ANKARA: Turkish authorities on Saturday announced the arrests of 15 suspects with connections to Daesh and conflict zones in Syria, as counterterrorism teams from the Istanbul police department continue to flush out cells.
Following the Qur’an-burning protest in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm last month, intelligence reports claimed that the leaders of the Khorasan branch of Daesh had instructed members to conduct terror acts against Swedish and Dutch consulates in Istanbul, as well as places of Christian and Jewish worship.
Despite the arrests, the police department said it had found “no concrete proof” of plans to attack foreign missions or places of worship.
Several Western countries, including the US, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, the UK and France, closed their consulates in Istanbul last week as a precaution against possible terror attacks.
All of the missions are located in Beyoglu district, which is a popular tourist area in Istanbul. A French high school in the district also closed its doors.
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office also warned its citizens of the possible risk of traveling to Turkiye.
“There is a potential that citizens from Western countries may be targets or caught up in attacks, particularly in the major cities,” it said.
The German Consulate advised expats and visitors to avoid Istanbul’s tourism hot spots and “international crowds” in general.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired major and security analyst at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, said the rapprochement between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Turkish government should be taken into consideration when evaluating the terror threat.
“The beginning of negotiations between Turkiye and Syria, with the support of Russia, has triggered anger among radical groups in some Turkish-controlled regions in Syria, which makes Turkiye open to the terror provocations,” he told Arab News.
In November, six people were killed and dozens injured in a bombing close to the consulates in Beyoglu that is thought to have been carried out by a woman with links to the Syrian Kurdish YPG.
However, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on Thursday rejected the international terror-threat notices, saying they were part of a psychological war against his country.
“We all know very well that they are trying to outshine Turkiye’s stability and peace,” he said, adding that the closure of the embassies coincided with the day Turkiye announced its target to attract 60 million tourists annually.
He accused the US ambassador in Turkiye of trying to undermine national stability.
“I know which journalists you made write articles. Keep your dirty hands off Turkiye,” he said.
The US was the first country to issue a terror-threat notice, warning its citizens in a note on Jan. 30 of possible “retaliatory attacks by terrorists against churches, synagogues and diplomatic missions in Istanbul or other places Westerners frequent.”
Since the start of the year, Turkiye has carried out about 60 operations against Daesh and detained 95 suspects. Last year, it conducted more than 1,000 such operations and arrested about 2,000 suspects.
The Turkish Interior Ministry said last week that authorities had “detained a number of suspects following a warning from a friendly country, but did not find any weapons, ammunition, or signs of a planned act of violence.”
Observers told Arab News that the unnamed “friendly country” was most probably Israel, which had provided significant amounts of intelligence to Turkiye in recent years that had helped to foil several major terror attacks against prominent figures and tourists.
Turkiye responded to the consulate closures by warning its citizens to avoid traveling to European countries over “possible Islamophobic, xenophobic and racist attacks.”
With Turkiye’s presidential election less than four months away there are fears of an escalation in terror attacks as was seen ahead of the 2015 poll.
Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center in New York, told Arab News that the security threat in Turkiye was high and likely to remain so for several reasons.
“First, geographic proximity to Syria. Daesh has been attenuated significantly, but still remains a potent threat. Daesh maintains logistical networks that stretch into Turkiye and also maintains the ability to conduct attacks there,” he said.
“These networks are long-standing and some likely date back many years. Some of these networks could be operating in plain sight.”
Also, as Turkish authorities were mostly focused on combating Kurdish groups, some Daesh activity was happening under the radar, Clarke said.
“Lastly, countering Daesh will be a generational challenge for the security forces in Turkiye. Dismantling these networks will require sustained, well-resourced and persistent intelligence operations,” he said.
Clarke also said that Daesh’s Khorasan branch was of greatest concern to counterterrorism authorities due to its potential to launch external operations and high-profile attacks elsewhere in the world.
“The security situation in Afghanistan is so unstable that there is a major concern that the group will recruit new members and grow in strength over the coming year,” he said.