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Is Turkey vulnerable to ISIS attacks?

ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi reappeared on April 29 in footage filmed in an unidentified place, five years after he was last seen. This clears the question about whether he might have been killed in an attack targeting ISIS fighters.

The footage must have been filmed as recently as after April 23, because it mentions that date’s killings in Sri Lanka of hundreds of people as revenge for ISIS’s defeat in the town of Baghuz at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The anti-ISIS coalition declared victory in Baghuz on March 23. Al-Baghdadi may have preferred to save his own life by moving to safer places and let his followers be exterminated by the coalition.

He said in the footage that “the battle of Islam and its people against the Crusaders and their followers is a long battle,” and that “there will be a battle after this one.” This statement aims to motivate his followers, and reconfirms his resolve not to lay down arms. 

The ISIS threat is far from being entirely eliminated. While its fighters were besieged in Baghuz, sleeper cells were able to carry out an attack in a restaurant in the relatively calm Syrian town of Menbij — killing 16 people, including four Americans — and in a remote place such as Sri Lanka, where they carried out a range of blasts. Al-Baghdadi’s reappearance is a message to ISIS cells worldwide that this terror organization is still able to commit carnage.

A disturbing detail for Turkey is that he is shown in the footage holding a file titled “Wilaya Turkiya” (Turkish Province). Assuming that everything in this footage is there for a calculated purpose, one may wonder whether ISIS wants to convey the message that it is Turkey’s turn to be subjected to attacks.

The country must be a target for ISIS because of its predominantly Muslim population and its secular regime. Turkish authorities will probably analyze the meaning of displaying the country’s name in the footage.

A public opinion poll carried out in 2015 by the Pew Research Center in the US showed that 8 percent of Turks had a favorable attitude toward ISIS. In a country of 82 million people, this corresponds to 5.74 million sympathizers. Some Turks, caught on their way to joining ISIS, told security officers they were doing so because they preferred to live in a place where Islam is practiced the way it is done in the parts of Syria controlled by the group.

The New York Times on May 4 claimed that one of the terrorists caught after the Sri Lanka attacks was trained in Turkey. These scattered pieces of information raise the question: Is Turkey vulnerable to ISIS attacks?

It is not easy to fight a terrorist group so deeply entrenched in a vast geography. In many countries, the ISIS phenomenon is unfortunately regarded as a security issue that has to be dealt with by the police only. Its cultural ramifications, and the reasons that feed this process, are ignored. The police force is of course a must in the short term, but other measures are needed in the intermediate and longer term.  

There are steps to be taken by all countries, but the main duty falls on the shoulders of the decision-makers of Islamic countries. Poverty and high youth unemployment serve as breeding grounds for terrorists. Equally important factors are how religion is taught in theological schools, and how it is propagated by clerics.

Mosque-going Muslims face an imam five times a day, so he contributes more than anyone else to shaping people’s behavior on religious matters. The way imams are trained, and the way they convey their message to the public, are of utmost importance. This makes all countries vulnerable, including predominantly Muslim ones.