Interview with BILGESAM President on Turkey's Counterterrorism, the ISIL and the PKK/KCK Threats

Prof. Atilla SANDIKLI
19 October 2015
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Hurriyet Daily News recently published an interview with Prof. Atilla Sandıklı, President of BILGESAM (Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies), aboutTurkey’s counterterrorism policy, the ISIL and PKK/KCK threats. In the interview, Sandıklı makes an assessment on Turkey’s counterterrorism upon the recent terrorist attack in Ankara.

 

Interview:
 

Turkey’s foreign and domestic policies made it vulnerable to terrorism
 

An international environment hostile to Turkey due to its policies defying global and regional powers as well as a polarized domestic situation made the country vulnerable to effective terrorism acts, says Professor Atilla Sandıklı, the head of BİLGESAM, an Istanbul based security think tank.
 

While Turkey’s foreign policy led to a hostile international and regional environment, its internal policies fueled polarization, said Prof. Atilla Sandıklı, adding this has made Turkey vulnerable to terrorism. Turkey’s rulers need to take their religious convictions and emotions under control in order to avoid wrong assessments about terror groups, according to Sandıklı, who is the president of a security think tank.

 

What did you think the first time you heard about the bombing?
 

We were expecting this attack. We had predicted the fact that [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] ISIL was getting stronger and Turkey’s policies towards ISIL would be the two elements affecting the timing and the magnitude of the attack. When Turkey joined the anti-ISIL coalition forces, we emphasized that the probability of such an attack had increased. In fact, we foresaw that after Turkey entered into hot conflict with ISIL, it would target Turkey and stage attacks of large dimensions. Suicide bombings are usually used by religiously-motivated terror organizations; still, we did not expect it to be of that magnitude. This has become the biggest terror attack Turkey has ever seen.

 

Turkey has experienced terrorism in the past too. In what sense is this different than in the past? Are we entering a different phase as far as living with terrorism is concerned?
 

Turkey experienced tremendous development until the 2010’s. It was a center of attraction. But with the Arab uprising Turkey has developed its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and started to give messages that it was a global player by saying “Turkey will be the main player in the Middle East.”
 

This was a challenging attitude, to defy global and regional powers. But if a country is defiant while it fails to define its interests according to the magnitude of its strength, then that country would waste its power following empty ideals. Turkey has entered such a position, and in addition it irritated global and regional powers. Following the events in Libya, both Western powers and regional powers started to think that developments in the region were unfolding against their interests. So the international environment started to shape to the disadvantage of Turkey. We have come to a point where we have no friendly country left around ourselves.
 

In addition, domestic polarization has brought us to the point of hostilities. If the international and regional environment sees you as an enemy and if polarization leads to different groups seeing each other as enemies domestically, then you cannot escape becoming the target of terror acts.
 

In the latest bombing, it was, first of all, an act that was targeting the state. The message was, “I can punish you and I can inflict great damage on you.”
 

The second target was the nation. It aimed at creating an outcry in society. There were two elements among the crowd (targeted in Ankara): First, Kurdish citizens, the (Peoples’ Democratic Party) HDP crowd and second Alevi citizens with left wing tendencies. Equating the HDP with the (outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK and as ISIL is fighting the (Democratic Union Party) PYD, the aim might have been to punish the PYD.
 

So, it targeted the sensitive points in the Turkish society. This whole attack could have created a situation of internal conflict.
 

The PKK is trying to accomplish its aims through mass uprisings in the cities. This (Ankara) bombing was an act that could have sparked reaction from the PKK. The PKK could have ignited society to react and thus create a conflict between Turks, Kurds, Alevis and Sunnis

 

So, do you claim that Turkey’s foreign and domestic policies made it vulnerable to terror acts?

The policies it put into practice at the international, regional and domestic level has created a vulnerability which enabled terror acts to take place in an effective way.

 

Do you think such an attack could have been avoided had Turkey not joined the coalition?
 

ISIL terror would have hit Turkey one way or another. Turkey was already a target for ISIL but it had not moved into action as it was fighting other groups. With Turkey joining the coalition, this has lead ISIL to tace action earlier.

 

The government claimed that both ISIL and the PKK could be involved in the bombing.
 

I don’t think the two organizations came together and agreed on such an act. If they have evidence that is another thing. But that does not strike me as rational. Perhaps there was the involvement of certain intelligence agencies that could have planned it in a way that would suit the interests of both ISIL and the PKK. There are plenty of countries that can do that sort of sponsorship.

 

But at the end of the day, Turkish security forces could not see something that many predicted was coming. How come?
 

Terror organizations use and abuse ordinary people’s emotions and sensitivities to reach their political targets.
 

Similarly, they also use the emotions of those ruling the country. When we consider that there is a religiously motivated terror organization and that there is an administration with religious tendencies and a civil service in parallel with that administration, then the protection mechanisms can have a hard time accepting that these acts were done by ISIL. We see this in the process of perceiving and accepting ISIL as a terror organization. Our people, those ruling the state, the security bureaucracy, those with Sunni political tendencies, need to accept that. Fine, these are our emotions and sensitivities, but we need to be careful; this can lead us to mistaken evaluations. We can face emotions that prevent us from accepting this or that act has been done by ISIL. We need to push aside our religious sensitivities, get them under control and have rational and scientific evaluations.

 

Do you claim that there is an emotional bond between ISIL and the government which prevented them from having healthy projections?
 

No, that’s taking it too far. ISIL commits these acts of terror knowing that people of Sunni political tendencies are in government and the civil service. If those ruling the country are under the influence of their emotions and convictions too much they can face difficulty accepting these acts were committed by ISIL just as they had difficulty accepting that ISIL was a terror organization. They need to base their analysis on rational and scientific evidence or input otherwise they would be exploited by terror organizations.

 

Have they already been exploited by ISIL?
 

It is up to society to make a judgment on that. But it is a fact that they had difficulty accepting ISIL as a terror organization due to their religious convictions.
 

This incident still remains to be clarified but even as a security expert I knew this was coming, especially following the information about the entry of 20 suicide bombers after the Diyarbakır and Suruç attacks. So my point is that as terror organizations can abuse our emotions, we need to take our ideological, ethnic and religious identities under control to avoid making wrong assessments and have an objective, scientific approach.



 

Who is Atilla Sandıklı?
 

Atilla Sandıklı was born in İzmir in 1957.  Following graduation from high school, he entered the Turkish Military Academy before obtaining post-graduate degrees from Istanbul University’s International Relations Department.
 

Sandıklı served in various postings in the Turkish Armed Forces. He worked on the National Security Council (MGK) and also served as the head of the international relations department at the Turkish War Colleges.
 

He founded the Strategic Research Center of the Turkish War Colleges and worked as the president of the center.
 

Following his retirement, he worked as the founding member of Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM).
 

Sandıklı then founded the Wise Men Strategic Research Center (BİLGESAM), where he is the current president.

 

 

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