Turkey’s Frightening Trifecta: ISIS, Erdogan & U.S. Nukes
A terror group organizing within its borders. A nationalist president spewing anti-American rhetoric. Now add in 50-90 U.S. atomic weapons.
PARIS—If we’re going to judge America’s NATO allies by their defense spending, as President Donald Trump seems intent on doing, then Turkey should be in good odor. Its military is the second biggest in the alliance, and it is one of the few members that exceeds the spending target of 2 percent of GDP.
But the plain fact is that Turkey has become America’s most dangerous ally.
Every day, headlines show it is a menace to the integrity of NATO. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is seeking to win what amounts to dictatorial power with a constitutional referendum next month, and, ironically, has taken to branding as “Nazis” other members of the alliance, the Germans and Dutch, that have dared to challenge his ambition.
Erdogan’s Turkey is specifically dangerous to the United States because, in order to stir up populist nationalist fervor and build his personal power, he has accused Washington of supporting a bloody coup plot that tried and failed to bring him down last July.
The ostensible reason for Erdogan’s anti-American ire is that Fethullah Gülen, the leader of an Islamist movement once allied with Erdogan’s own Islamist AKP party and the supposed mastermind of the coup plot, lives in exile in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania.
But this is not just about rampant anti-American rhetoric. Among the tens of thousands of people jailed in Turkey are American citizens falsely accused of working for the CIA.
Immediately after the coup, which involved some Turkish air force officers, the Incirlik air base used by the United States in the war against the so-called Islamic State was cordoned off and effectively shut down for several days. Its Turkish commander was placed under arrest and frog-marched off the base.
Given the Turkish government’s behavior and the country’s evident instability, it’s of no small concern that under NATO’s “nuclear sharing” program, an estimated 50 to 90 atomic weapons reportedly are located at Incirlik (PDF). Although these B61 munitions are considered “tactical” weapons, each thermonuclear device has a potential blast yield of about 340 kilotons—more than 20 times that of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
In the immediate aftermath of the Incirlik blockade and arrests last summer, spurious reports played up by Russian propagandists claimed the nukes had been moved from Incirlik to Romania. That was not the case. But there remains wide sentiment among security analysts that those nukes should be moved somewhere more secure.
As a Congressional Research Service report (PDF) noted at the time, concerns were based on “both the ongoing political uncertainties in Turkey, including the evolving state of U.S.-Turkish relations, and the base’s proximity to territory controlled by ISIS.”
The Syrian border is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Incirlik. Towns like Al Bab and Dabiq, until recently under the control of the so-called Islamic State, are slightly further.
The argument for leaving the nukes in Turkey was to reassure Ankara against a threat from Russia. But given the obvious and growing rapprochement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Erdogan’s increasingly overt hostility toward his NATO allies, leaving thermonuclear weapons on the bomb racks of Incirlik seems to many a pointless and dangerous exercise.
Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism, notes there is no official U.S. acknowledgment of this arsenal’s location but says he believes the security of U.S. equipment at Incirlik is “generally very good.” Any attempt by Turkey to seize the nuclear weapons would be considered an act of war, which is very unlikely, he says. But still, their presence is troubling.
“The weapons should be moved,” says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of Atomic Scientists. “With Erdogan’s behavior, they no longer seem to serve a useful role of reassurance… It is the local and regional insecurity that demands a removal. Even though the [U.S.] Air Force will insist that they can protect the base, it is simply unacceptable to expose nuclear weapons to such a security situation. Nowhere else in the world does the U.S. store nuclear weapons under such conditions.”
Given the current environment, nightmare scenarios are easy to imagine.
“I worry more about Erdogan, or anti-Erdogan elements in the military, than ISIS,” says Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
But here’s the problem: As ISIS comes under increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, it’s looking for new bases from which to operate, and it’s looking for vengeance against Turkey, which aided and abetted the jihadist buildup in Syria in the early part of this decade, then turned on it in 2016.
An article in the current issue of Sentinel, the journal published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), gives a sense of just how dangerous the Turkish security situation is becoming.
Its author, Ahmet Yayla, formerly was the deputy chief of the counterterrorism department of the Turkish National Police (the post he held when I first met him several years ago). And he subsequently served as the head of counterterrorism in the city of Sanliurfa, just north of the Syrian border, from 2012 to 2014. There he witnessed firsthand the contradictory policies of the Erdogan government that allowed some 25,000 foreign fighters to join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State.
As Yayla told me when we met recently in Washington, D.C., “If Erdogan had not let those foreign fighters go through Turkey to Syria, there would be no ISIS as we know it today.”
Yayla is now in exile, teaching at George Mason University in northern Virginia, and he recently co-authored a book with Anne Speckhard, an expert on the psychology of extremists, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.
