Should Turkey Be Considered A State Sponsor of Terrorism?

According to the United States Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism, the United States and Turkey have been allies since 1831 when the United States established diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire. There are some, such as Mandel, that have called for a reconsideration of this friendship between states, accusing Turkey of being a State Sponsor of Terrorism. This is by no means a popular opinion in the United States government. Although this idea is recent, it is worth looking at United States-Turkish relations from a terrorism perspective.

According to the Bureau of European and Asian Affairs, the United States has praised Turkey for its stance against the PKK and its frequent approach to the United States and NATO for advice on handling counter-terrorism matters. Critics, such as Vasilogambros, bash Turkey for having selective attention when addressing terrorists’ groups, claiming that Turkey has openly harbored terrorists.

The American Perspective on Terrorism

The United States Department of State claims that any country that supports acts of international terrorism should be considered a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Whether a country appears on the list, which currently includes Syria, Iran, and Sudan, depends on the word of the Secretary of State. The Department of State looks to the United States Code Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 to define terrorism and international terrorism. Terrorism is defined here as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents,” while international terrorism is defined as “terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.”

This particular definition of terrorism does require a motive, very specifically — one that is rooted in politics. Additionally, the act must be done by a sub-national group or an individual or group that acts illicitly. Sub-national groups are not defined; nor are non-combatant targets. Two things are worth noting. These definitions do not require a specific response by the United States government if terrorism is identified. They also seem inherently neutral, not appearing to facilitate any underlying goals particularly for the United States. One could argue that the former note in which there is a lack of a response could be advantageous for the United States, but there are specific sanctions that must be put into action once a country is identified as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The sanctions are as follows per the Department of State:

· A ban on arms-related exports and sales;

· Controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country’s military capability or ability to support terrorism;

· Prohibitions on economic assistance; and

· Imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.

Because the definition is neutral, imposing these sanctions should not rely on United States interests. One would then think that the three aforementioned states of Iran, Syria, and Sudan would be internationally accepted as State Sponsors by states similar to the United States because of the neutrality of this definition. There is argumentation over the removal of certain states, specifically the recent removal of Cuba, but there is not much of an argument to add certain states that may belong but are vested interests for the United States. The 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism sings high praise for Turkey. In close proximity in time to the release of the report, Egypt had declared charges against Turkey for being a State Sponsor of Terrorism.

Does Turkey Meet The State Sponsor of Terrorism Criteria?

One accusation against Turkey is that it suppresses freedom of speech. Turkey does not formally have complete control over the media but can choose to prosecute the media if it considers anything said or written to be damaging to the state. In “Media and State Sponsored Terrorism,” David Gray and Brett O’Donnell highlight the importance of this relationship. The two claim that state censorship goes hand in hand with State Sponsored Terrorism by allowing the government to change the story to what is seen as most advantageous for the state. The government can accomplish its goals without losing the support of the people.

Öníş says that the root of this censorship is “the notorious article 301,” which he thinks should be abolished. He claims that article 301 is a penal code that suppresses the rights of the non-Muslim minorities. A “proposal involving a new constitution was an important reform initiative very much in the spirit of EU conditionality”. The rejection of this proposal is a sign to Öníş, a professor at Koç University in Turkey, that the Turkish government is not willing to take the necessary steps to embrace the ideology of the European Union, midst controversy over the nation’s status.

Turkey also has some foreign policy stances that do not echo those of the United States in relation to terrorism. Aras highlights that Turkish president Ergodan favored Hamas and cut all talks with Israel for a short while during the Gaza conflict of 2008. From a completely opposite perspective, the United States considers Hamas to be a terrorist group and has always supported Israel in these conflicts.

The most recent terrorism difference between Turkey and the United States is ISIS. The United States clearly disapproves of everything that ISIS has done. According to Dr. Hinnebusch, Turkey had invested its own resources in ISIS:

In Syria, Turkey had provided ISIS with weapons and training, allowed free movement across its borders by jihadists, gave them control of two critical crossing points, permitted recruitment in Turkey, and allowed ISIS to sell Syrian crude oil via Turkey, with USD 100 million estimated hidden in Turkish banks. The AKP seemed to regard ISIS as protecting Sunni interests in Syria and Iraq against anti-Sunni regimes.

