Deadly bombings a major blow to Turkey
ISTANBUL - The devastating triple suicide bomb attack on Turkey’s largest airport killed more than 40 people and wounded hundreds of others, raising serious questions about security shortfalls that are seriously damaging Turkey’s economy.
“The only aim of the attack is to destabilise Turkey,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement, adding that Turkey had “the power, determination and capacity to continue the fight against terrorism until the end”.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on Istanbul Ataturk Airport, carried out June 27th just after the time Muslims break their Ramadan fast. Turkish authorities, however, said evidence pointed to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Turkish media, quoting police sources, said the bombers were members of a Russian-speaking ISIS cell sent to Turkey from Syria. Police detained 13 suspects, including three foreigners, in connection to the airport bombings.
Turkey long unnerved both its NATO allies and critics at home with an ambivalent stance towards ISIS, even letting foreign fighters freely cross its borders into Syria and Iraq to join the group. This, analysts said, led to devastating security challenges that will be difficult to overcome.
After a string of deadly suicide attacks on Turkish soil, Turkey intensified the crackdown on ISIS, raiding safe houses and detaining hundreds while carrying out cross-border artillery attacks on ISIS targets in Syria. Experts said they expect more ISIS revenge attacks.
“Turkey has gradually stepped up its fight against ISIS after Ankara’s initial reluctance to take military action against the group,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a counterterrorism expert. “The most dramatic shift came with Turkey opening the Incirlik airbase to the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. Then (ISIS) declared open war on Ankara.”
In a little more than a year, a total of 17 bomb attacks by Kurdish militants and ISIS have claimed almost 300 lives and wounded about 1,500 more, leaving the government under increasing pressure regarding perceived security shortcomings.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim insisted there were no flaws in airport security and that a lack of preparedness was not to blame for the assault.
While security experts such as Ozcan stressed that no country could be entirely safe from terrorist attacks, many in Turkey are angry that the government failed to keep them safe in their own country and that the wars at its borders have increasingly been spreading into Turkey.
“I would have never expected an attack of that scale to be possible at an airport,” said Eftal Erdin, 55, a taxi driver who has worked around Ataturk airport for more than 30 years. “We are not afraid. We have to keep working but we are very nervous. Some of our colleagues died there. It could also have been us.”
The spiralling violence and the Turkish government’s perceived weakness in the face of a growing terrorism threat are taking a heavy toll on the country’s economy, too.
Turkey is no longer the popular and safe tourism destination it once was and several countries, including the United States, Germany and France, have warned their citizens to exercise increased vigilance when travelling to the country. The British Foreign Office said “further attacks are likely, could be indiscriminate and may target or affect places visited by foreigners”.
The airport attack is a further blow to Turkey’s tourism sector, which was suffering its worst losses in decades. In May 2016, foreign arrivals decreased by almost 35% compared to May 2015, the steepest decline since the 1990s, when violent conflict between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was at its peak.
Many beaches and hotels remained empty even after the start of the high summer season. In Istanbul, tour operators said there had been numerous cancellations since the attack.
Tourism professionals said they hoped that Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Israel and Russia would lead to a recovery of the sector but the Ataturk airport assault on one of Europe’s busiest transport hubs might dash their optimism.
“The Eid is around the corner and business was about to pick up again after the explosion in [the central Istanbul district of] Vezneciler in the beginning of June,” said Abdulbakir Demir, sitting in front of his travel agency close to the busy Taksim Square in Istanbul. “Now I am afraid that we are finished. If things continue like this, we will all have to close shop.”