Istanbul, the megalopolis on the Bosporus, has been stricken again at the heart: its most important airport, the third-largest in Europe, where over 61 million passengers transited so far in 2016. Ataturk International is a passage node between the East and the West well representing Turkey’s singular cultural and strategic position in that area which connects two worlds, melting them. The toll is severe: 44 are dead and 239 wounded, 40 of whom were in very critical conditions, after three terrorists opened fire at the entrance gates of the international arrivals hall and then blew themselves up Tuesday night.
It has been understood, from the first reconstructions, that the terrorists carried out a multiple suicidal action, showing a noticeable operative capability: dressed in black and without any facial coverings they first attacked the external part of the arrivals area, near the parking lot, to draw out the security forces; immediately after that, a second suicide bomber reached the check-in tables, left partially uncovered and, finally, a third terrorist took advantage of the confusion and successfully went beyond the control scanners and blew himself up, despite his wounds. The surveillance cameras show a clash between the suicide bomber and a security agent trying to block him and the same attacker who, immediately after that, explodes.
The attack has not been claimed, but the investigations converge on the hypothesis that it was carried out by an Islamic State cell. It seems to be the same dynamics of the bloody attacks in Paris and Brussels. The Turkish newspapers’ front-pages expressed outrage. “Damn!” “Child killers.” “Barbarians.” The population is in a state of shock. In Turkey, the opposition is denouncing the failures in security. It seems that, on Tuesday morning, in the hours before the attack, the attackers came to scope out the airport, as shown by some recordings made by surveillance cameras.
The Turkish government, through Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, has no doubt about this having been an attack carried out by the Islamic State, but it rejects criticisms about errors by the security forces. The prime minister was harshly criticized during a hospital visit: “You’ve transformed the country into what Syria is!” screamed a few wounded people. Twenty days ago, an old journalist from Dogan TV, during a transmission, stated that Turkish intelligence had sent a warning letter to the state’s security institutions and to the local governors warning them about the risk of an attack by ISIS in Istanbul.
The attack carried out Tuesday is just the latest on the list: In the last year there have been 17, with 298 dead. Some of them were claimed by ISIS after Turkey had allowed the NATO airbase in Incirlik for coalition offensives against the so-called caliphate. Others were claimed by Kurdish radical armed groups, like the the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, in response to the bombardments carried out by the Turkish government over the last year in the Kurdish-majority provinces at the border with Syria.
This attack will also have major consequences from an economic point of view, coming in the heart of the summertime tourist season, and many tourists might cancel their bookings. There’s more: In a few days, Ramadan will end and the megalopolis is starting to host people visiting parents and friends. The aim of the attack might have been to hit the Turkish economy in one of its vital sectors, tourism, further weakening Erdogan. Turkey is immersed in the regional chaos with various critical points at the southeastern borders, from the civil wars in Syria and Iraq to the unresolved Kurdish issue Ankara is totally unwilling to establish a dialog with the PKK, with whom it restarted the conflict from last July, degenerating into a war against autonomy-seeking militants.
We cannot say the attack was connected to the normalization of relations between Israel and Russia, made just four days before. Indeed, an attack like that cannot be improvised. Rather, it can be said that Turkey has been bombarding ISIS bases for months at the border with Syria, in the Azaz area, and contributing its air bases to pushing ISIS back from the Manbij area, a crucially important communication center for ISIS.
Erdogan has an absolute need to break the isolation with his regional neighbors, caused by a disastrous foreign policy influenced by a rhetoric oriented toward “Ottoman nationalism,” as some experts sustain. Therefore, Turkey’s “precious solitude” could be about to end, especially because of security needs and economic interests, “precious” according to the definition made by Davutoglu, the former prime minister who modeled the foreign policy of all the AKP’s previous governments.
Losing friends in the region, placing Turkey’s borders at risk, deteriorating the country’s image both in Europe as well as in the Middle East, has been disastrous. The reconciliation with Israel was unavoidable after Iran signed the nuclear agreement. Ankara has urgent need to enter the Syrian conflict, from which it remained out because it broke off relations with almost all the actors, including Russia. This is why it urgently needs to rebuild those connections.