Turkey Is The New Ground Zero For Terror

Once an oasis, Turkey finds itself in the eye of the storm

Passengers embrace each other at the entrance to Ataturk airport on Tuesday night. — AP
Jun 30, 2016 at 6:00 AM ET

The scenes from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport on Tuesday night, of shrouded bodies and shattered glass, have become grimly familiar in Turkey over the past year. At least 41 people were killed when three suicide bombers blew themselves up at the entrance to the well-guarded airport. It was the second major attack in the city this month, the fourth since January. And the violence has not been limited to Istanbul: the capital Ankara has been struck twice; the southeastern hub of Diyarbakir, three times.

These attacks were carried out by two radically different groups, unrelated and in fact deeply hostile to one another. Both, however, emerged as a direct consequnce of the civil war across the border in Syria. But in the case of the attack on Ataturk Airport, all signs point to the culpability of the Islamic State. No matter what group is discovered to be responsible, one thing is clear: The worsening violence has shattered Turkey’s status as an oasis of calm amidst regional turmoil, and dealt a severe blow to a once-thriving economy.

No one has claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the airport, but the method and the choice of targets suggest the Islamic State. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said there were early indications that ISIS was behind the attack.

ISIS has already carried out two suicide bombings in Istanbul this year: a blast in January that killed 12 people in the tourist-filled old city, and a March attack that killed four on the main commercial street. The terror group is the chief suspect in a recent car bombing in the southeastern town of Gaziantep, on the Syrian border, which killed two people and wounded two dozen others. ISIS jihadis have also terrorized Syrians living in Turkey, by shooting or beheading critical journalists in the southeast of the country.

Some observers, like the well-known Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol, suggested a link between the airport bombing and a reconciliation deal signed on Tuesday that ended a six-year diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel.

But this was a complicated attack, with multiple suicide bombers striking a well-guarded target—not the sort of thing organized on a whim, just hours after a deal was signed. And besides, the Islamic State is not really interested in Israel, which rarely features in the group’s propaganda releases. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been accused of playing a double game in Syria: While he condemns the Islamic State, he long allowed weapons and fighters to flow freely across the border. Thousands of people from dozens of countries used Turkey as a transit point to the self-declared “caliphate.” The Turkish government has moved aggressively to silence critics. Two journalists from Cumhuriyet, one of the country’s most critical newspapers, are facing life in prison for reporting that the state intelligence agency shipped weapons to Islamist rebels in Syria.

But when it comes to Turkey’s enemies, the arguably more serious threat comes from a foe much older than ISIS. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fought a decades-long civil war against the government to demand political rights and autonomy, if not full independence. The Turkish response was often brutal: Hundreds of Kurdish villages were demolished, and tens of thousands of civilians killed. More than 7,000 members of the Turkish security forces died in the fighting as well.

Erdogan adopted a conciliatory approach to the Kurds after he took office in 2003. He loosened restrictions on Kurdish language and culture and pushed economic development in the impoverished southeast, reform that eventually led to a 2013 cease-fire and allowed the Turkish army to withdraw from Kurdish cities and towns. Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, spoke of his group laying down its arms and entering democratic politics.

This peace process crashed up against the Syrian civil war in late 2014, when the Islamic State surrounded the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, just across the border from Turkey. Erdogan predicted that the city would quickly fall, and police prevented Turkish Kurds from crossing the border to help their compatriots. Younger Turkish Kurds, enraged at his policy and emboldened by the successful defense of Kobani, returned to the barricades.

Kurdish militants have claimed responsibility for both of this year’s bombings in Ankara, two in Diyarbakir, and a June 7 blast in central Istanbul that killed 10 people. Many were the work of a group calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), thought to be a splinter faction of the PKK.

But Tuesday’s bombing does not seem to be the work of Kurdish militants: they tend to target the government and the security forces, not civilians and tourists.

Regardless of the perpetrators’ affiliation, this attack will have a dire effect on Turkey’s already battered economy. The airport is among the country’s highest-profile targets, the third-busiest in Europe, and 11th in the world. Tourism had already declined before the bombing: Hotel bookings in Istanbul, among the world’s most popular tourist destinations, dropped 44 percent from last year. The Turkish lira, trading almost one-to-one with the dollar in 2008, is now worth just 35 cents. The violence has also prompted an abrupt shift in Turkey’s foreign policy. Erdogan threw in his lot with Sunni Islamist groups during the Arab Spring, alienating former allies in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and beyond. Lately he has changed tack: after patching up ties with Israel, he reached out to Russia, which downgraded relations when Turkey shot down one of its fighter jets in November. There is even talk of détente with the army-backed government in Cairo.

In the short term, though, there is little reason for optimism. Negotiations with the Kurds are off the table; dozens of Kurdish lawmakers now face prosecution after being stripped of their parliamentary immunity. And while the Islamic State has not claimed responsibility for any suicide bombings in Turkey, it has hinted at launching a wider offensive there. We will almost certainly see more terrible scenes like the ones at Ataturk airport on Tuesday.


Gregg Carlstrom is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for The Times of London and other publications. He was previously based in Cairo and the Gulf. On Twitter: @glcarlstrom.