Tourists and business travellers to Turkey should expect another uncertain year, with more attacks from both IS and Kurdish militant groups expected
Business travellers face increasingly diverse threats
The last year in Turkey has been one of the most volatile in decades. It included an attempted military coup, a string of significant, mass-casualty terrorist attacks in central areas of Istanbul and the capital Ankara, and an unprecedented military intervention in Syria, arguably Turkey’s most significant since its 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Against this backdrop, there has been a dramatic decline in the value of the Turkish currency, and moves by President Recep Tayyep Erdogan to greatly expand his constitutional powers.
For many businesses, this volatility has created exceptional challenges. In recent decades, Turkey’s educated and skilled workforce, geographical position and improving infrastructure had led many firms to establish considerable operations in the country. These range from car and garment factories, to agricultural investments, to hi-tech industries, along with a range of necessary banking, logistical and IT support services. One outcome of this sustained and deep investment is that, despite the country’s growing political and security risks, foreign firms must continue to operate there, and to send significant numbers of foreign travellers to locations throughout
During the early years of the Syrian civil war, Turkey actively facilitated the transit of thousands of jihadists into Syria, in the belief that they would topple Ankara’s enemy Assad and establish a pro-Turkey, Sunni-led government. However, relations between Turkey and the most hardline jihadist group in Syria, so-called Islamic State (IS), began to deteriorate in 2014-15. This led initially to periodic IS cross-border mortar and rocket strikes and bomb attacks on Kurds, and then to a more concerted campaign.
The primary aim of IS’s attacks on Turkey has been to pressure the government into resuming its tacit support of IS, or at the very least to force it to abandon its action against IS’s domestic and Syrian operations. IS has partly attempted to apply this pressure through the deliberate targeting of tourists. This included two suicide bomb attacks on foreign tourists in Istanbul in early 2016 and, most recently, the gun attack on the Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve. In addition, the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul in October evacuated all dependents from the city, citing IS’s “aggressive efforts to attack U.S. citizens in areas of Istanbul where they reside or frequent”.
Other IS attacks have targeted economic and transport infrastructure, again with the aim of hitting Turkey financially to force it to change its approach. The most striking such incident was carried out by three Russian and Central Asian suicide attackers on Istanbul’s main Ataturk airport in June 2016, killing 45. Since then, various other attacks have been thwarted, seemingly including a second planned attack on Istanbul airport, and an apparent multiple suicide bomb plot in the southern city of Gaziantep in October.
Kurdish militant threat
Separate to the IS threat are the activities of Kurdish militant groups, including the Kurdish Workers’ Party (TAK) insurgent group, and its hardline urban wing, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK). Both groups have significantly increased their attacks in the last year, motivated largely by Ankara’s mass arrests of Kurdish politicians and activists, and by Turkey’s operations against PKK-affiliated Kurdish militias in Syria.
Despite its escalating violence, the threat the PKK poses to business travellers is long-established and is generally well understood by travel security managers. This is because the PKK continues to mainly operate in the country’s remote and less-developed South-East, where it mostly targets the security forces, including through guerrilla-style ambushes and roadside bombings. The group’s confined geographical operating area and targeting patterns, means that it poses limited and mostly collateral risks to foreign business staff even when it is operating at a higher tempo, and virtually no risk to foreign personnel in Istanbul, Ankara and western Turkey.
However, during the past year, there has been an unprecedented increase in attacks in major cities by the TAK, which conducts attacks that the PKK (its parent organisation) is unwilling to carry out itself. This is because the PKK aspires to be seen as a legitimate liberation movement and it operates under self-imposed constraints. The TAK, having no direct political aspirations itself, is less concerned about such considerations. As a result, during the last few months, its attacks have spread far outside the PKK’s usual operating areas in the South-East, including a double suicide bomb attack in Istanbul that killed 30 police officers and eight civilians in early December, the most fatal Kurdish attack in the city to date.
In addition, TAK attacks aimed at increasing pressure on the government have recently taken place in Turkey’s western and southern coastal cities such as Adana, Antalya and Izmir, where Kurdish militants formerly had little reach. Although these attacks targeted the security forces, they also caused significant civilian deaths because they occurred in populated areas. Underlining the challenges facing risk managers, TAK attacks have taken place during the last year outside or near sports stadiums, a major business class hotel, a university, and local government buildings, all of which staff could conceivably visit.
Outlook for 2017
Turkey will continue operations against IS in the coming months, likely prompting IS to attempt ever more dramatic responses. Future IS attacks in Turkey may well include further strikes by gunmen and suicide bombers on bars and transport hubs – including both airports and train stations – as well as attacks on high-profile tourist destinations, churches and synagogues, and business-class hotels. However, future attacks may also involve more complex attempts to seize hostages and provoke a prolonged siege, which would maximise publicity for the group, as well as undermine tourist, business, and economic confidence in Turkey.
Meanwhile, Erdogan will seek to curtail the activities of both Kurdish militant groups and the secular, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), in order to appeal to nationalist and Islamist voters. The Government will also continue to attack PKK-affiliated Kurdish militants in Syria, as it regards their attempts to form a Kurdish state as posing a fundamental ideological, military and territorial threat to Turkey. As with IS, this crackdown will continue to drive Kurdish militancy, including increasingly large TAK attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and other major cities in western Turkey that have so far been largely safe from Kurdish-linked violence.
Turkey’s rapidly evolving conflicts with both IS and Kurdish groups mean that travel, security and operational risk managers with responsibilities in the country will face growing challenges during the coming year, especially as violence increasingly spills into city centres. These difficulties will become more acute if Erdogan’s attempts to expand his political powers trigger large-scale protests, political instability or fresh plots against him by the security forces, which could hamper the security service’s ability to disrupt militant plots.
James Brandon is Head of Political and Security Risk at Stirling Assynt. He helps diverse global firms identify, manage and mitigate a wide range of complex security, political and reputational risks