The coup in Turkey and terrorism

As I write this blog events in Turkey are still unfolding.  Whether we call this a successful coup or an attempted coup is not relevant to what I hope to convey here.  Suffice to say that a tactic the Turkish military used all too frequently in the 20th century appears to have resurfaced.

I have been following some of the comments of what is happening on Twitter and elsewhere and everyone seems to have an opinion on what the coup means and what it says about the Erdogan government.  As this is a terrorism blog I will limit my comments to the links between these events and violent extremism.

There is little doubt that many have rightly criticised the current regime in Turkey for all kinds of moves: the jailing of journalists, the shuttering of media outlets, his accusations toward the Gulenist movement, etc.  This is not a nice government.  Nevertheless, it was one that received overwhelming support from the Turkish people.  Elected governments, no matter how bad they seem to some, deserve to be ousted via the ballot box and not at the point of a gun.

When it comes to terrorism, however, Erdogan’s policies have been a disaster.  He has unnecessarily provoked the Kurds into recommitting their support for the PKK and southeast Turkey is again a zone of violence.  He failed to take into account the urgency of the situation in Syria – not that he was the only one – and as a bordering state he has helped, through his inaction, to make things worse.  He also ignored the arrival of thousands of foreign fighters from around the world – again many countries failed to take steps to stem the flow in their own backyards – and we will have to deal with the threat from returning foreign fighters for years.

All in all, there is not a lot to commend this regime.  But, as already noted, many Turks voted for him and in the end they are the ones who need to decide whether he deserves to continue as leader.

Despite the awfulness of the current administration in Turkey, the decision of the military to intervene, irrespective of the reasons they put forward to justify their actions, is a boost to Islamist extremist movements.  The West has this mantra that everyone should try democracy, including Middle Eastern and Islamic countries.  If they embrace this form of governance all will be well, so they say.  So when the military of a democratic state chooses to intervene it sends a very clear message.  Democracy is acceptable only if the guys we like win. If not, then we have the right, and duty, to change it.  The armies in Algeria and Egypt seem to have drawn similar conclusions over the past 25 years.

I have already noted that terrorist groups hate democracy and as such would not have been fans of the Turkish government no matter who was in power.  After all, they want an Islamic state governed by people they choose, not the electorate.  But even with this hatred of democratic principles, they can use the coup to back up their contention that democracy does not work and is not a suitable option for Islamic countries.  Why bother voting for a party that may be Islamist in orientation (not that even these parties are acceptable to the terrorists – no parties are) when powerful forces in your country will remove them anyway?  The AKP in Turkey, the FIS in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were all Islamist to some degree.  Their ouster only provides fodder to the terrorist narrative and could convince some in these three countries to embrace violence as a means of change, just as their militaries did (we certainly saw that in Algeria in the 1990s).

While events are still fluid it now appears that the government may be gaining the upper hand.  Thousands of Turks took to the streets to protest the coup.   That is a good thing, but significant damage has been done to the democratic experiment in the Muslim world.  And anything that undermines democracy feeds terrorism.  I fear that we have not heard the last word of what has been unfolding in Turkey this evening and what it means for our continuing struggle with terrorism.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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