The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
There is a long-standing myth in Turkey about domestic intelligence officers—that the quintessential disguise of a junior field agent is a street vendor selling simit (Turkish bagels) while spying on a college or labor union suspected of subversion. After finding a convenient public spot to hawk bagels near an assigned post, the spy-vendor would then carry out a daily routine of eavesdropping and surveillance. Leftist lampooning of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) or not, since September 11, 2001, there has been an exponential rise in the number of bagel vendors and lottery stands around my old apartment building in Ankara, which abuts the consular gate of the United States Embassy.
Even if MIT operatives are employing a more sophisticated means of reconnaissance and camouflage, the agency’s prestige is at an all-time low. The terrorist attack in Ankara on October 10 was the deadliest in the state’s modern history, which claimed scores of innocent lives and left hundreds wounded. Many Turks are dissatisfied with the MIT’s intelligence gathering—accusing the body of amateurism and incompetence. It is probably unfair to hold the MIT entirely responsible, but to understand how to prevent future attacks, Turkey must have a more sophisticated conversation about how this one happened.
Around 10 AM on October 10, two suicide bombers targeted a peace rally near the Ankara Central railway station—the usual gathering site for protestors as they march toward the city square of Sıhhiye Meydanı, where demonstrations are held. The victims of the attack included members of trade and labor unions and of political parties, including the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The crime scene investigators’ initial report confirmed that two sophisticated shrapnel bombs containing ten kilograms of TNT and steel ball bearings were detonated in the square. The explosion was so powerful (and the investigative team so sloppy) that a TV correspondent reported, two days after the attack, that severed body parts could still be seen sagging from tree branches about a hundred yards away from the blast site.
Immediately after the bombing, survivors began to look for police officers, only to realize that there were none to be found. It seemed bizarre to many that the government had not dispatched security forces to the area: The Ankara train station, located near the National Intelligence Organization headquarters and the General Directorate of Police, is almost always under government surveillance during protests. In retrospect, many activists who lived through that day ruminated that the lack of riot control vehicles on site should have been a clear warning sign that something was about to go terribly wrong—the insinuation being that officials knew something that protesters didn’t. When police did finally arrive, they came with teargas and clubs to disperse the crowd.
By that point, they were mostly spraying doctors who were attending to the injured. In fact, a sizable group of doctors from the Turkish Medical Association had attended the rally. Without their provision of first-aid, the death toll (102 people so far, according to government tallies) would have certainly been much higher.
The chaos that day was heartbreaking. Taxicabs volunteered to make rounds between Ankara station and neighboring hospitals; abandoned banners were used as stretchers to carry corpses; a hijacked police vehicle with broken windows was turned into an ambulance. The whole incident was so appalling that it has already been recorded in the annals of Turkish history as “Black Saturday.”
Had the suicide bombers been unknown, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would have likely faced less public outrage. But one of the terrorists, Yunus Emre Alagoz, was officially listed a person of interest to Turkish intelligence and had allegedly recruited jihadis on behalf of ISIS. Alagoz ran a tea house in Adıyaman, which was reportedly staffed and frequented by rookie-terrorists that were under police surveillance. The Turkish media even published police transcripts of a cell phone conversation Alagoz had on May 17, where he was recorded saying his farewells—indicating that an attack was imminent.
Alagoz was the elder brother of another known terrorist, Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagoz, who carried out a suicide bombing in Suruç this past July, killing himself along with 33 leftist and pro-Kurdish activists. Seyh Abdurrahman had been apprehended, questioned by Turkish police, and then released from custody one day before carrying out the bombing in July. His older brother managed to dodge police and disappeared from intelligence officers prior to detonating his vest. Evidently, the second bomber, Omer Deniz Dundar, was a frequent customer of Alagoz’s teahouse. Dundar was taken into custody in May 2015, interrogated by the police, and then released without charges. Perhaps worst of all, the families of the terrorists involved in the Suruç and Ankara bombings had even notified the police of their children’s ties to ISIS (some as early as 2013), inquired about their whereabouts in Syria, and begged the Turkish authorities for their return.
Growing public unrest about the government’s response to the attacks forced Turkish Minister of Interior Efkan Ala to dismiss several chiefs of police, as well as to admit that there could have been security flaws that allowed the attack to take place. Likewise, Davutoglu ruefully announced that authorities discovered 30 suicide vests and released profile pictures of 19 would-be bombing suspects—all members of a sleeper cell in Adıyaman called Dokumacılar (Weavers). Alas, Davutoglu claims that it would be against Turkey’s “democratic principles” to act on this information and arrest members of a sleeper cell because there is still reasonable doubt about their intentions. “We cannot act like Syria,” he said. Despite the fact that the government passed a controversial Internal Security Package last year that allows them to detain dissidents based on “reasonable doubt,” in this particular case, Davutoglu claims that MIT intelligence would need more verification before the government can act.
Verification of acquired intelligence is undoubtedly a difficult enterprise. Ironically, this is something that MIT head Hakan Fidan specializes in. Fidan holds a doctoral degree in international relations with an expertise in intelligence systems. His dissertation, “Diplomacy in the Information Age: The Use of Information Technologies in Verification,” deals with the intriguing relationship between what he calls the information revolution and conflict management. Within his dissertation, Fidan explores the theoretical and practical uses of verification in detail, and concludes that verification has recently become more vital in security analyses that detect cheating and misleading information, rather than confirmation of imminent terrorist attacks.
Bringing to mind the security lapse that led to the Ankara tragedy, Fidan argues that good intelligence cannot guarantee good policy, and that poor intelligence almost always contributes to policy failure. Among his many recommendations to improve Turkey’s intelligence capabilities were developing a broader network of reconnaissance and paying closer attention to certain countries (namely, the United Kingdom and the United States) that successfully integrated their intelligence systems into foreign policymaking. Had they been implemented, it is fair to say that the field agents under Fidan would have outshined their predecessors who stood behind bagel stands. Unfortunately, the twin-bombings in Ankara made it crystal clear that MIT is still plagued by dysfunction.
So far, most observers have blamed the government for the attack. In the post-attack haze mere minutes after the bombing, HDP Co-Chairman Selahattin Demirtas blamed the government for being complicit. After the election in June, in which the HDP gained 80 parliamentary seats, terrorist attacks in Turkey have targeted Kurdish rallies exclusively. Kurdish figures are thus inclined to wonder if there is a connection. If you asked local citizens, the question would be whether the AKP government was just negligent or deliberately disregarded existing intelligence about potential acts of terrorism, and is therefore complicit.
Despite all the evidence that points to ISIS’ hand in the attack, the government’s views the attack as launched by a “terrorist cocktail” that involved the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front (DHKP-C). Davutoglu has even suggested the involvement of a clandestine organization called the “Parallel State,” which infiltrated the Police Intelligence Department and seeks to overthrow the state.
Even if Black Saturday is understood as a national web of wrongdoing and negligence, the question still remains: What should the Turkish government do to address the problems that prompted this crisis in the first place? Opposition leaders would say that the AKP should stop making excuses and admit its responsibility, rather than censoring the media on bombing-related news or limiting lawyers’ access to investigation and indictment files of previous attacks. What Turkey really needs is a coherent strategy in the fight against ISIS. The Turkish government’s half-hearted attitude toward getting rid of ISIS has paved the way for the terrorist organization to set up a wide network of sleeper cells within the past few years. Therefore, beyond the lapse in Turkey’s intelligence network, much blame could be levied at the nation’s foreign policy. Despite the finger-pointing and disarray following the Ankara bombing, one thing is certain: Turkey’s political future, as well as its safety, are greatly imperiled.