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Play with Terrorism; Get Burned

There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.

Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.

Turkey may very well be the latest country to figure out that channeling al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers has a very high price at home. A car bomb in a Turkish border town has killed upwards of 40 people. While the Turks may point the finger at forces aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—a charge the Syrians deny—some Turks suggest that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, a group which some in the Turkish government have supported, may be responsible and might have conducted the attack to try to frame Assad and goad the Turks into greater involvement. A gag order issued by a court in Hatay forbidding many journalists from reporting regarding alleged—though unconfirmed—Nusra Front claims of responsibility has exacerbated the rumors.

While the Turks will attribute responsibility to whichever group most merits Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s animus of the moment, beyond the speedy accusations lurk three major suspects:

1)      The Nusra Front: The bomb was—despite Turkish denials—the work of the Nusra Front. This suggests that the devil’s bargain the Turks made, in which the Nusra Front would limit its attacks to Kurds and other enemies of the Turkish government, has broken down.

2)      The Syrian Regime: The same blowback theory, alas, also applies to the Syrian regime which up to just a couple years was courted and supported by Ankara. Indeed, Erdogan’s government supported Syria against Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution, and Erdogan famously invited the Assads to vacation with him along the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

3)      Internal radicals: The most recent reports suggest that the suspects rounded up by Turkish security forces are actually Turkish citizens, not Syrian refugees. Such a scenario suggests that the internal rot in our NATO ally is deeper than many American policymakers realize, both in terms of Turkey’s growing radicalism and in the weakness and incompetence of the Turkish security service in the wake Prime Minister Erdogan’s repeated purges.

Make no mistake: The terrorists targeting civilians are fully to blame; terrorism is never acceptable, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. Perhaps, however, the Turkish government will reconsider its approach to counterterrorism, in which it now condemns all terrorism except that conducted for causes to which the prime minister is sympathetic. Every country engaging in such à la carte terror support sooner rather than later discovers that what goes around, comes around.


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