Istanbul airport attack kills at least 30, still developing

A terrorist attack involving at least three suicide bombers has killed more than 30 people and injured nearly 150 at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, the city’s main international airport (both figures, but particularly the death toll, may rise over the next few hours):

One of the attackers “randomly opened fire” as he walked through the terminal building, shortly before three explosions, a witness told Reuters.

“We came right to international departures and saw the man randomly shooting. He was just firing at anyone coming in front of him. He was wearing all black. His face was not masked. I was 50 metres away from him,” said Paul Roos, 77, a South African tourist on his way back to Cape Town with his wife.

“We ducked behind a counter but I stood up and watched him. Two explosions went off shortly after one another. By that time he had stopped shooting,” Roos said.

“He turned around and started coming towards us. He was holding his gun inside his jacket. He looked around anxiously to see if anyone was going to stop him and then went down the escalator … We heard some more gunfire and then another explosion, and then it was over.”

There’s been no claim of responsibility for the attack but, as with each of the tragically growing number of terror attacks that have taken place in Turkey over the past several months, suspicion revolves around either ISIS or a Kurdish group, possibly the PKK or its more violent offshoot, the TAK. If this attack was carried out by the Kurds it would represent a serious escalation in their war against Ankara, as Kurdish attacks have heretofore picked targets with obvious military and/or police connections (though of course there have been collateral casualties)–which is not to excuse those attacks, but they can at least be seen as part and parcel of the Turkish-Kurdish civil war. This attack, clearly aimed at civilians and, more than that, tourists, would be a marked departure from that pattern. Needless to say, if the PKK or TAK were found to be behind this attack, it would have serious ramifications in terms of both the Kurdish conflict inside Turkey and America’s work with the related YPG Kurdish forces in Syria.

It’s partly because this attack looks so uncharacteristic for the Kurds that suspicion will gravitate, already has gravitated, toward ISIS (the Turkish government has already fingered ISIS as the perpetrator). There are a lot of things about this attack that lead people to that conclusion. It targeted an airport, like the Brussels attack in March. It happened during Ramadan, when ISIS pledged to ramp up its activity. Tomorrow is the second anniversary (on the Western calendar) of the day ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the caliph. And, of course, ISIS has been making Turkey one of its regular targets since last summer, starting with a 5 June 2015 suicide attack in Diyarbakır.

ISIS has not yet announced any claim of responsibility for the attack. It typically takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days for its official declarations after terrorist attacks, so we’re still easily within the window for that to happen. But, importantly, ISIS has never publicly taken responsibility for a major attack in Turkey (it has claimed credit for assassinating a handful of Syrian activists there) despite the fact that it’s strongly suspected of carrying out in the past year and the fact that it has been increasingly critical of Turkey online since last spring. The large-scale ISIS attacks in Turkey began shortly after the rhetorical attacks increased.

The simple explanation for ISIS’s decision not to claim credit for attacks in Turkey is that leaving even a sliver of doubt as to whether its attacks might actually have been carried out by the Kurds works to ISIS’s benefit. ISIS needs Turkey to continue to treat the Kurds as its greatest national security threat, because that works to ISIS’s benefit in Syria, but it also wants to deter Turkey from taking further direct military action against ISIS. So it carries out attacks that are almost certainly ISIS attacks, but doesn’t take the step that would eliminate all doubt by claiming credit.


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