Predictably, because of his reporting on de facto cooperation between the Turkish government and ISIS fighters, Ankara has claimed Yayla is a Gülenist, an allegation he flatly denies. Since last July his 19-year-old son has been under arrest in Turkey in what appears to be an effort to intimidate him.
Yayla’s article in CTC Sentinel centers on an attack by a lone ISIS gunman in the early hours of Jan. 1 this year that killed 39 people and wounded 71 in Istanbul’s fashionable Reina Nightclub on the European edge of the Bosporus.
But it’s the context for that attack that is most worrisome. The killer, Abdulkadir Masharipov, was an ISIS “sleeper” originally from Uzbekistan who had lived quietly for a year in a provincial Turkish city with his wife and children before he received a message on Christmas Day directing him to carry out a massacre in Istanbul.
This was no “lone wolf.” Reports in the Turkish press subsequently documented the extent of the support network that sheltered Masharipov and armed him after he got the order from his handler in Raqqa, the ISIS capital, to move ahead with the operation.
“Thus far, the investigations into the Reina attack have revealed that more than 50 individuals directly provided support to Masharipov before and after the attack,” Yayla writes. “The investigations have also revealed just how cash rich the group is inside of Turkey. In total, just over $500,000 was confiscated by authorities from the network linked to the attack, a clear indication of the priority given to international operations by Islamic State decision-makers.”
American soldiers fighting in the counterinsurgencies like to say when they’re about to attack an enemy stronghold, “We’ll put our boot in the middle of the puddle and see which way the water squirts.”
Yayla makes the case that as ISIS gets stomped in Syria and Iraq, it’s not just squirting, its fighters are flooding toward Turkey, where they have had at least four years to build the organization’s infrastructure.
He was an eyewitness to the huge flow of people coming from Syria into Turkey after 2012.
As the civil war in Syria escalated, he writes, Turkey’s southern borders were overwhelmed with refugees fleeing from Syria—more than 3 million—who were let in regardless of their background.
“The influx of refugees was so overwhelming that it became a major security concern for border cities because of the opportunities it provided the Islamic State to infiltrate operatives into Turkey,” according to Yayla. “Sanliurfa alone received more than 400,000 refugees in just 20 months.”
By the time ISIS declared its “caliphate” in June 2014, it was essentially the main southern neighbor of Turkey. “In the months that followed, it strengthened its control of major border areas and thereby its ability to transport material and foreign fighter movements back and forth across the border.”
“Ankara was prepared to tolerate a certain degree of Islamic State activity on its soil and on its border with Syria,” says Yayla, “because it was seen as an enemy to the Assad regime and to Kurdish fighters linked to the PKK [insurgents inside Turkey] rather than a direct threat to Turkish national security… In 2014 and 2015, Turkey did not carry out a single pre-planned, intelligence-led counterterrorism operation on its soil against the Islamic State and other jihadi terrorist organizations. Even in 2016, when Turkey started treating the threat more seriously, counterterrorism operations were mostly launched in reaction to different terrorist incidents, and in most cases, suspects were released swiftly.”
At the same time, according to Yayla’s CTC Sentinel article, Turkish police and counterterror operations were being eviscerated by the Erdogan government. The dismissals began in December 2013 after sensational corruption charges were leveled against senior figures in Erdogan’s party. Then, after the attempted coup last year, the purges took on monumental proportions. More than 125,000 government officials were fired, and more than 40,000 were arrested. Half the active-duty generals in the military were sacked.
“The Turkish National Police lost more than 20,000 officers in the period since late 2013, including police chiefs and officers who had spent years in the field fighting terrorism,” according to Yayla’s heavily footnoted article.
As a result, while the hardened fighters of ISIS are looking to make their move, many of the cops trying to stop them are rookies.
“The Islamic State will likely expand its campaign of attacks in Turkey,” writes Yayla. In the Jan. 6 issue of the ISIS magazine Rumiyah, he notes, the group declared that Turkey’s “NATO membership, secular governance, security operations against Islamic State operatives on Turkish soil, support for the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad, and incursion into Islamic State territory in Syria meant war.”
A few weeks earlier ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, infuriated by Turkish incursions into the territories near the border that the group was accustomed to control, called on his followers to attack Turkey, “destroy its security, and sow horror within it. Put it on your list of battlefields. Turkey entered the war with the Islamic States with cover and protection from Crusader jets.” And many of those, one might note, flew out of Incirlik.
At the end of the day, as the Turkish government now tries to confront this threat, whatever its grievous miscalculations of the past, one must wish it well. But one must also wish that the United States would get its nukes out of there.