen with the jihadist group’s previously claimed large-scale attacks, namely Brussels and the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, the assailants’ tactics demonstrate that they were attempting to inflict mass casualties. With this in mind, the incident at the airport demonstrates a repeating modus operandi of high-volume attacks at the entrance halls of airport terminals, which are accessible relative to the heavily guarded sterile areas of airports, additionally highlighting the vulnerability of the long lines caused by security measures to these areas.

The attack comes one week after the arrest of the June 18 IS cell in Istanbul, which included two individuals of Russian descent. This further indicates the existence of a well-established IS infrastructure in the vicinity of the city, well-connected to IS’s central leadership and recruitment network. In this context, the fact that the attackers were from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia’s Dagestan area suggests that the individuals were directed by the central organization to establish a cell in Turkey. This further indicates the potentially growing radicalization of Muslim individuals in these countries, particularly in Russia’s predominantly-Muslim populated regions in the Caucasus, which experiences Islamist militant activity.

While suspected IS-linked attacks have been conducted in Istanbul before, including a suicide bombing along Istiklal Caddesi on March 19, and another at Sultanahmet Square on January 12, none of them have been officially claimed by the jihadist group. This was likely in order to avoid a general large-scale conflict with Turkey, and to prevent alienating potential IS sympathizers within the Turkish populace. However, the sophistication of the attack and notability of the target suggests that the jihadist group may claim responsibility for the incident in the near future. Furthermore, the worldwide attention granted to this attack, as well as its spectacular method is likely to serve as an inspiration and role model for additional militant groups in Turkey and worldwide.

Successful attack underscores challenges for Turkish security apparatus; heightened security measures likely to be implemented
The incident underscores difficulties faced by Turkish security forces in mitigating all threats presented by the multitude of militant groups operating within the country, even at locales deemed heavily secured. Security forces face challenges in profiling suspected IS members due to the diverse nationalities comprising the group’s affiliates. It is noteworthy that militants were likely attempting to cross through the first security checkpoint to stage attacks deeper within the airport’s terminal but were prevented by the security forces, preventing a much larger-scale attack from materializing. That said, it is notable that the security personnel were distracted and concentrated their efforts to one area, namely the parking area where the first attacker detonated, more easily allowing the other two attackers to enter the airport.  It is further notable that as demonstrated by the attack footage, after one attacker was shot and wounded by a police officer inside the terminal, falling to the ground and dropping his rifle, several seconds passed until he detonated his explosive belt, time during which the officer could have neutralized him.

Following this incident, Turkey’s security apparatus will likely adopt a series of heightened protocols in order to mitigate further threats. This includes intensified security measures in and around Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, including checkpoints entering and exiting the airport’s grounds, as well as additional security checks within the facility itself. These security protocols will also likely be extended to other major airports and transportation hubs throughout the country. Finally, security forces will likely enhance security measures in Istanbul and in other centralized locales throughout the country, including Ankara and Izmir. This is likely to include further arrest raids of suspected militant hideouts, and checkpoints to and from these major cities.

With this in mind, Turkish security forces will likely consider more forceful measures in retaliating to the attack and responding to the threat presented by the militant group in general. This will likely include an increase in airstrikes against IS’s positions in northern Syria. Additionally, Turkish authorities may consider conducting cross-border operations between Turkey and Syria to better secure the porous border and prevent IS militants from entering the country. Last, Turkish authorities may reconsider a proposed “safe zone” in northern Syria to further damage IS capabilities in Syria.

 

Recommendations

  1. Those operating or residing in Turkey are advised to contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.
  2. Those planning to travel through Turkey’s airports, specifically Ataturk International Airport, should allot for heightened security measures and long lines, extending the time needed for pre-departure.
  3. Travelers on connecting flights are advised to avoid unnecessary travel outside the secured zones of the airport.
  4. Avoid unnecessary confrontations with security forces, due to their heightened tensions and alertness across Turkey.
  5. Allot for checkpoints and heightened security measures nationwide.

 

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Intelligence Analysis: The Kurd’s shifting role in the Syrian conflict

“Deal with your friends as if they will become your enemies tomorrow, and deal with your enemies as if they will become your friends tomorrow.” It’s a proverb passed along through Kurdish generations — and a telling pretext to the Kurdish strategy in today’s conflict in Syria. In recent weeks, this once dormant player has awoken from its slumber, and may just provide Syria’s desperate rebels with a much needed boost to break their deadlock with the Assad regime.

Reports indicate that YPG militiamen and Syrian rebels have agreed to share control of the strategic Sheikh Maqsood District of northern Aleppo, cutting off regime supply routes to a hospital, prison, and other key positions. Rebel fighters entered the district largely unopposed on March 31. On April 6, the Syrian military bombarded Kurdish neighborhoods in northern Aleppo, killing 15 people in a likely response to this new arrangement. The following day, Kurdish militiamen attacked a Syrian military checkpoint in the city, killing five troops.

PYD supporters at a funeral for a deceased member.
PYD supporters at a funeral for a deceased member

Further east, Syrian military units attacked a checkpoint manned by Kurdish militiamen in the northeastern city of Qamishli on April 4. Hours later, militiamen from the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) attacked two Syrian military positions on the outskirts of Qamishli. The attacks resulted in a number of deaths on both sides and marked the first such incident to occur in the predominantly Kurdish Hasakah Province since the Syrian military withdrew from the region’s urban centers in the summer of 2012.

Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: The Kurd’s shifting role in the Syrian conflict