Islamic State and other armed groups’ intent to stage kidnappings in Turkey never diminished and should be taken seriously, but their capabilities remain limited, writes Saif Islam.
Between August and October, Turkish security forces arrested dozens of suspected Islamic State (IS) members in multiple counter-terrorism raids across the country, including the leader of IS in Turkey, Mahmut Özden. Subsequent investigations, including testimonies from detainees and deciphered encrypted messages from IS operatives in Iraq and Syria, found several IS plots to stage kidnapping and terrorist operations. According to Turkish authorities, IS militants have been planning to kidnap international tourists and Turkish government officials as ransom in return for IS fighters held in Iraqi and Syrian prisons. On 23 October, the US embassy in Turkey published a security alert warning of “credible reports of potential terrorist attacks and kidnappings” against US citizens and foreign nationals in Istanbul, and potentially other locations in Turkey. The warning did not identify any threat actor, and it is unclear whether the announcement was linked to the recent revelation of IS kidnapping plots.
The threat of terrorist kidnapping in Turkey remains higher than in any neighbouring countries in Europe.
Militants’ decreased capabilities
In spite of these recent developments, there have been no known incidents of terrorist kidnapping in Turkey over the past decade, and militant groups’ capabilities have decreased considerably over the past three years. However, due to the presence of Islamist and other armed groups in Turkey, and the country’s proximity to Iraq and Syria, the threat of terrorist kidnapping in Turkey remains higher than in any neighbouring countries in Europe. The most recent high impact IS attack in Turkey was the January 2017 Reina nightclub shooting. IS has suffered significant territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, including along the Turkish border, and been targeted in numerous counter-terrorism operations inside Turkey. The arrest of Özden, which led to the arrest of many others, will pose further setbacks for the group. The Turkish military has also made considerable progress in degrading the capabilities of far left and Kurdish armed groups in the country over the past three years.
The need for caution
These factors make it difficult for terrorist and other armed groups to stage sophisticated kidnappings against foreign nationals or prominent Turkish nationals and shows why there has not been a terrorist kidnapping in recent years. Local criminal gangs, who usually target middle- to upper-income locals, continue to pose the primary kidnapping threat in the country. Nevertheless, given the recent warnings from Turkish and US authorities about terrorist groups’ intent to stage kidnappings, travellers, foreigners, and high-profile locals are still advised to adhere to basic security precautions, including in major urban centres such as Istanbul and Ankara. They are also advised to exercise maximum caution in south-eastern Turkey, especially in areas close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders.