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In the hours after a suicide bomber killed 10 foreigners in the heart of historic Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed Turkey’s diplomats.
By then, the shattered body of a 28 year-old Syrian man had been found next to the dead western tourists and it had become clear that the attack was related somehow to the war in Syria.
However, Mr Erdogan spent just a few minutes talking about this latest threat to security, which his government blamed on Isis. For the next half an hour, as a nationwide hunt for the perpetrators kicked off, he railed instead against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK.
His speech, broadcast live on almost all Turkish television channels, captured his government’s almost single-minded focus on Kurdish separatists at a time when the threat from Isis, which has been tied to the past three major terror attacks in Turkey, remains unabated. Government officials, both publicly and privately, insist that Turkey’s terrorist problem is primarily one of Kurdish militancy, not Isis, and resources have been distributed accordingly. A large military force was deployed to Kurdish enclaves in the past month.
“Turkey has many terrorist groups, so it needs to make a priority list, and others come after the PKK,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a military expert at Tepav, a think-tank in Ankara. “Politicians speak about domestic issues which bring them votes, and Isis doesn’t bring votes.”
It is unclear whether Tuesday’s Isis suicide bombing will shift that focus immediately.
Mr Erdogan has repeatedly conflated previous terrorist attacks tied to Isis, including one in Ankara in October which killed at least 100 people, with the Kurdish militancy, lumping the two together in his public statements.
Two security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a significant amount of intelligence-gathering at national level was focused on the PKK and its actions in the Kurdish south-east, especially given the success of their brethren in Syria in holding on to stretches of land abutting the Turkish border.
The Syrian Kurds, whom the US has supported with weapons and training in its fight against the Syrian regime and Isis, is considered by Ankara as inseparable from the PKK, the officials said.
“The world sees the PKK as a Turkish problem, but Isis as an international problem. But, for Turkey, the PKK is the number one problem, and it’s always been international,” said one of the security officials, who highlighted widespread fears that both Iran and Russia had established contacts with the PKK because of their regional rivalries with Ankara.
Turkey’s interior minister, Efkan Ala, insisted the government was addressing the threat that Isis poses to Turkey. Some 3,300 people had been detained and 847 formally arrested, most of them foreigners, because of their ties to Isis in Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, he said. Another 36,000 from 124 countries have been barred from entering Turkey, and just under 3000 were deported, including back to Germany.
In the past week, he added, 220 people tied to Isis had been detained.
In the investigation into Tuesday’s bombing, one man was being held, as well as three Russian citizens in central Turkey.
The suicide bomber, identified as a 28 year-old Syrian who entered Turkey on January 5, had registered as a refugee, allowing the government to identify him via his fingerprints.
The arrests show the seriousness of the country’s response to the Isis threat, said one of the security officials. But others say that the authorities have not responded to concerns about radicalisation. The family of a suicide bomber who carried out the October attack in Ankara say they told the police about their son’s alarming indoctrination before the attack, but their warnings went unheeded.
“The suggestion that we are ignoring Isis because we are only interested in Kurdish terrorists is false,” said one of the security officials. “No country can stop every terrorist attack and Turkey is a target because it is so strong against the terrorists.”
Mr Ozcan said the focus was changing, but that it will take time to see results.
“Together with the increasing international sensitivity [against Isis] Turkey is also changing its strategy,” he said. “There have been changes in Isis’s Turkey strategy too — it is now among Daesh’s [Isis’s] global targets.”
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