The attack, which the government said was probably the work of Islamic State extremists, took place in different locations at Ataturk airport shortly after 9 p.m. local time, suggesting a well-planned operation—similar to the assault on Brussels airport and metro station that left 32 dead in March.
Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that they suspected that ISIS was behind the attack. But they cautioned that they had no specific intelligence identifying the perpetrators of the bombings. And even if ISIS does turn out to be the culprit, it’s unclear what—if anything—Turkey can do to hit back.
Another leading suspect is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant anti-Turkish government group seeking independence for Kurds in Turkey. The party is best known by its Turkish initials PKK. But the PKK has historically not conducted these kinds of indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Roughly 20 percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, and such an indiscriminate attack would likely kill Kurds, as well.
Regardless of who is responsible, U.S. officials said, the attack was another reminder that even at the world’s best secured airports—like Ataturk—there are vulnerabilities.
Ataturk airport is one of the world’s best-defended and busiest, serving more than 50 million passengers last year. Its terminals require passengers to proceed through a screening before even entering the main doors. Then they face a second screening before getting to the departures area.
And Turkish police maintain extensive files in Islamic extremists and have deported many upon arrival, including one of the Brussels suicide bombers, who was subsequently freed when he arrived in the Netherlands.
But that security setup is located inside the terminals. Two of the attacks occurred outside the lower level international arrivals, and a third at the domestic flights terminal, according to initials reports.
One of the attackers blew himself up after firing his AK-47 assault rifle at passengers, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said. Police fired at another of the attackers, who felled, then detonated his explosive vest. Four taxi drivers and two police are among the dead, according to local police.
The airport was shut down immediately, and dozens of ambulances were sent to pick up the wounded. There were chaotic scenes at local hospitals as relatives gathered to find out if their loved ones had survived. But hospital officials, inundated by the arrival of the wounded, had no names.
President Recip Tayyip Erdogan called for a “joint fight” by the international community. “The bombs that exploded in Istanbul today could have gone off at any airport in the world,” he said. The White House denounced the bombing in “the strongest possible terms.”
The attack at the airport named for the founder of modern Turkey is certain to have cause a serious fright to any tourists planning to visit Turkey this year. Turkey’s vibrant tourism sector has been severely hit by a Russian tourist boycott, which President Vladimir Putin ordered after Turkey shot down a Russian plane last November.
But a number of previous terror attacks, attributed either to the Islamic State or to Kurdish extremists, have already dented the image that Turkey is a safe place to visit. The airport is usually packed at this time of year, but in recent weeks it has often it seems deserted, frequent travelers say. Merchants and hoteliers in Istanbul have also complained of the severe downturn in business this year.
Still, the country, which has an extensive police and security apparatus, appears determined to carry on. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who flew to Istanbul after the attack, announced early Wednesday that the airport had reopened after 2 a.m.
The terror attacks come as Turkey finds itself in a series of major security challenges. One involves the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which is trying to set up autonomous Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which controls several towns in Syria along the Turkish border. Turkey is also in a confrontation with Syria. It backs Syrian rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al Assad but also supports their logistics and resupply here. And it’s hosting U.S. fighter aircraft at the giant Incirlik base, which attack ISIS targets inside Syria. Thanks in part to those airstrikes, ISIS has lost 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and 25 percent in Syria, according to Pentagon statistics.
But Turkey and ISIS have a complicated relationship with each other. Turkey might have been the first country to declare ISIS a terrorist organization. But it also turned a blind eye to ISIS oil—and human—smuggling into the country.
Turkey this week attempted to end its contentious relations with Israel and Russia. It restored diplomatic relations with Israel after a six-year break over Turkey’s support for an attempt to break the Israeli blockade around Gaza. And Erdogan expressed regret for shooting down the Russian warplane, which Turkey said had flown into Turkish airspace from Syria.
The opponents Turkey is facing with conventional means are responding to some degree with terror, and it isn’t only the so-called Islamic State. In one instance, Dec. 23, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, a militant offshoot of the took responsibility for firing mortar rounds at Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, killing an airplane cleaner.
This was the fourth attack attributed to ISIS extremists in Istanbul this year. On Jan. 12, a suicide bomber attacked a crowd of tourists near the historic Blue Mosque, killing at least 10, nine of them German tourists. On March 19, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the main shopping street in Istanbul’s Beyoglu business district, killing four and wounding 39. And on June 7, a car bomb exploded near a police bus in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet tourist district, killing 11 and wounding 36. The very worst attack attributed to ISIS occurred in Ankara last October, a car bombing at the main railway station which killed more than 100.
Assuming that ISIS turns out to have staged the airport attack, Turkey doesn’t have a lot of security options available, because ISIS forces operate from what amounts to a sanctuary inside Syria. One major ISIS position is in the Syrian border town of Jarablus, southeast of the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which Turkish forces could quickly eliminate. But sending ground troops is ruled out for fear of triggering a response by Russia, which is playing a lead role on behalf of the Assad regime in its struggle against rebels seeking its overthrow. The same applies to Raqqa, the self-declared ISIS capital, just 60 miles south or the Turkish border, which Turkish forces could take in a matter of days, except for the fact it would amount to an invasion of Syria.
What Turkey can do is continue shelling ISIS targets across the border at opportune moments and to step up military aid to Sunni Arab rebel forces opposing the Assad regime, to encourage them to attack Islamic State targets. Turkey will no doubt continue providing wary backing to a U.S.-supported operations against ISIS in Manbij and other areas of northern Syria. But the problem for Turkey is that the U.S. is leaning on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG as the spearhead of its main ground force. But Turkey and nearly everyone else in the region views the YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which Turkey is confronting throughout southeastern Turkey.
Turkey has consistently declared ISIS a national enemy, but in practice, the elimination of ISIS has been a secondary goal to Turkey’s decades-long struggle to vanquish the PKK. In autumn 2014, Turkey refused to provide direct support for the YPG when it was under ISIS threat in Kobani, and Erdogan openly protested the U.S. delivery of arms and ammunition to the YPG.
Perhaps Turkey’s biggest boost to the rise of ISIS was to look the other way when jihadists arrived from Europe, North Africa, and the Arab world as volunteers for the internal struggle against the Assad regime and moved freely across the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey said it had kept its borders open for humanitarian reasons—so that normal Syrians could come and go as they needed—until spring of last year, when under intense U.S. pressure, Turkey closed it borders, both for Islamic extremists and for average Syrians alike.
—with additional reporting by Nancy A. Youssef in Washington, D.C., and Duygu Guvenc in Ankara.
Updated: June 29, 2016, 6:45 a.m.