ISIS had evolved into a terrorist organization powerful enough to overthrow cities in Iraq. Not only did Turkey permit ISIS to work on its own land, it actively supplied them with weapons and training.

Two Nations, Two Concepts of Terrorism

The United States calls Turkey a “long-standing Counterterrorism partner” in the Country Reports on Terrorism, where it also mentions that Turkey co-chairs the Global Counterterrorism Forum. The Department of State lists several terrorist threats to Turkey within the country and around it. The report makes it clear that Turkey is solely focused on domestic terrorist threats and not those on the international scale.

The Bureau of Counterterrorism states that Turkey defines terrorism as “a crime targeting the Turkish state or Turkish citizens.” Aside from the fact that that definition is extremely broad within Turkish borders, it is also incredibly narrow outside of it. According to this definition, something as detrimental as the attacks on September 11th would only be considered a terrorist attack if Turkish citizens were killed. For some, that may be a lot to swallow, but the definition has been crafted to work as a tool. Within its own borders, Turkey can call any crime an act of terrorism if it chooses to do so. This also means that new laws can effectively create new types of terrorism without ever using the word, “terrorism.”

What is peculiar about this is that if Turkey acted as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and the actions took place outside of Turkey without harming a single Turk, the state of Turkey would not have to refer to itself as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Due to the neutrality of the definition in the United States, if we were to commit the same act on the same land as the fictional scenario with Turkey, the United States would theoretically be called a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the Secretary of State. Neither the United States nor Turkey refer to each other as State Sponsors of Terrorism, but the definitions serve as context as to how the two nations view terrorism differently, even with similar counter-terrorism efforts.

What Has Been Going On In Turkey?

The report continues on Turkey by saying that freedom of expression has improved, although still inadequate. Laws were made to be more in sync with the European Union, but the report states, “Turkey continued to detain and prosecute thousands of politicians, reporters, and activists through its broad-reaching and broadly applied counter-terrorism legislation.” To Turkey, the image of the country domestically is more important right now than some of those basic freedoms, a point that illustrates the concept brought to light by Gray and O’Donnell earlier.

Turkey is a member of the Financial Action Task Force, a global organization that works to deprive terrorists and criminal organizations of funding. According to the Department of State, Turkey does not audit nonprofit organizations unless under very specific circumstances, stating, “It is likely that bulk cash is being smuggled across its borders helping to fund violent extremists in neighboring countries.” To counter radicalization within Turkey, all imams are employees of the state and are monitored and advised based on traditional values.

Aside from the inhibitions on freedom of speech and the border patrol that may not be able to control the flow of money, Turkey does not appear to be much like a State Sponsor of Terrorism according to the Department of State. One could argue that Turkey has enough credentials to be considered a leading force in the world for counter-terrorism due to its leadership positions in several counter-terrorism agencies. In an interview with Eric Mandel of the Jerusalem Post, John Schanzer, vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, brings some aspects of the situation to light that the Department of State does not mention. As far as credibility is concerned, John Schanzer does not have access to all of the resources that the United States federal government has, but the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is an internationally respected organization with a headquarters in Washington D.C whose chairman is James Woolsey, former director of the CIA.

Schanzer highlights the Incirlik airbase, which is he says is an asset to NATO. He says that this airbase is a major hub for Western operations in the Middle East. Its location has proven itself to be optimal for strategic movements. He goes on to say that Turkey is a supporter of Hamas, other smaller jihadi groups, and on a lesser level, the Islamic State. Schanzer says that he would consider Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism and calls for a diplomatic response by the United States to resolve conflict while still keeping American interests in tact.

