By Suleyman Ozeren and Halil Ibrahim Canbegi – PolicyWatch 2663 – July 26, 2016
Even at a time of political upheaval, Turkish authorities need to focus on the critical role that social media and other tools play in sustaining the group’s recruitment, propaganda, and terrorist activities.
Prior to the attempted coup against Turkey’s democratically elected government, the security establishment and the country as a whole were already dealing with another major crisis: serial mass-casualty attacks by Islamic State (IS) terrorists. This crisis was reiterated by the June 28 Istanbul airport attack, in which 45 people were killed and over 250 others injured. The perpetrators were IS members of Russian and Central Asian origin, highlighting the manner in which Turkey has become not just a target country for the group, but also a source country for jihadists and terrorists.
The three operatives had been in Turkey since long before the attack: they entered the country at the Syrian border, then traveled 750 miles to Istanbul, where they rented an apartment for a month in order to assemble bombs. All of this activity went undetected because the men were able to blend in, showing the urgency of an internal security problem that Turkey needs to tackle now, even as the full repercussions of the failed coup continue to resound.
A SOURCE COUNTRY FOR THE ISLAMIC STATE
Given its 530-mile border with Syria, Turkey has been an entry point for foreign fighters and an exit door for local IS operatives for a number of years. At the same time, the country’s ever-mounting religious populism has created an environment in which IS ideology and activism can flourish — a fact seemingly confirmed by the most recent nationwide polling available on Turkish attitudes toward extremism.
According to the annual “Turkey’s Social Trends Survey” conducted by the GLOBAL Policy and Strategy Institute in November 2015, 83.5% of respondents defined IS as a terrorist organization, but a full 9.3% did not. Moreover, while 59.9% stated that IS does not represent Islam, 21% disagreed. Even more tellingly, 5.4% believe that the Islamic State “is right about its activities,” and 2.6% believe that it fights for Muslims. Such findings should be taken very seriously because they reveal the potentially large number of IS sympathizers and recruits.
WHO DOES THE ISLAMIC STATE RECRUIT IN TURKEY?
Different categories of Turkish citizens have gone to Syria to join IS. One category includes extremists who were already involved in jihadist activity in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and elsewhere. A second category includes individuals who had established networks with extremist groups before the rise of IS. Once the Syria war erupted, these people joined the conflict either independently or after slight prodding from their networks.
The third and perhaps most troubling category comprises those who have been radicalized since the war began. In many cases, individuals in this camp are recruited by jihadists who have already been to conflict zones, or by people with connections to IS and other extremist groups. Such recruiting often occurs through traditional networks (e.g., neighborhood acquaintances; cafes).
The IS members who carried out recent attacks in Diyarbakir, Suruc, and Ankara could be considered part of this third wave. Their backgrounds are almost identical. All of them were from southeastern Anatolia, specifically Gaziantep and Adiyaman provinces. They all came from poor families with frequently absent or delinquent father figures. And they all seemed to grow up under the influence of religious propaganda by local recruiters, though this does not mean they possessed much in the way of actual religious knowledge — a not uncommon phenomenon in these religiously sensitive areas.Moreover, the Suruc and Ankara attacks were carried out by brothers allegedly recruited via the same ring, the Dokumacilar cell in Adiyaman.
ATTRACTING SYMPATHIZERS THROUGH TWITTER
IS has engaged in a wide range of propaganda and recruitment activities in Turkey, using websites, publications, videos, face-to-face interactions at cafes and mosques in various cities, and other methods. Yet aside from traditional recruitment networks, social media platforms such as Twitter have become the group’s main tools for attracting sympathizers.
To get a better sense of this trend, the GLOBAL Policy and Strategy Institute’s February 2016 report “ISIS in Cyberspace: Findings From Social Media Research” analyzed 25,403 Twitter messages posted by 290 pro-IS Turkish-language accounts in July 2015. Based on the data collected — which included account demographics, gender distribution, number of friends/followers, tweeting patterns, frequently mentioned terms, popular hashtags, and shared websites, among other details — the authors found several notable patterns.
First, Turkish pro-IS tweets emphasized the same “us vs. them” dichotomy that often drives radicalization in other countries. Language expressing antagonism and alienation was quite popular — the Turkish or Arabic words for excommunication, idolatry, assault, kill, weapon, army, and jihad were collectively repeated a total of more than 30,000 times in only a month’s worth of tweets.
Second, these users applied the term kuffar (infidels)not only to believers of other faiths, but also to other Muslims whom they deemed inimical to IS ideology. Thus, Islamic factions and governments in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Kurdish-held territories, and Turkey itself were often lumped in with enemies like the United States and Israel.
Third, the tweeting patterns indicate that different Turkish pro-IS accounts tend to fill different roles, whether spontaneously or as part of a deliberate task-sharing plan. These roles can be roughly divided into five categories: “frontline messengers,” “political analysts,” “moral supporters,” “contact persons,” and “religious propagandists.”
The “frontline messengers” frequently share instant updates and detailed descriptions from the battlefield, suggesting that they may be Turkish-speaking operatives fighting with IS units in Syria and Iraq. In general, pro-IS users on Twitter do not trust other media sources, so these firsthand reporters fill the need to inform sympathizers about the war while also calling for material, financial, moral, and operational support on specific fronts.
The “political analysts” tend to post their views on the Syria war and related issues, including Turkey’s role in the fight. Such tweets provide an inside glimpse into IS perceptions of the Turkish people, government, and army, Turkish operations against IS, Ankara’s strategies in the Middle East, and Turkish foreign relations, particularly with the West. The overarching goal of such discourse is to criticize Western countries and institutions, particularly U.S. policies and the concept of democracy.
The “religious propagandists” try to mobilize Turkish followers via misinterpretations and distortions of Quran verses and hadiths (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad). Their main aim is to manipulate ambiguous terms and concepts from Islamic literature in order to justify the Islamic State’s actions.
The “moral supporters” work to integrate Turkish sympathizers, build a sense of belonging, and boost morale within pro-IS networks. This meets the group’s need to mobilize followers in the same direction by making sure they are advocating the same arguments and sharing the same sentiments. The “moral supporters” differ from the “religious propagandists” because they do not emphasize theological arguments in their posts — instead, they tend to use more psychological mechanisms such as pictures, nashids (Islamic songs), and heroic tales.
“Contact persons,” the last group, generally signal their capability to transfer people in Turkey to and from Syria, whether through short messages or pictures. Their tweets also describe the actual experience of transporting fighters from different countries to the battlefield. Although this practice entails significant risk of detection, it helps IS further encourage Turkish followers who may be inclined to join the fight directly but are not sure how.
WHAT SHOULD TURKEY DO?
In a letter sent to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in 2002, Osama bin Laden wrote, “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for battles.” Indeed, the role of media — especially social media — in the recruitment and propaganda activities of terrorist groups has greatly expanded since then.
The Islamic State is no exception — given the group’s ability to mix traditional methods with very robust social media activities, Turkey needs to adopt a multifaceted approach to confront the challenge. This means developing preventive approaches that focus more on preempting radicalization before it takes root. To this end, Ankara should devote more attention to the critical role that cyberspace, particularly social media, plays in sustaining IS recruitment and propaganda activities
Suleyman Ozeren is president of the GLOBAL Policy and Strategy Institute, based in Turkey. Halil Ibrahim Canbegi is a researcher in the Institute’s Center for Regional Studies.
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