ISTANBUL — The Obama administration became on Tuesday the latest Western government to move to protect its citizens in an increasingly volatile Turkey, ordering some 700 family members—and almost 300 pets—of military personnel to leave the country because of the danger of imminent terrorist attacks.
The Pentagon said family members of military staff at the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, which serves as a launch pad for attacks on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in nearby Syria, would be evacuated, as would families at two smaller bases in Izmir and in Mugla in western Turkey. The Stars and Stripes reported around 670 people and 287 pets would start leaving Turkey on Wednesday.
In a separate statement, the State Department updated its travel warning for Turkey and said there were “increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey” and ordered family members of staff at the U.S. consulate in Adana, near Incirlik, as well as family members of staff posted in Izmir and Mugla, to leave. Official State Department travel to Turkey was restricted to “mission-critical,” the statement said.
It was not known what triggered the U.S. action, but there is a growing sense in Turkey that something is up. On Monday, Israel called on all its citizens in Turkey to leave “as soon as possible” because of a threat of jihadist attacks. Sky News reported ISIS militants were in the advanced stages of planning an attack against Jewish schoolchildren, especially in Istanbul. There was no confirmation, but Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said on Tuesday he was “very worried about the information we are receiving.”
Turkey’s small Jewish community became the target of a Turkish Al-Qaeda cell in 2003, when militants drove truck bombs into two synagogues in Istanbul. The jihadists also attacked the British Consulate and a British-owned bank in the city, killing more than 60 people in total.
This time, ISIS is on the prowl. A Turkish ISIS supporter killed three Israelis and one Iranian in a suicide attack on Istanbul’s busiest shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, on March 19. In the days before that attack, Germany, citing a concrete terror threat, closed its consulate in Istanbul and its embassy in Ankara as well as German schools in the two cities. The Dutch consulate in Istanbul was also closed for several days. The government in The Hague said Dutch citizens should avoid the area around the consulate, which lies on Istiklal Caddesi.
Turkey has seen four deadly suicide attacks since the start of the year. Like the Istiklal attack on March 19, a suicide attack killing 12 German tourists in Istanbul’s old town on Jan. 12 was blamed on ISIS. A splinter group of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed almost 70 people in two car bomb attacks in Ankara, on Feb. 17 and March 13.
News reports in mid-March said security measures at Incirlik base had been strengthened in light of those attacks. The security level was raised to the second-highest level. The base is used by the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Lying just 100 kilometers west of the Syrian border, the base offers aircraft of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition quick access to the skies over regions controlled by jihadists in Syria.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said his country was caught “in the middle of a ring of fire” and that security forces had foiled several attacks, although he refused to say exactly how many. Meanwhile, the opposition in Ankara says the government and the intelligence agencies have clearly failed in their efforts to keep Turks safe.
The constant fear of new attacks has led to panic. In Istanbul, police closed one of the motorway bridges across the Bosphorus two weeks ago after a man abandoned his car on the bridge. It later turned out that the car had run out of gas.
Several people in Turkey’s biggest city said they were afraid to use public transport and were avoiding crowds as well as the city center. “We are thinking about moving into another part of town so my husband does not have to get the bus to get to work,” a teacher said. Some Turkish media have begun to publish advice to their readers on how to behave after a terrorist attack.
News reports said the latest warnings of impending ISIS attacks in Turkey were sparked by results of an interrogation of six suspected ISIS members in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border. The reports said the suspects, four Syrians and two Turks, had been planning a car bomb attack in Turkey.
ISIS is known to have several cells in Turkey. Last year, members of one of those groups killed more than 100 people in a double suicide bombing at a political rally of Kurds and leftist groups in Ankara. Back then, critics accused the Turkish government of having ignored warning signs before the attack. Opposition politicians say Ankara has been supporting Islamist militants in Syria in the hope of toppling President Bashar al-Assad, a charge that Ankara denies.