What Does a Recent ISIS-K Terror Attack Mean for Turkey?

On January 28, 2024, masked assailants attacked a Roman Catholic church in Istanbul, killing one person. Shortly afterward, the Islamic State, through its official Amaq News Agency, claimed responsibility. Turkish police detained 47 people, most Central Asian nationals.

The incident shed light on the growing presence in Turkey of a Central Asian offshoot of the Islamic State group known as ISIS-K for Khorasan, once a large portion of the Persian Empire now divided among Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asian states.  The Jan. 28 assault was the group’s first successful attack in Turkey since Jan. 1, 2017, when jihadists invaded an Istanbul nightclub, killing 39 people and wounding nearly 80.

Since then, Turkish security forces have launched mass counter-operations against ISIS suspects in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The operations appear to have deterred deadly terrorist attacks in large urban and border areas and to have depleted the militants’ financial resources. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, ISIS-K suspended overseas activities to focus more on Afghanistan and try to undermine the Taliban, which resumed control over the country after the Americans left. Between late 2022 and early 2023, ISIS-K militants attacked the Pakistani and Russian embassies in Kabul, hit a hotel in the Afghan capital where Chinese business representatives were staying, and carried out an explosion at an air force compound.

However, recent data suggests that ISIS-K activities in Afghanistan in 2023 almost came to a halt and the attacks that took place caused minimal damage. This suggests that the Taliban has successfully contained ISIS-K in Afghanistan and may explain why the organization has again switched its focus to Turkey.

Notably, ISIS-K has found it easier to utilize Turkey as a financial and transit hub due to the growing number of Afghan refugees crossing into the country through Iran in the last three years. Inhibited by Taliban monitoring of their financial flows, the radicals have seemingly found a new way of circumventing restrictions by using sleeper cells in Turkey and border areas with Syria to make transfers using traditional hawala exchanges.

The January attack in Istanbul raised questions about how these trained radicals infiltrated the country. Earlier, Turkish security forces successfully uncovered and detained a group of Central Asians, mostly from Tajikistan, for alleged ties to ISIS-K.

In December 2023, the Turkish police reportedly prevented a plot targeting churches and synagogues that appeared tied to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip and might have been part of a broader plan. Although ISIS-K failed to perpetrate deadly attacks in Turkey in 2023, its Tajik operatives carried out terror attacks in Iran, Germany, and Austria between January and December. ISIS-K also took responsibility for suicide bombings in Kerman, Iran, on Jan. 3, 2024, during a commemoration for Quds Force Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated by a U.S. drone in 2020.

Notwithstanding frequent raids and arrests, ISIS-K reportedly continues strengthening its footprint in Turkey. Recently,  one of the detained radicals revealed that the group’s point man in Turkey, a 45-year-old Kyrgyz national of Tajik origin, had planned attacks on the consulates of Sweden and the Netherlands in Istanbul. For that purpose, ISIS-K facilitated the travel to Turkey of potential suicide bombers from Russia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. However, due to the Turkish police’s intensive raids and crackdown against Islamist-linked individuals, the attacks against consulates were averted and the potential bombers might have gone to Europe instead. Despite earlier reports that the organization faced a deep financial crisis in 2023, ISIS-K still managed to carry out coordinated attacks in Europe.

Turkey has long regarded Central Asian countries as strategic allies even as it has faced rising threats from Central Asian Islamist networks.  The rising role of Central Asian nationals in such brutal terror attacks again highlights how common linguistic, religious, and cultural ties enable them to bypass security filters in Turkic-speaking countries.

Radicals can easily penetrate and proselytize among other Central Asian immigrants based in major Turkish cities, particularly Istanbul’s Basaksehir district, which has become a haven for Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen.

The recent attack and attempts to boost influence among Central Asian immigrant communities in Turkey also appear aimed at distracting Turkish authorities from their ongoing counterterrorism campaign and military presence in northern Syria and Iraq.

Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus and a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies and senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications in Azerbaijan. He was also a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. He tweets at @fuadshahbazov

The original piece was published by Stmison Center

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