What triggered the deadly Turkish airport attack?

While there are reasons to believe that ISIS was behind this attack, it won't be surprising if the terrorist group lets it go unclaimed

Menekse Tokyay

Published: Updated:

The international departure terminal of Istanbul’s main and largest airport, Ataturk, was hit on Tuesday by three consecutive suicide bombings, wounding more than 150 people and killing at least 36.

While the attack further added to Turkey’s image as an unsecure country for foreign visitors, it was apparently triggered by the country’s latest international moves to reconcile with its neighbors and hit the terrorist positions in Syria and Iraq – mainly against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Istanbul Ataturk Airport, the 11th busiest airport of the world and one of the busiest airports in the region, is a major transport hub for about 61 million travellers passing through, according to 2015 figures.

The high security measures at the airport with two, sometimes three, layers of security checks is believed to have helped decrease the potentially higher number of casualties.

Turkish authorities rapidly brought on a gag order for the terrorist attack and blocked Twitter and Facebook – main sources of information for many.

Similarity to Brussels

Security officials have indicated that ISIS is suspected to be behind the attack, while experts have found similarities to the militant group's attacks in Brussels airport in April and in Istanbul in March.

“Similar to Brussels airport, this appears to be a well planned and executed attack aiming to inflict maximum casualties and damage. Also, similar to the Istanbul attack, it targeted a group that is comprised predominately of foreigners,” Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament, told Al Arabiya English.

ISIS has two different logics behind such attacks, Erdemir said.

“As a terrorist group that has successfully recruited Turkish militants before, ISIS hopes to continue to recruit from among Turks, and therefore, tries to avoid targets that are exclusively Turkish.”

Moreover, according to Erdemir, the group targets iconic tourist sites, with the hope of further undermining Turkey's struggling tourism industry.

The blast is the latest in a series of suicide attacks hitting tourist areas of Istanbul. In January, 10 foreigners were killed in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district by a suicide attacker. That attack was followed in March by another suicide bombing on Istanbul’s tourist-popular Istiklal street that killed three Israelis and an Iranian. More recently this June, a car bomb targeting a police bus killed 12 people and wounded 36 in the central Istanbul district of Vezneciler.

Last December, another smaller attack occurred at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport, but was claimed by Kurdish terrorist group TAK.

“The Istanbul attack may further discourage tourists from traveling to Turkey, deepening the crisis in Turkey's hospitality sector,” Erdemir said.

Suleyman Ozeren, a terrorism expert and president of the Ankara-based think- tank Global Policy and Strategy, agrees.

“An attack that occurred in one of the main strategic hubs of Turkey has further deepened the international perception that Turkey is not a secure country anymore for the foreign visitors,” Ozeren told Al Arabiya English.

Travel warnings

In the wake of the attack, many countries, including the US, UK and Australia, have issued updated travel warnings. Ataturk airport has been rendered operational after a short while.

Ozeren notes that through its communication channels, ISIS has been continuously announcing its resolve to attack countries that it declares as "unbelievers," and that Turkey’s efforts to mend ties with its neighbors such as Russia and Israel as well as Turkish army’s attacks on ISIS targets have stirred the terrorist group’s anger and desire to carry out retaliatory attacks.

To a certain extent, the years-long war at Turkey’s porous border with Syria and Iraq seems to be spreading into the country’s metropolitan areas.

“So, this attack shows that ISIS set the bar high for its deadly attacks in Turkey, which shows the need for preventive intelligence to avoid similar attacks in the future,” he added.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara Office Director of German Marshall Fund, says that the attack is not only very similar to the terrorist attack conducted by ISIS in Brussels, but it also fits into the pattern of former attacks in Turkey.

“ISIS sees Turkey as a breeding ground, and conducts attacks targeting groups other than mainstream Turks, often tourists as well as Kurdish and socialist activists,” Unluhisarcikli told Al Arabiya English.

At the time of writing, no group has claimed responsibility for the blast.

“ISIS typically does not claim attacks in Turkey while they do claim attacks elsewhere. While there are reasons to believe that ISIS was behind this attack, it won't be surprising if the terrorist group lets it go unclaimed,” Unluhisarcikli noted.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has released a statement saying that the attack, which occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, reveals that terrorism strikes with no regard for faith and values. He urged all the world, especially Western countries, to be determined and join forces in the fight against terrorism.