U of T expert examines the terror attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq and Saudi Arabia

Jens Hanssen: ending the Syrian conflict is the key
Iraqis inspect the damage at the site of a suicide car bombing claimed by the Islamic State group on July 3, 2016 in Baghdad's central Karrada district (photo by SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The world has been shaken by terror in widely separated cities over the past week. Bombers struck in three cities in Saudi Arabia. At least 157 in perished Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood. Forty-two are dead and more than 250 injured after three suicide bombers struck the Istanbul Atatürk Airport. 

And Bangladesh suffered its worst incident of terrorism when militants stormed a café in Dhaka, killing 20 hostages. 

On July 5, the National Post reported that a University of Toronto student, Tahmid Khan, had been taken hostage in the Dhaka café but survived.  After being freed from the cafe, the Post reported, Khan was placed in detention by authorities in Bangladesh. Read The National Post story.

A spokeswoman for the university confirmed that Khan is a student at U of T entering his fourth year. The university is concerned about the events that have unfolded and is monitoring the situation, she said.

No further information was available at the time of publication.

Jens Hanssen, an associate professor of Arab civilization and modern Middle Eastern and Mediterranean history, spoke with U of T News about the attacks and their possible repercussions, beginning in Baghdad.

Is the Baghdad attack a reflection of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites?

The attack in Baghdad is the worst of sporadic bomb attacks on civilians since the U.S. and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq and ousted President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Since then virtually no neighbourhood outside the area formerly known as the Green Zone has been spared.

Violence in Baghdad hits everyone, in this particular instance, the most diverse neighbourhood of Karrada, which today is predominantly inhabited by Shia but has a significant Christian population and history. 

This is a place where I spent a week after the U.S. invasion in July 2003 assessing the damage to Iraqi higher education. It is worth noting that there are reports that the carnage could have been prevented if the now jailed British conman James McCormick had not been allowed to sell fake security equipment.

Does the Baghdad bombing conform to the theory that ISIS terror in urban centres increases in inverse proportion to its fortunes on the battlefield? 

It is true that ISIS is struggling to maintain territory and morale in Syria and Iraq. Spectacularly horrific suicide attacks mask substantial setbacks for ISIS forces on the ground. In Iraq especially ISIS has been on the decline. Fallujah has fallen. Mosul is the last major urban centre under ISIS control. But there is no reason to believe that the violence will subside until the political instability and corruption that came with the occupation – and is sustained by regional powers – has ended. 
Like Syria, Iraq is in the grips of a regional and superpower rivalry between the United States and its Arab allies and Russia and its Iranian associates. The scale of the death and destruction is indeed appalling and it is time we recognize this in Canada, where our government is sending more, not less, arms to Saudi Arabia. This nation is one of the main instigators of the instability. And as the attacks in Medina, Qatif and Jeddah have shown, Saudi Arabia is by no means immune to inflicting and experiencing mass violence. 

Bangladeshi home minister Asaduzzaman Khan insists that there is no ISIS connection to the café incident. 

The situation in Bangladesh is not clear, but over the past few years I have noticed an increase in Islamic rhetoric by government officials while civil rights activists end up as political refugees in Germany (if they escape assassination by violent xenophobes).

This suggests parallels with Turkey. In both cases the governments have tolerated and tried to manipulate the few Islamist militants within their borders. This policy has now backfired horrifically. 

Below, a woman lights a candle on July 5, 2016 for victims of the Dhaka hostage-taking (photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

photo of woman lighting candle at Dhaka memorial

Turkey is saying it was attacked by ISIS. 
The attack indeed has the ISIS signature all over it. Istanbul and its airport are Turkey’s gateway to the West. What is known about the identity of the attackers suggests that they came from the central Asia republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Possibly they were trained by affiliates of ISIS in Raqqa, the northern Syrian capital of the “Islamic Caliphate,” which the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed two years ago to the day.

Perhaps the attackers struck at Turkey for its recent rapprochement with Russia. The Istanbul attack may serve as a warning of what lies ahead should Turkey make common cause with Russia against ISIS.
Are there other potential triggers to ISIS terrorism around the world?
I think to explain why ISIS attacks happen it is more instructive to examine the effect rather than the cause. Responses to such attacks have been so predictable and futile that I am beginning to suspect that ISIS needs no trigger. The only consideration is: on which occasions will the inevitable military posturing and anti-Muslim fury of the enemy be most helpful to their moribund campaign? Remember that ISIS is struggling to maintain territory and morale in Syria and Iraq. Spectacularly horrific suicide attacks mask substantial setbacks for ISIS forces on the ground.
Some Westerners are confused about Turkey’s role in the world since the ascent of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is a Muslim. Is it possible to generalize about Turkey’s relations with the West?
Turkey under Erdoğan has been keen on maintaining geopolitical autonomy from the West through a multi-pronged foreign policy. This worked remarkably well until the Syrian revolution of 2011 turned into protracted civil war. Erdoğan early and rightly recognized that his former friendly neighbour, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, had to go in order to reestablish the peace and stability that has proved so elusive since the United States-led invasion of Iraq.

Erdoğan may also have seen an opportunity to promote the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whose members, he calculated, shared his vision of a neoliberal Islamic democracy. All that changed with the influx of mercenaries funded by the Gulf States or its many wealthy business families; as well as Iranian and Russian military and logistical support for Assad and his Hezbollah allies. 
Can we expect the pendulum in Turkey to swing back to a secular and Western identity?
All indications are that Erdoğan is succeeding in changing the staunchly secularist Republic that Kemal Atatürk built in the 1920s and 30s. He has purged the military, the judiciary, the media and the universities. Our colleagues who have protested against his policies are in prison. He has changed the constitution to give the president more executive power. He employs the same kind of machismo and demagoguery that have made Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu popular in the conservative, religious and nationalist circles in their countries. 
Erdoğan’s populism has divided Turkish society. Secularists who used to run the show and mocked pious Turks as “lowly Arabs” are now on the defensive. But while Erdoğan speaks a language of Islamic democracy, he acts more like an autocrat when it comes to dissenting voices, most notably on Kurdish or Armenian issues. He even called for blood-testing the Turkish-German members of parliament who voted to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Below, Erdogan attends memorial at Istanbul Ataturk Aiport  (photo by Turkish Presidency / Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

photo of Erdogan attending memorial at Istanbul airport
There has been discussion of Turkish membership in the European Union. 
Turkey has come a long way since the collapse of its economy in the late 1990s. The International Monetary Fund report in April approved Turkey’s economic growth as “robust" but predictably advised that "structural reforms” were needed. From a purely economic standpoint, the EU and even Turkey would gain from membership. Holding back the debate right now are Turkey’s human rights violations – a valid objection, in my view – and Islamophobia in Europe, which has only gotten worse since the Brexit campaign.
Will this attack destabilize the internal politics of Turkey? 
Tourism will certainly suffer; it is already down by 30 per cent since a slew of attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. Politically, Erdoğan might be facing questions about why he was formerly so soft on ISIS and other Islamist groups. So far he has been protected by the very structural changes to the political system he engineered. If the secularist parties can unite, the ruling AKP [Justice and Development Party] might lose its majority in parliament. But this is four years off. 
Is there any end in sight to the violence?
I am afraid that these kinds of attacks will continue as long as the Syrian civil war is going on. Today politicians and pundits see Bashar al-Assad as the lesser of two evils. But without Assad, ISIS and its Islamist rivals lose their raison d’être. Only after Assad is gone can Syria’s future begin and the refugees return. The question is what means it will take to forge a consensus among all the parties, starting with the Syrians themselves and their neighbours, on how to end Assad’s rule.


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