Balkanalysis.com Editor’s note: the following article discusses some local security concerns in Turkey, following an assault on US sailors by proclaimed nationalist youth and amidst the lingering concerns over cross-border terrorism from ISIS elements. It comes in advance of the visit of Pope Francis to Turkey later this month; readers may also be interested in Balkanalysis.com’s previous coverage of the Papal visit to Albania this September.
On 12 November, members of the Turkish Youth Union (TGB) assaulted three US Navy sailors on a crowded street in Istanbul, throwing paint at them and trying to pull hoods over their heads. After the incident, 12 people were identified in connection with the attack and arrested by Turkish authorities.
The group, founded in 2006, claims to be a pro-Kemalist, nationalist, and anti-American group, in the tradition of nationalist movements of the past. One of the most famous nationalist-extremists was Mehmet Ali Ağca, the man who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, a case that remains murky today.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu vowed that the attackers would “pay the price for their actions.” In response to Turkish authorities’ reaction to the assault, the US State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said the United States is “satisfied that the Turkish government is taking this incident seriously”; hence, the assault did not cause a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the US. However, it brings to one’s attention the question of whether Turkey has effective measures in place to prevent terrorist attacks.
Pope Francis’ Upcoming Visit to Turkey, and the New Presidential Palace
The visit of Pope Francis, scheduled for November 28-30, 2014, is considered to be the first high-level visit between a Turkish and world leader since August’s presidential election of the then- prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While some in the Christian world sees the Pope’s visit as a chance to bridge ancient divide, Turkish media is focusing on whether the Pope will visit Erdoğan’s ‘White Palace’ (Ak Saray) in Ankara.
The new presidential building represents yet another factor which caused an intensification of the divide within Turkish society between the followers of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and opposition parties. This new palace cost more than $600 million to build- about twice the estimated cost presented initially. While President Erdoğan and his government see the presidential building as a symbol of the new ‘Turkey’ project, opposition parties, especially the Republican People’s Party (CHP), consider the new project as a symbol of an authoritarian regime. Therefore, the Pope’s visit will be extremely important to Turks, to the extent that the Pope sends signals about the Holy See’s view of the state of domestic politics in Turkey.
However, aside from the media interest, it should be noted also that the Vatican’s security planners, working together with their Turkish counterparts, are keenly aware of the fact that several Catholic priests and related figures have been murdered in Turkey in recent years, such as Fr. Andrea Santoro in Trabzon in 2006, and Bishop Luigi Padovese in Iskenderun in 2010. There is no doubt that security will be high, wherever the Pope goes.
The Refugee Influx and Terrorism Concerns
Yet on another front, the ongoing fighting at Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria continue to constitute threats to Turkey’s national security. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Turkey has witnessed an immense influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq. The number of refugees in Turkey is now approaching 1.6 million, according to the Turkish government, as CNN has reported.
However, only 847,200 of these refugees are registered in local camps nearby the border, whereas the rest have presumably either moved to big Turkish cities or Europe. It is conceivable that the high number of unregistered refugees in big cities means that among them might be an unknown number of supporters or members of the ISIS or Al Nusra Front terrorists active in Syria and Iraq.
According to a recent security report which was issued by the T24 news portal, 22 bomb-loaded vehicles and 30 ISIS terrorists were reported in Turkey. The Intelligence Unit of the Security General Directorate (EGM) has issued a warning for all 81 provinces to be on guard against 22 bomb-loaded vehicles under IS control, Today’s Zaman reported on 19 September.
Although some international critics have alleged Turkey to have maintained close, cooperative ties with ISIS, the latter seems prepared for performing terrorist attacks in Turkey. For example, the Reyhanli bombings took place on 11 May 2013, when two car bombs exploded in the town of Reyhanli, in the southern Hatay Province of Turkey. In the explosion, at least 51 people were killed and 140 injured.
Although Turkish authorities argued that the attackers had links to Syria’s intelligence agency, the fact that the Syrian Mukhabarat eventually pointed a finger at the Islamic State as the organization responsible for the attack complicates the picture. Yet another, similar incident occurred when Turkey’s consul general in Mosul and 46 Turkish employees were kidnapped on 11 June by ISIS, after the militants seized control of the city. They spent 101 days in captivity, and were only freed after a secret operation led by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
The Pope’s Visit as a Security-Policy Indicator
Under such circumstances, one may argue that the visit of Pope Francis may send signals about the short- and medium-term political repositioning of Turkey in the Middle East; additionally, the Pope’s visit will be an indicator of Turke’s national security in view of the ongoing turmoil in neighboring countries.
While the nationalist-oriented TGB assault can be seen as an action by a potentially small group active on Turkish soil (which can be seen in any democratic country), the continuous strike of the Islamic State certainly constitutes a bigger threat to Turkish national security.