Triple suicide bombing at Istanbul airport reveals scale of extremist threat

Tuesday’s attack underscores the distinct difficulties Ankara faces in securing its citizens and foreign visitors as it grapples with the fallout from the Syrian war across its southern border.

Relatives of a victim of the Ataturk airport attack mourn in Istanbul during his funeral. Ozan Kose / AFP
Powered by automated translation

ISTANBUL // A triple suicide bombing at Turkey’s busiest airport has exposed the increasing reach of extremists in a country struggling to contain a spate of militant attacks on several fronts.

At least 41 people were killed, including 13 foreigners, and 239 wounded on Tuesday evening when three suspected ISIL suicide bombers opened fire on passengers and bystanders, before blowing themselves up at the international departure terminal in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, Europe’s third busiest air hub.

While not the first, the attack was the deadliest in Turkey this year and perhaps the most brazen.

Handling almost 62 million passengers last year, Ataturk airport has become a major destination and transit stopover in recent years and the bombings came only days before a major national holiday, when millions of Turks travel abroad and around the country.

While there has yet been no claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said initial investigations pointed to ISIL, which has carried out previous attacks in Istanbul and other cities.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to continue Ankara’s fight against terror and urged his Western allies to follow suit.

“Make no mistake: For terrorist organisations, there is no difference between Istanbul and London, Ankara and Berlin, Izmir and Chicago or Antalya and Rome,” he said.

Tuesday’s attack, however, has underscored the distinct difficulties Ankara faces in securing its citizens and foreign visitors as it grapples with the fallout from the Syrian war across its southern border: a revived Kurdish insurgency on the one hand, and a spate of ISIL attacks on the other.

Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and cultural capital, had barely recovered from the last attack less than a month ago, when a suicide bomber killed 12 people in the bustling central district of Aksaray. That attack was claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Other attacks in Istanbul this year include a mortar attack by TAK on the city’s second airport, which killed one woman, and two suicide attacks in tourist areas blamed on ISIL, which killed several foreigners.

In recent months, there have been several other bombings around the country. Turkey’s deadliest ever blast took place last October when 103 people were killed by twin suicide bombings at a mainly Kurdish and leftist rally. While there were no claims for that attack, Turkish investigations suggested it was carried out by ISIL.

Meanwhile, multiple raids by PKK militants have killed scores of Turkish security personnel as well as some civilians.

If an ISIL link is established, Tuesday’s bombings may also mark a shift in the extremists’ tactics.

“ISIS sees Turkey as a breeding ground and had not targeted politically mainstream Turks within Turkey in the past,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director at the German Marshall Fund think tank. “Their targets were limited to Kurds affiliated with the Kurdish political movement, socialist activists and foreigners.

“[Tuesday’s] attack took place at the international terminal, but inevitably a large number of politically mainstream Turks, as well as foreign visitors, lost their lives,” he added.

For years, Ankara has come under criticism both at home and abroad for appearing more concerned about Kurdish gains along its southern border than confronting the threat from ISIL. Last October it even suggested that the country’s deadliest bombing had been carried out by both ISIL and PKK, despite the two being sworn enemies.

Turkey, while consistently denying it had ever turned a blind eye to ISIL, has significantly stepped up its fight against the extremists recently, which observers say has led to the increase in attacks on Turkish soil.

Adding to the complications, ISIL has not claimed a single attack inside Turkey, in an apparent deliberate ploy to sow confusion and divert attention towards Kurdish militants, already despised by the majority of Turkish citizens.

“ISIS also never took credit for an attack in Turkey to avoid a strong reaction from the wider Turkish society,” said Mr Unluhisarcikli. “I think that this attack will trigger a stronger reaction from Turkish society towards ISIS, one that was long overdue.”

One definite impact will be on Turkey’s already struggling tourism sector. Once the world’s sixth most popular tourist destination, Turkey has seen a slump in visitors over the past few months following the rise in violence. The number of foreign visitors in May decreased by 35 per cent from the previous year, according to the government.