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Turkish Officials Seem To Ignore Threats Of Extremist Violence

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The shock of the Paris attacks may have moved much of Europe to pump up its counterterrorism efforts, but not Turkey. That majority Muslim country on the edge of Europe shows no sign of increased security measures, even though just weeks ago, a suicide bomber attacked a popular tourist attraction in Istanbul. Some Turks think the government should be more on its guard, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from another tourist site.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Even in January, Istanbul's Taksim Square is throbbing with life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAM BELL)

KENYON: A tram eases to a stop, spilling out tourists and locals under the already crowded pedestrian plaza. Two Americans, Valerie Frey and Brad Gehringer, put down a Turkey guidebook to consider how safe the country is. They have more reason than most here to have thought about this. They live in Paris and were shocked by the attacks against cartoonists and shoppers in a kosher market. But they say Turkey doesn't strike them as a particularly dangerous place.

VALERIE FREY: We weren't too worried, I think, about terrorism. I mean, it's not something we're really worried about, I think, when we travel.

BRAD GEHRINGER: Yeah, terrorism's obviously something you can't plan for. And, you know, you understand that it happens, and I think we honestly just don't really think about it.

FREY: Probably a greater risk of food poisoning, you know. (Laughter).

GEHRINGER: Right.

KENYON: Even before the attacks in France this month, a woman wearing explosives blew up her device in front of tourist police building in the heart of Istanbul's Old City, on any given day, one of the most crowded places in the country. One policeman was killed, and officials rushed to downplay it as a one-off random attack. It turned out the bomber was Russian from Dagestan near Chechnya and had reportedly recently been married to an al-Qaida supporter. Risk analysis consultant Mete Yarar has been advising investors on security risks in Turkey for a decade now. He says if anyone believes this country is exempt from terrorist attacks because of the current government's roots in political Islam, they haven't been paying attention.

METE YARAR: (Through interpreter) This idea just is insensible. Most of those killed in these jihadist attacks have been Muslims, and most of the fighting in the countries next door is between Muslims. So Turkey may be a Muslim country, but this is a very threatening regional environment.

KENYON: Political scientist Ersin Kalaycioglu at Sabanci University says besides several hundred Turkish fighters involved in the Syria conflict, there are thousands of Sunni Muslims in Turkey who are, to some degree, sympathetic to message of jihadist groups, such as al-Qaida or the self-described Islamic State.

ERSIN KALAYCIOGLU: Turkey is deep in this, up to its throat. So they can't simply assume that, you know, these are non-issues for Turkey.

KENYON: But acknowledging the risk doesn't make addressing it any easier. The traditional approaches - tightly securing borders and investing heavily in intelligence gathering - are costly and time-consuming. In addition, Kalaycioglu says this government isn't particularly focused on jihadist violence as a primary threat. It seems more focused on quashing a corruption investigation that threatened several cabinet ministers and stifling any dissent that probe might inspire. And that, Kalaycioglu argues, actually may make it harder to keep track of nascent terror threats.

KALAYCIOGLU: One good policy would be, of course, to have more freedom - freedom of debate - so that they can see these people coming out and making their arguments in larger audiences, and then you can engage them and try to explain that, you know, this is not only a matter of religion, but also politics.

KENYON: For now, however, the government in Ankara seems more interested in talking about the rising Islamophobia in Europe rather than whatever threats Turks may be facing at home. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.