Originally produced for Armed Politics in June 2016
Yesterday evening, three gunmen attacked Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, shooting many, before blowing themselves up. The death toll now appear to have passed 40, with as many as 230 injured. Shockingly, this does not even make this the deadliest attack in Turkey in the last 12 months, with the death toll from last October’s bombing in the capital surpassing 100. In Turkey’s complicated security environment, a variety of groups have been carrying out deadly attacks. However, the style of this attack means it was almost certainly perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Firstly, this was a mass-casualty attack, with many of the dead civilians. This is typical for an ISIS attack, and there is no other group which carries out attacks in quite the same way in Turkey. While Hawks of Kurdistan Freedom (TAK) carried out a mass-casualty attack in March this year in Ankara, the attack was aimed at a police target. TAK was willing to kill civilians as part of their attack on the police, whereas civilian casualties appear to have been the main aim of this attack, based on its execution. TAK’s attacks have almost all targeted Turkish military or police.
Secondly, it is the execution that also strongly suggests ISIS was behind the attack. Each attacker was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and a suicide bomb vest. The first attacker began firing in the car park of the airport to distract security. Ataturk airport has two layers of security, one, outer layer, before check-in and one after check-in before boarding. The second attacker then struck at the outer layer of security. Finally, once the outer layer was weakened, the third bomber sought to slip through into the check-in area but thankfully was prevented by the heroism of a security guard who tackled the attacker to the floor and died when the attacker detonated his suicide vest.
The carefully-planned staged nature of the attack, exposing ever more civilians, smacks of ISIS. Moreover, the target of the attack is typical of ISIS in Turkey, namely tourist-related infrastructure. TAK did strike Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, with a mortar attack in December last year, killing one. However, this was not in the same style as the ISIS mass casualty attacks. ISIS’ targets in Turkey until this year were Kurdish, leftist groups; ISIS’ aim here to drive the Kurdish conflict and rifts in Turkish society. This year it has switched focus, seeking to disrupt Turkey’s tourist infrastructure. This latest attack fits clearly in that agenda. These attacks have all been mass-casualty suicide attacks.
ISIS’ new strategy in Turkey in this respect appears similar to its strategy in North Africa: disrupt the tourism industry and damage the economy, fuelling disenfranchisement and driving ISIS’ already strong support in the country.