ISIS likely behind deadly attack on Istanbul airport

Yesterday evening, three armed suicide bombers attacked Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, shooting many civilians before detonating their explosives, killing themselves and around 40 others, in addition to injuring approximately 230. Shockingly, this does not 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 carried out 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 behavioral operation for an ISIS attack, and there is no other known 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 of this year in Ankara, the attack was aimed at targeting police. 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 airport attack, based on its execution. TAK’s attacks have almost all targeted Turkish military or police.

In addition, it is the execution style 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 but before boarding. The second attacker struck at the outer layer of security, and once the outer layer was weakened, the third bomber attempted to slip through into the check-in area. Thankfully, the third attacker was prevented from entering the airport further by the heroism of a security guard who tackled the bomber to the floor, and who died when the attacker detonated his suicide vest.

The carefully-planned and staged nature of the attack, including the murder of ever more civilians, smacks of ISIS. Moreover, the target of the attack is typical of ISIS terrorism in Turkey, namely targeting tourist-related infrastructure. TAK did strike Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, with a mortar attack in December last year, killing one. However, that incident was not carried out in the same style as the ISIS mass casualty attacks. ISIS’ targets in Turkey were Kurdish, leftist groups until this year, with the aim being to exacerbate the Kurdish conflict and rifts in Turkish society. This year it has switched focus, seeking to disrupt Turkey’s tourist infrastructure, and this latest attack fits clearly in that agenda. These attacks have all been mass-casualty suicide attacks.

ISIS’ new strategy in Turkey appears similar to its strategy in North Africa: disrupt the tourism industry and damage the economy, fueling disenfranchisement and driving ISIS’ already strong support in the country.

George Dyson

Analyst working on conflict-resolution and peace-building in Turkey and the MENA region. Also works as a political and security risk consultant, as a business intelligence investigator, and writes on identity politics across the region. Follow on Twitter and Linkedin.