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Spotlight: Better intelligence, less polarization needed in counterterrorism: analysts

Updated: 12 19 , 2016 14:23
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ISTANBUL, Dec. 18 -- A car bomb hit Turkey's central Anatolian city of Kayseri on Saturday, killing at least 14 soldiers, just one week after twin bombing attacks left 44 dead in central Istanbul, prompting calls for steps to revamp the intelligence units and reduce polarization in society to better counter the scourge of terrorism.

As a matter of fact, the country has been shaken by around 30 bombing attacks over the past one and a half years, in which more than 400 people lost their lives.

Residents in big cities are now feeling more and more threatened by an increasing number of deadly attacks.

"A ministry in charge of home security should be established and the intelligence organizations should get united under one single authority," said Cahit Armagan Dilek, a security and foreign policy analyst.

In the opinion of Dilek, an advisor to the 21st Century Turkey Institute, an Ankara-based think tank, Turkey should urgently develop a national strategy on counterterrorism.

Ankara has blamed the terror attacks on its soil mostly on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (IS) wreaking havoc in neighboring Iraq and Syria.

An Undersecretariat of Public Order and Security was established in 2010 to develop strategies to cope with terrorism as well as coordinate the efforts of various security institutions involved in counterterrorism.

The body, however, seems to have failed so far to significantly contribute to Turkey's battle against terrorism.

"Lack of satisfactory intelligence is a chronic problem in Turkey's fight against terror. You can't fight terrorism unless you infiltrate into terrorist organizations," remarked Sait Yilmaz, another security and foreign policy analyst.

Press reports revealed that the National Police Department had issued warnings about a possible terrorist attack this month.

Ankara, the national capital, rather than Istanbul was reportedly indicated, in one of the warnings issued early this month, as the city where a bomb attack by the IS is expected.

"Our domestic intelligence is not satisfactory," Ismail Hakki Pekin, a retired general who headed the intelligence department of the Turkish General Staff, said on Halk TV on Wednesday.

In Pekin's view, Turkey's intelligence services need to be restructured. The domestic intelligence should be reorganized while the domestic and foreign intelligence units should be organized separately, he stated.

The twin suicide attacks in Istanbul came one day after the Turkish police conducted, with the participation of over 40,000 police officers, a countrywide general-purpose operation to maintain order.

Back in July, Turkey foiled a coup attempt which the government says was organized by sympathizers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric, within the armed forces.

Following the failed bid, the Turkish government imposed an emergency rule and has since dismissed tens of thousands of public servants for alleged links to the so-called Gulen movement.

A significant number of those dismissed are from the anti-terror and intelligence units of the police.

Turkey is also in the gripe of serious economic and political problems, but terrorism is widely seen as the country's number-one challenge, which is scaring away both tourists and investors.

In addition to streamlining the intelligence units, all analysts agree that Turkey could only manage to cope with terrorism by taking steps to eliminate polarization and highlight areas of convergence rather than divergence in society.

In the face of a growing terrorism threat and ongoing civil wars in the country's southern neighbors, in which Turkey is partly involved as well, Turkish leaders are making efforts to beef up national unity.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called lately for a national mobilization against all terrorist organizations, admitting that the country is faced with a life-and-death struggle as was the case during Turkey's war of independence decades before.

The leaders of two main opposition parties met last week with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in a show of solidarity against terrorism.

Despite a facade of unity, Turkey is deeply polarized along the secularist and Islamist fault lines and the Kurdish issue.

Many fear the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is planning to transform the country into a theocratic state and settle accounts with the secular republic.

The AKP has been in power since late 2002 and is expected to remain in power for some time to come.

The hard push by the AKP to replace the country's current parliamentary system with an executive presidency is yet another matter that has created division in society.

More than 10 deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), including the party's co-chairs, have been arrested over alleged links to the PKK.

The PKK has been waging a bloody war against Turkey since 1984 in its attempt to establish a Kurdistan in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.

The fight against terrorism should not only be carried out at home, but leading PKK figures should also be targeted abroad, observed Yilmaz, who had lectured on terrorism and security at several Turkish universities.

Analysts noted that the PKK, having suffered considerable casualties in the operations launched by government forces since July last year, is trying to push the Turkish public to put pressure on the government to restart the peace process.

Top Turkish officials, however, have vowed to eradicate terrorism after a peace process with the PKK broke down last year.

President Erdogan said in the past week that as many as 9,500 PKK members have been killed in the operations at home and abroad.

Turkey is determined to deal a lethal blow to the PKK by next spring when it will be easier to launch operations in the mountainous rural areas in the country's southeast.

The PKK will face, after April, such a "massive destruction" that they can not even imagine, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu warned early this month.

Around 900 members of the security forces have been killed in terrorist attacks and clashes with the PKK, while the IS has used suicide bombers and mainly targeted civilians in its attacks.

Many are of the opinion that the peace talks had not only allowed the PKK to get stronger, but also granted it some sort of legitimacy.

Erdogan's call for mobilization is not seen as convincing, as the president has long been widely criticized by the opposition for his dismissive attitude toward the opposition parties, sometimes to a point of demonizing them, and for his growing authoritarianism and blatant violations of the Constitution.

The president's call does not make sense unless he stops polarizing the nation and respects the Constitution, Umit Kocasakal, a professor of law who until recently headed the Istanbul Bar Association, said on Ulusal TV on Thursday.

Erdogan, who headed the ruling AKP until being elected president in 2014, has been much criticized for pursuing a strategy of dividing the nation to remain in power.

"If the struggle to come to power turns into a fight for power, this would be to Turkey's detriment," Nevzat Tarhan, a psychiatrist, said on CNNTurk on Monday.

Tarhan, who is also the president of Istanbul's Uskudar University, added, "It is not strategically right for the presidential system to top the agenda in this period."

Leaders with a short vision are increasing the polarization in the nation, observed Pekin on Halk TV.

In a sign of mounting polarization, a person fired several shots at the HDP headquarters late Thursday, which was also set on fire by a mob in September last year.

The HDP is the third largest opposition with 59 seats in parliament.

Many analysts believe Western secret services are behind the latest terror attacks in Istanbul on the night of Dec. 10.

"This is a covert operation by foreign secret services," claimed Pekin on Halk TV, saying the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency may have plotted the attacks in cooperation with the British MI6 and Israel's Mossad.

Mustafa Caliskan, the head of the Istanbul Police Department, said last week that the explosives used in the twin attacks were machine-made rather than handmade.

"This is a sure indication that a state is behind (the attacks)," he added.

The explosives used in the bombing attacks were composed of RDX, PETN and TNT, Caliskan was quoted as saying by local press.

Yilmaz does not think either the PKK is capable of organizing such attacks on the grounds that they could be carried out without the help of big intelligence organizations.

The military operation Turkey has been conducting in Syria since August may well be, analysts argue, the reason why such attacks took place. It is widely believed that the U.S. unwillingly agreed to the Turkish intervention into Syria.

Turkey's military adventure is aiming to prevent Kurds from uniting their three autonomous cantons along Turkey's border as well as to establish a safe zone in northern Syria.

Turkey is concerned that the emergence of an independent Kurdish region near its border may whet the appetite of its own 20 million Kurds.

The U.S. sees the Kurdish militias in Syria as its ground force in the battle against the IS and hopes, as revealed by U.S. officials, for the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the region.

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