Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Turkey Extends State of Emergency in Wake of Attack Claimed by Islamic State

Ankara is contending with aftermath of New Year’s assault in Istanbul

The Wall Street Journal

Updated Jan. 4, 2017 4:26 a.m. ET

ISTANBUL—Turkey’s parliament voted to extend the government’s state-of-emergency powers following the deadly New Year’s attack claimed by Islamic State, as the country struggles to contain rising terrorist threats and law enforcement contends with depleted ranks in the wake of last year’s failed coup.

The gunman remains at large after the assault that killed at least 39 people, although Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said authorities had identified the man, without providing details, according to the Anadolu state news agency. There is little information about the gunman’s identity beyond photographs of a suspect released by authorities.

Police widened nationwide raids Tuesday, doubling the number of detainees to at least 16 people, including two foreign nationals who were entering the international terminal at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, authorities said.

The slow progress in Turkey’s nationwide manhunt raises questions about the government’s ability to maintain security despite the extraordinary powers security forces have under the state of emergency enacted after the failed July 15 coup.

The government has jailed almost 14,000 policemen and soldiers, including almost half of its generals, on allegations of supporting the coup attempt, according to Justice Ministry statistics published by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. More than 2,200 judges and prosecutors—some with counterterrorism experience—have also been imprisoned on related charges.

“It’s clear that the counterterrorism ecosystem is not fulfilling its duties as desired in Turkey, which is facing grave terrorist threats at the moment,” said Doruk Ergun, a foreign-policy and security analyst at Istanbul-based think tank EDAM. “The greater the purges, the greater the vulnerabilities as it becomes harder to replace officials removed from their posts.”

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu defended the government’s record on Tuesday, telling parliament that forces coordinating global terrorism are attacking Turkey to damage its economy and sow social unrest.

“We’re getting hit by many attacks, of course the responsibility rests with us,” Mr. Soylu said. “We are doing everything we can to purge terror from our nation’s agenda.”

Turkey is facing multiple national security threats, including from alleged coup plotters, Islamic State militants and a long-running domestic Kurdish insurgency.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s cabinet introduced in parliament a three-month extension to the state of emergency. The measure was later approved by lawmakers and will go into effect at 1 a.m. on Jan. 19.

Under the state of emergency, the government can rule by decree and fire public employees with little recourse, while security officials can detain terrorism suspects and other alleged enemies of the state for up to 30 days without charges.

In the last three years, and increasingly after the failed putsch, Turkey has deployed significant resources to ousting from the bureaucracy and the security forces suspected followers of U.S.-based Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of masterminding the coup attempt. The cleric, who has been charged in absentia by Turkish courts, denies the allegations.

A Turkish official dismissed the notion that the post-coup ouster of Mr. Gulen’s followers from the security forces had weakened their effectiveness, arguing that it has instead strengthened cooperation among various agencies.

Because of spillovers from the conflict in neighboring Syria and cross-border Turkish operations there against Kurdish militants and Islamic State, terrorism threats to Turkey remain “very intense,” the official said.

“There’s always a risk against soft targets, but there wasn’t a specific intelligence warning against this one,” the Turkish official said of the New Year’s attack, which targeted an Istanbul nightclub. “It is very difficult to prevent such attacks.”

A wave of terrorist attacks has killed almost 100 civilians, policemen and soldiers since mid-December. On Dec. 19 the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by an off-duty Turkish police officer.

The main-opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, started campaigning Monday in parliament for an investigation into security vulnerabilities. Since June 2015, 423 people have been killed and almost 3,000 wounded in terror attacks, according to CHP figures.

“Despite all the safety measures that were put in place, the treacherous terrorist attack in what can be called the heart of Istanbul couldn’t be prevented,” CHP lawmakers Sezgin Tanrikulu and Baris Yarkadas said in a motion seeking a parliamentary inquiry into security shortcomings.

Turkey prevented 339 significant terrorism plots in 2016, said Mr. Soylu, the interior minister, including dozens of potential car bombs and suicide bombers, mostly from Kurdish insurgents but also from Islamic State and leftist radicals. Turkish authorities said they have placed 260 suspected Islamic State militants under watch, imprisoning 59 of them, in nationwide raids throughout December.

In the lead up to New Year’s, security officials took all precautions possible in light of domestic and foreign intelligence warnings, Mr. Soylu previously said.

Days before Christmas, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Turkey issued a reminder, warning American citizens that extremist groups may target expatriates.

“The authorities are taking the threat situation extremely seriously and acting accordingly,” a Western diplomat in Ankara said of Turkey’s counterterrorism efforts. “But the international community feels vulnerable and nervous.”

Write to Emre Peker at

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