The biggest danger to the region — including Turkey — and arguably the world at the moment is not Russia’s expansionism or the Israel-Gaza conflagration, but Islamic State (IS), formerly ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). IS has become so powerful that it now controls entire swathes of Iraq and Syria and has unsuccessfully attacked the borders of Jordan and Lebanon. It has threatened Saudi Arabia. And now it has allowed a public face to emerge in Turkey with a mass open-air prayer on the outskirts of Istanbul of mostly Turkish men in robes and long beards. The sermon praised the jihad and wished it success. Turkish youth are joining IS across the border, and coming home radicalized. The Turkish government’s attempts to muzzle the media about this Wahhabi radicalization within its borders means that the threat has not yet been internalized — or acted upon. Wahhabi Islam until recently has had only a tiny footprint in the Turkish Islamic pantheon; this is a major change.
Given that IS hopes to establish a caliphate that includes ALL Muslim countries, it is clear that Turkey is on its radar screen. Why is this important? Because in taking Mosul, IS became extremely well-armed and very wealthy. It had access to hundreds of millions of dollars and gold bullion in Mosul’s bank (while it isn’t clear whether they looted the bank, it is clear that they have found financing) and captured advanced equipment left behind by the US, including a Blackhawk helicopter, Stinger missiles, and howitzers, as well as some planes. Since its successes in Iraq and Syria, it is reported that thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to join IS. Many of them are European, American, and Turkish, drawn by jihad romanticism or even the lure of loot and power (much like the Crusades that, under cover of religion, allowed Europe’s disinherited younger sons to amass a fortune and gain territory to rule). The fact that there are now IS members with EU and US passports has spooked Western intelligence agencies. And these radicalized young men will be going home and bringing the jihadi virus with them.
What is also important to realize is that IS is brutally massacring anyone not deemed to be Sunni enough, including Shi’ites, Yazidis, Kurds, and Christians. They are busily gunning down women and children, crucifying people, decapitating them, stoning them to death, all in the name of a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that may or may not have roots in actual Islamic jurisprudence. The pattern has been, particularly in Africa, that jihadist groups spring up and then apply regional custom or even wholly invented “laws” to formulate their Islamic state. In this dystopian fantasy, women are targeted and the jihadists are rewarded with power and access to sex and money, all justified by “Islam”. As the leader of Nigerian Boko Haram announced after kidnapping 200 girl students,
“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah,” a man claiming to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video first obtained by Agence France-Presse. “There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell.”
IS has destroyed age-old shrines of all religions in the region, including Muslim, and threatened to blow up the Kaaba in Mecca and the major Shi’ite tombs in southern Iraq. (Iran is already mobilizing militarily to intervene should IS get near them.)
ISIL is an al-Qaeda franchise (although al-Qaeda apparently cut its ties with the group in February 2014 because ISIS was too brutal and “intractable”) that grew out of a motley collection of armed Sunni groups in Iraq that supported themselves primarily through extortion and kidnapping. There they gained the support of Sunni leaders who resented their treatment by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government. The groups were attracted to the fight in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad, which was dominated by Alevi Muslims (associated with Shi’ism). Wisely, early on the US refused to arm the anti-Assad fighters because of the presence of such unsavory groups among them. After the Taliban blow-back in Afghanistan, the US wanted to know exactly who they were arming. And, indeed, before long the conflagration in Syria had turned from a civil war to a proxy war, where Sunni jihadist groups armed with money said to be from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia and with at least logistical support from Turkey, fought against the Alevi-dominated government, but also against Shia Muslims in general. The Shia side was supported by Iran. Lebanese Shi’ite Hizbullah and Sunni Hamas also sent fighters — on opposite sides. ISIL joined the various factions under a single leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now it is a proxy war between partisans of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, involving all the states in the region. Indeed, the anti-IS coalition makes for odd bedfellows: Iran, the US, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria. Iran and US have had to coordinate their anti-IS drones in Iraq. Turkey is only slowly getting with the program. It’s almost as if Turkey hasn’t recognized the threat to its own sovereignty.
Turkey harbored the Sunni jihadists for years as they crossed the border from Turkey into Syria to fight against the Assad regime, seemingly with no forethought about the blow-back on Turkish society or the effect of the long-term presence of foreign jihadis within Turkey. The Turkish government, after its attempts at friendly mediation with Assad had been spurned, turned into Assad’s bitter enemy. In Turkey, IS already begun to carry out violent attacks, including burning down a Shi’a mosque, and attacks on the headquarters of the Kurdish political party. The lack of government reaction to an openly pro-jihadist sermon in Turkey’s biggest city seems to ring no alarm bells with the AKP. If the Turkish public knew about it, I like to think that most pious Turkish Muslims would react negatively, that this is not “Turkish” Islam, and grow concerned. But with the government’s news blackout and inaction, they won’t know what hit them until it’s too late.