Coordinated suicide attacks at Istanbul’s international airport killed at least 40 people, tearing through the terminal at one of the busiest travel times of the year as Turkey struggles to contain the spillover from Syria’s civil war.
Islamic State is likely responsible for the killings, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in televised remarks. Once an affiliate of al-Qaeda, Islamic State carried out beheadings and crucifixions as it took parts of Syria and northern Iraq. While losing ground in recent months, it is striking abroad more frequently and claimed responsibility for similar airport attacks in Brussels in March.
Thirteen foreigners are thought be among the dead, the Istanbul governor’s office said, as the attack promised to further worsen Turkey’s already deep tourism crisis.
AbduRahman Hussein, a filmmaker from Sana’a, Yemen, was about to eat at one of the terminal’s second-floor restaurants when he heard shots and explosions.
“I saw the smoke,” he said in a direct message on Facebook. “Then I started running away.” He posted pictures of shattered glass and people running.
Three suicide bombers opened fire and then blew themselves up in rapid succession at the airport around 9:20 p.m., Yildirim said from the Istanbul airport, where he assessed the damage and met with emergency personnel. The attacks left more than 200 people wounded, the governor’s office in Istanbul said by phone on Wednesday. Many of Turkey’s children ended school terms this month, which coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“Once again, it has been understood that terrorism is a global threat to all countries and nations and must be fought through mutual cooperation,” Yildirim said. “Our country has the necessary power and determination to overcome over these heinous attacks.”
The assaults took place near security checkpoints at the entrance to the airport’s arrivals hall. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told lawmakers in parliament earlier that at least one attacker had sprayed gunfire from a Kalashnikov automatic assault rifle. None of the assailants got past security controls, according to a Turkish official who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to talk to the press. He said two of them detonated their vests at the arrival hall, and a third in a nearby parking lot.
Normal air traffic resumed at the airport as of 2:20 a.m. local time, according to Yildirim. Turkish Airlines, the national carrier, and TAV Havalimanlari, which operates the Ataturk airport, fell as much as 3.5 percent and 6.7 percent respectively in early trading in Istanbul on Wednesday. The attacks forced Turkish Airlines to cancel 340 flights, CNN-Turk television said on its website. The lira tracked gains across emerging currencies and was trading at 2.8950 against per dollar at 11:06 a.m. in Istanbul.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Both Islamist, leftist and Kurdish militants have carried out bomb attacks in Turkey in recent months, hammering the nation’s vital tourism. Tourist arrivals to Turkey fell almost 35 percent in May from a year earlier, the fastest drop in at least a decade and following a 28 percent decline in April.
Erdogan said in an e-mailed statement that the Istanbul airport attack was an effort to hurt Turkey’s image. “For the terrorist organizations, there’s no difference between Istanbul and London, Ankara and Berlin,” he said, urging all countries to join forces against terrorism.
Spread of Violence
Turkey is likely to step up its border security and counter-terrorism cooperation with the U.S., according to Gonul Tol, a Turkey analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington research center. With Turkish-backed rebels in Syria on the defensive against Syrian government forces aided by Russia, the attacks “put a spotlight on the government’s unpopular Syria policy,” he added.
“The government will do its best to control the way the media frames the attack and divert attention from the government’s Syria policy to external factors contributing to the growth of ISIS threat,” he said, using another acronym for Islamic State.
The attack is also the latest to target airports and the aviation industry in the Middle East and Europe, coming three months after suicide bombers struck Brussels airport. It serves as reminder of the vulnerability of airport lobbies and other public places where large numbers of people congregate, said Hans Weber, an aviation consultant in San Diego.
“The probability of copycat attacks goes way up high after one of those attacks,” said Weber, who advised the U.S. federal government on airport security issues following the Sept. 11 attacks. “From a terrorist perspective, Brussels was a success. You can see how they would be motivated to copy that.”
Last year, a Russian passenger jet was brought down over the Sinai Peninsula after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility.
The U.S. is “still collecting information and trying to ascertain” who carried out the Istanbul blast, Secretary of State John Kerry said at a conference in Aspen, Colorado. He said such attacks have become “daily fare” at a time when the world needs to counter violence by non-state actors.
The White House condemned the attack and expressed support for Turkey, a NATO ally. Both the main candidates to take over from President Barack Obama also weighed in. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, said the U.S. must “deepen our cooperation with our allies and partners in the Middle East and Europe,” and her likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump, said the U.S. must “take steps now to protect America from terrorists.”
Earlier this week, Erdogan ended a six-year rift with Israel and unexpectedly moved to mend ties with Russia, as he attempts to draw a line under diplomatic confrontations that had sapped the economy and left him increasingly isolated in the region.
“This only affirms how it makes sense for Turkey to find more allies and narrow the battlefields,” Nail Olpak, head of the Musiad business group said in a statement. The business group is allied with Erdogan. “People have been massacred at a time of increasing hope,” Olpak said.
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