Turkey cracks down on agricultural supplies over terror fears
Fertiliser potentially used by Kurdish militants in Turkey and Isis in Iraq and Syria
Police search an area after a bomb attack in Mardin, Turkey on Wednesday – half a dozen blasts in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere in recent months claimed by separatist Kurdish militants have killed more than 80 people. Photograph: Mehmet Ali Dinler/ DHA via AP
Turkey has cracked down on the sale and distribution of agricultural fertiliser feared to have been used by Kurdish militants to kill dozens of people in Turkey and countless more at the hands of Isis in Iraq and Syria.
In June, Turkey’s ministries of agriculture and the interior banned the sale of ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and calcium ammonium nitrate fertilisers following the most recent blast in Istanbul, where 12 people were killed on June 7th in a targeted attack against police officers.
The following day a car bomb exploded near a police station in the southeast province of Mardin bordering Syria, killing five people.
Half a dozen blasts in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere in recent months claimed by separatist Kurdish militants have killed more than 80 people; hundreds more have been injured, with the attackers believed to have used ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertiliser commonly used for promoting crop growth but which also has incendiary properties.
According to industry experts, Turkey is one of the world’s biggest importers of ammonium nitrate, buying up between 400,000 to 800,000 tonnes a year. Turkish security forces are believed to have seized 65,000 tonnes of the fertiliser from trade suppliers since the ban came into effect.
Turkey uses 5.5 million tonnes of fertiliser every year and, until the ban, ammonium nitrate had been for sale at almost 10,000 sales points across the country.
In Ireland the compound has been banned for decades, having been used by the IRA for explosives. Farmers in Ireland use about five times as much fertiliser per arable hectare than their equivalents in Turkey, according to World Bank figures.
Kurdish militants including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK have for decades largely operated in rural, mountainous areas of the east and southeast, where agriculture is a mainstay of life and from where bombing components such as fertiliser have been sourced.
According to a major fertiliser producer and exporter based in western Turkey, the ban, which remains in place despite rumours in June of it being a temporary measure, is likely to affect farmers and producers alike.
“This [ban] is not good for farmers because it’s commonly used, but safety is much more important now; if this is the only solution then we will comply. We don’t want to see bombs or terrorist attacks,” said an employee at a company producing and exporting fertilisers who would comment only on the condition that the company remained unnamed.
“[The ban] in the local market is a problem because we have a new ammonium nitrate and calcium ammonium nitrate facility that opened just one year ago, however exporting these products is not banned and we will continue to export AN and CAN,” said the employee.
Consequences for Isis
Across Turkey’s southern border in Syria and Iraq, the world’s wealthiest jihadist organisation, Isis, has for several years depended heavily on fertiliser from Turkey to carry out suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and for IEDs, deployed to slow down its advancing enemies as it continues to lose ground this year.
Experts say the ammonium nitrate fertiliser ban is expected to have serious consequences for Isis, which shares numerous smuggling routes and a 100km border with Turkey.
Last year, the New York Times reported observing carts of ammonium nitrate being emptied from a truck containing tens of thousands of kilos of the fertiliser and taken across the border to Isis-controlled territory in Syria, before returning empty.
Turkey in the past has been accused of allowing weapons, foreign jihadists and other materials pass unhindered into Isis-controlled northern Syria, and Russian diplomats claimed in April that 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, valued at almost €2 million, was moved from Turkey into terrorists’ hands in Syria last year alone.
According to James Bevan, executive director of the arms watchdog Conflict Armament Research, “The majority of those IEDs consist of a mixture of aluminium and nitrate-based fertiliser, such as ammonium nitrate. In the course of our investigations, we have found that Isis forces consistently employed ammonium nitrate fertiliser manufactured in Turkey in order to produce IEDs. For instance, we have found ammonium nitrate in Tikrit [Iraq] in 2015 that had been manufactured in 2014 by a Turkish company, and in Ramadi in 2016 we have found bags of ammonium nitrate manufactured by the same company in 2015.”
Bevan believes the logistical infrastructure behind the supply of the fertiliser is “well established and consistently goes from Turkey to Iraq, repeatedly involving the same company over a long period and at different production locations”.
“[It] appears that Isis forces acquire the fertiliser directly in Turkey, before moving it to Iraq. Based on those findings, we think the recent suspension of Turkish domestic sales of nitrate-based fertiliser is likely to have a disruptive impact on the Islamic State IED-components supply chain in Iraq,” he said.