ISIS Fighters More Vulnerable than its Ideology
Battlefield losses fuel a push toward global terrorism
[ISTANBUL] — Turkish officials have confirmed 41 deaths, including 13 foreigners, and 239 wounded, in an attack by three suicide bombers at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport Tuesday night.
Two assailants, one armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, were shot by officers when they approached the entrance security checkpoint in the arrivals section of the international terminal. A third bomber blew himself up in an adjacent parking lot in the airport.
“It’s very clear that there was careful surveillance beforehand and this was carefully planned,” Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow at the Silk Road Studies Program, told The Media Line. “So I think these three [attackers] were part of a larger network.”
Flights were grounded until early Wednesday morning. Turkey is in its tourism high season now, and Atatürk is Europe’s third busiest airport.
Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the bombers reached the airport by taxi, and that they’re suspected to be with the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been linked to six other major attacks in Turkish cities over the past year. Last month the group threatened more global attacks during the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“This is classic ISIS,” said Jenkins.
Turkish citizens affiliated with the group targeted Kurdish and leftist civilians in two large suicide bombings last year that killed over 130. The aim was probably to hurt ISIS’s primary enemy in Syria, the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has strong links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.
This year, Jenkins says, ISIS changed its strategy in order to hurt Turkey. It targeted foreign tourists in Istanbul in January and March, contributing to the country’s worst tourism decline in 17 years, and bombed a police station in Gaziantep in May.
Tuesday’s attack was the group’s first time indiscriminately targeting non-political Turks.
Selim Koru, a researcher at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), says that ISIS aims to hurt Turkey’s economy and cause general unrest.
“If someone wanted to hurt Turkey’s economy and didn’t care about upsetting the international community while doing it, Atatürk airport would be a prime target,” Koru wrote in an e-mail to The Media Line.
The airport has more security than most in the west, with x-ray and metal detector checkpoints at the entrances as well as before the gates.
“I think the security forces acted bravely,” said Aaron Stein, senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I don’t know what else you can do if you’re Turkey,” in terms of security.
“The problem with terrorism is that there’s a million soft targets, and no state has the resources to protect every single one,” Stein told The Media Line.
He says Turkey is particularly vulnerable to attack.
“The barriers to carrying out an attack in Turkey are far lower than they are in Europe, because nobody has to board a plane.”
Stein says the government’s response against this attack will be much of what they’ve already been doing, namely artillery strikes into ISIS’s territory along the Turkish border in Syria, and perhaps joining coalition airstrikes.
“Their position in northern Syria is just so limited,” he says, since the government is very unlikely to move in with ground troops and supports weak and divided rebels.
Koru says security and intelligence services will continue to strike ISIS’s robust presence in Turkey.
“We know that ISIS has been much larger on the radars of Turkish security agencies for some time now, and I’m guessing that this attack will push them to devote more resources against the group.”
On May 19, high-ranking ISIS member Yunus Durmaz blew himself up during a Turkish police raid in Gaziantep, and his brother Haci Ali Durmaz was captured.
But Jenkins says that despite the state’s crackdown against ISIS’s operations that started early last year, it should also fight against the ideology that inspires some Turkish citizens to support the group.
“We’re still not seeing sufficient attention to trying to counter the ideas that ISIS puts forward,” such as de-radicalization programs, he says.
“Whereas we may see some setbacks for ISIS as an organization, I don’t think we’re going to see any change in the threat posed by the ideology of ISIS.”
Koru says the Turkish government and ISIS have a complicated relationship.
“It’s very clear in ISIS media and ideology that Turkey is an enemy, as bad or worse than the ‘crusader’ states of the West. But ISIS shares a border with Turkey and has a clandestine network in the country, so ISIS and Turkey have leverage over each other.”
Koru says ISIS almost never claims its attacks in Turkey, in contrast to other countries, because it may not want to antagonize the government and cause it to clamp down even more on the group.