I’d never really thought much about violent extremism before 2001, when images of the collapsing Twin Towers filled TV screens around the world. I was just a naive 18 year old asking my father if the world was ending. He assured me it wasn’t, but I still remember how alarmed he looked.
The world didn’t end then, but it changed.
Although the events of 9/11 were undeniably tragic, it riles me somewhat when the media elevates this above all other similar incidents. In Turkey, in just twelve months, there have been at least fifteen terrorist attacks, culminating in the big one that really hit home for me. Ataturk Airport, June 28, 2016. 45 dead, 239 injured.
I was due to fly out of Turkey just days later. Of course, that was no reason to be afraid, but it does bring a stark reminder of one’s own mortality.
But the sense of fear in Istanbul started long before the airport attack. As an expat there in late 2014 I remember hearing fellow Brits talking about their fears of spending too long in crowded places, of taking public transport, or of hanging out in Taksim Square.
This rise of nerves coincided with the rise of ISIS; disturbingly close to home over the Syrian border. Turkey seemed immune to attack at that time, in fact some say the Turkish government actively supported ISIS, or turned a blind eye to its cross-border activities at the very least. With that in mind, some of us felt a little safer, assuming that ISIS would not bite the hand that fed it.
But things changed in July 2015, when an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish peace rally in the eastern city of Suruç, killing 33 people. Eyewitnesses reported a curious lack of security at the event, which is unusual for Turkey. From that point on, every month seemed to bring a new attack, and nowhere felt safe anymore.
In early 2016 the focus shifted to Istanbul. Every expat’s anxious nightmare came home to roost when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the tourist heartland, Sultanahmet. Then came another attack in March, this time targeting another popular tourist area, Istiklal Avenue.
The bomber struck on a Saturday morning, where thankfully the street was at its most empty. At peak times, mainly weekend evenings, nearly three million people might traverse that street. It often gets packed rigid; difficult to move in any direction. That used to be dynamic and exciting. In the wake of the bombing, it became terrifying. And these days, it’s not so packed anymore.
In July came the final message from ISIS to Turkey, in the form of the Ataturk airport bombing. It seemed the group had lost patience with Turkey. Something had shifted; no idea what. But now, a few months later, Turkish forces have joined the coalition working to rout ISIS out of Mosul once and for all.
What this defeat will mean for the terrorist group remains to be seen. Analysts offer up a wide range of theories, but simply using military force to defeat the group in Iraq will not defeat the ideology. In fact, it will probably support the compelling ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that ISIS promotes through all its online content.
A concept can’t be killed, it can only be neutralised. Changing hearts and minds through smarter and more thoughtful engagement at the grass roots is one way to start doing this. Of course the social and political challenges will remain. Only deep-seated policy change can shift these. That is unlikely to happen any time soon. But rising Islamophobia and the resulting discrimination and marginalisation must be tackled if we hope to create convincing counter-narratives to combat those of violence.