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Could the Next 9/11 Originate in Turkey?

Turkey has become in the 21st century what Saudi Arabia was in the 20th:  A petri dish for extremism and an engine of support for global militancy.

Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Prior to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, DC, Saudi Arabia was Teflon. Saudi leaders charmed their American counterparts. Both Democratic and Republican administrations waved off concerns about let alone consequences for Saudi support for radical Islamism by citing Washington’s security partnership with Riyadh. Much of the blindness, however, was willful. Generations of US diplomats and other senior officials saw Saudi Arabia as their golden parachute. To raise difficult questions was to walk away from a secure retirement.

While the 9/11 Commission exposed warning signs the American intelligence community should have seen coming, it appears a generation later, American policymakers have not learned the lesson.

Turkey has become in the 21st century what Saudi Arabia was in the 20th:  A petri dish for extremism and an engine of support for global militancy.

While Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan embraced moderation in his first years in power, it was an illusion. Consider this video of a young Erdogan listening to anti-American bile, or seeking advice at the foot of Afghan terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Erdogan’s own statements prior to his rise to the premiership were a clear reflection of his true agenda. Erdogan’s pro-Western, moderate phrase was the exception, not the rule.

While presidents from George W. Bush to Donald Trump saw in Erdogan a partner, Erdogan’s actions suggest a different agenda.

Secret phone taps suggested that Erdogan’s office helped arm Islamist militants in Nigeria. Many would argue that the linkages between Erdogan’s administration and the Islamic State are as great if not greater than those between Saudi officials and Al Qaeda prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center. When Turkish proxies took over northern Syrian districts like Afrin from local Kurdish authorities, they transformed them into the country’s most radical recruiting grounds. This should not surprise: Erdogan and his followers framed the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in religious context.

Press coverage of recent leaks of classified documents focus on Ukraine, but as important are revelations the Wagner Group sought weaponry from Turkey. Whether Turkey obliged remains classified, but is likely; Turkey certainly did not blow the whistle on the Kremlin.

During the last decades of the 20th century, Saudi charities supported a global network of mosques and madrasas [religious seminaries]. Turkey today does likewise. While Erdogan promotes his efforts to dismantle the educational and institutional network of ally-turned-adversary Fethullah Gülen, whom he accused of being a terrorist, he omits that he has simply replaced the promotion of Gülen’s Anatolian-colored Sufism with his own Muslim Brotherhood-inspired extremism in the same institutions, especially in Africa.

Turkey continues to get a free pass at the highest level of government. Former US ambassadors and defense attaches to Turkey often do business inside Turkey, or for energy firms that seek to transport oil in pipelines across Turkey. Whereas once they denied Erdogan’s ties to militancy, the sheer quantity of evidence makes this impossible; instead, they point to Turkey’s NATO membership and supposed military importance. Many argue that to hold Turkey to account would be to drive it into the Russian or Chinese camps. That this is even a concern, however, exposes the rot at the root of the relationship.

Nor does ignoring behavior make it go away. That Turkey last week deliberately and knowingly launched a missile at a convoy carrying U.S. personnel and Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish allies involved in the Global Coalition against the Islamic State is a warning sign as great as Saudis seeking lessons on how to fly a plane but not land one.

To be clear, Erdogan himself may not directly plot against the United States. He may believe—like Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd—that he could control and channel the forces of extremism to his benefit. He is wrong. Once unleashed, such radicalism and extremism is not easily contained. The question American policymakers must now consider is whether they are today in with Turkey repeating the mistakes of U.S.-Saudi relations in the late 20th century, and whether those providing cover to Turkey’s malfeasance within the White House, State Department, Pentagon and think tank community are preserving a relationship crucial to U.S. national security or inadvertently enabling the same impunity Saudi Arabia enjoyed prior to 9/11.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

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