What sparked Egypt’s initial drive to press charges against Turkey for being a State Sponsor of Terrorism may have originally come from the revolution that took place in Egypt in 2011. The event to send that consideration over the edge was a television broadcast and the lack of a response to it from Turkey. Rabea TV, a Turkish network that broadcasts in Egypt and Turkey, broadcasted a monologue by a man that MEMRI, the Middle Eastern Media Research Institute, said represented the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey. MEMRI is a non-profit organization with a headquarters in Washington D.C. that claims to aim for uniting the Western world with the Middle East by translating television broadcasts from the Arab world into English.

This particular broadcast in question was very controversial and covered in MEMRI’s Special Dispatch Number 597. Translated by MEMRI, the alleged Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson called for the assassination of Egyptian President ‘Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi and gave out mandatory deadlines for when people should leave Egypt. The statement was made on January 29, 2015. Foreigners were told to leave by February 11. Foreign companies were told to leave by February 20. Diplomats and ambassadors were told to leave by February 28. Additionally, no tourists were to enter Egypt during this time. At the end of the statement, there was no offer of mercy for anyone that remained.

Schanzer said in an interview with the National Journal that Turkey is harboring terrorists. Saleh al-Arouri, “the founder of Hamas’s armed wing in the West Bank, known as the Qassam Brigades,” lives in Turkey. Yasin al-Qadi, an accused al Qaeda financier from Saudi Arabia, also resides in Turkey. Al-Qadi was removed from the U.S. Treasury Specially Designated Nationals List on November of 26th, 2014. Although he was removed from this list, Al-Qadi and Ergodan had maintained close relations during the time that Al-Qadi was on the list, a time when there were several sanctions placed internationally in relation to Al-Qadi by the United States.

United States Ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010 James Jeffrey made it clear that the United States has addressed concerns with Turkey directly. James Jeffrey specifically pleaded for Turkey to detain certain individuals identified as terrorist threats associated with al-Qaeda in Turkey. Another point of stress between the United States and Turkey is their official stance on Hamas. The United States views Hamas as a terrorist organization, while Turkey views Hamas as a legitimate group that has come to power through election. “Generally, Turkey will close a blind eye to groups that use terror if Turkey sees their political goals as commendable,” Jeffrey said.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Turkey has created a peculiar image for itself. On the one hand, it is a major party on the counter-terrorism force. There are several international organizations aimed at fighting that the United States and Turkey are both a part of. That does not provide an excuse for involvement or support for groups like ISIS and Hamas, as well as the welcoming of individuals publicly recognized by the United States as terrorists. It does appear that these actions have been conducted for Turkey’s best interest, not the interest of the terrorists, but that does not make this worthy of approval.

From an academic perspective that focuses on the definitions stated at the beginning of this article, Turkey should be considered a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but from a foreign policy perspective, the best course of action would probably be a stronger and firmer diplomatic response.

Analysis of the definitions leads to a conclusion that there are no exceptions for any party that kills or injures non-combatant targets. This is not an issue of weighing pros and cons, but listing all of Turkey’s faults relative to the issue. Regardless of Turkey’s active role in counter-terrorism, it does fall under the U.S. Department of State’s definition of terrorism and international terrorism. Arguably, Turkey’s training of ISIS and providing ISIS with weapons has indirectly killed Turks abroad. Turkey has also damaged the state’s image, technically placing itself within its own definition of terrorism if it were to admit to the actions as doing such harm.

From a political perspective, placing Turkey on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism might not be the greatest idea. For one, Turkey serves our own interests with its location and culture serving as a bridge between the West and the Middle East. Additionally, Turkey’s active counter-terrorism role is something to enhance, not destroy. Putting Turkey on that list could give the state an excuse to act more like its neighbor, Syria.

Turkey deals with a considerable amount of terrorism within its own borders. In exchange for more transparency and more unity with the West, the United States should use a diplomatic approach to assist Turkey in preventing terrorism within its own borders, given that this is the central focus of their entire counter-terrorism focus. Gus Martin writes that “state terrorism is inexpensive” and “has limited consequences.” Although this may be an effective method of accomplishing state goals, it is not a permissible one.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store