The attack on Istanbul’s main airport by three suspected Islamic State suicide bombers not only targeted the commercial heart of Turkey’s economy, but showed that the jihadist group can still strike with devastating effect despite losing ground and fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Suicide attackers killed 41 and wounded 239 at the international terminal of Ataturk airport, the third-busiest in Europe. Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim blamed the self-declared Islamic State (IS).
The attack runs counter to the narrative that IS is “losing” in Iraq and Syria, and is therefore less of a danger, say analysts. As the nation that at first facilitated the flow of Islamist militants into Syria for several years but is now cracking down on IS, Turkey has become a critical target.
“This is a qualitatively different attack than previous ones. It is spectacular, it is massive, it is ambitious,” says Fawaz Gerges, author of “ISIS: A History.”
“The political message to the Turkish government is, ‘You want it to be all-out war? Here you have it.’ The idea is to paralyze the Turkish economy further, more than ISIS has done so far,” says Mr. Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.
The attack is the latest in a string of suicide strikes in Turkey, which have left Turks on edge since last year and resulted in a 35 percent drop in tourism.
“The reason why Turkey should prepare itself for very deadly attacks in the future is because Turkey can do a great deal of harm to ISIS,” says Gerges. “It has really been a way station for ISIS. Even though ISIS is losing, ISIS can deliver devastating attacks and it has done so. ISIS will ultimately mutate into a very serious terrorist organization, much deadlier than Al Qaeda has ever been.”
Unlike Al Qaeda, which is known for carefully choosing its targets for maximum impact, IS has advocated soft targets that are more accessible. It has also stepped up its threats against Turkey, especially since the NATO ally permitted the US-led anti-IS coalition aircraft to use its Incirlik airbase last summer.
Yesterday's attackers struck mainly near security checkpoints and X-ray machines at the entrance, which prevent any entry to the building without a thorough search.
IS has not claimed responsibility. But top officials say they suspect IS since previous attacks by the group – all of them unclaimed – focused on tourist and civilian targets, while those by Kurdish militants have most often struck security targets. It also echoes the Brussels airport attack in March, for which IS claimed responsibility.
In an analysis for CNN, Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy drew a parallel with Al Qaeda in Iraq never claiming its own suicide attacks in Iraq, thereby creating deeper suspicion and finally ethnic war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites a decade ago.
“By not taking responsibility for its attacks in Turkey, ISIS wants to do the same, triggering societal fault lines, this time between supporters and opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leftists and rightists, Turks and Kurds, seculars and conservatives,” Mr. Cagaptay wrote for CNN.
Mr. Erdoğan said the attack should be a “turning point” in the global war on terror, and said that any city could have been the target.
“Despite paying a heavy price, Turkey has the power, determination, and capacity to continue the fight against terrorism until the end,” said Erdoğan.
“The bombs that exploded in Istanbul today could have gone off at any airport in any city around the world,” said the president, who has faced widespread criticism that his Syria policy has led to greater instability at home. “Make no mistake: For terrorist organizations, there is no difference between Istanbul and London, Ankara and Berlin, Izmir and Chicago, or Antalya and Rome.”
Analysts say that the role Turkey has played in its bid to topple President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s five-year war has made it especially prone to attack. More recently, however, it has moved – under strong pressure from the US and Europe – to clamp down the flow of jihadists of all stripes.
“Turkey is more vulnerable than Chicago, than London, because we know there is a very solid infrastructure for ISIS inside Turkey,” says Gerges. “ISIS has been building assets in Turkey for almost four years. It has used Turkey as a way station and it has many supporters.”
The narrative from Washington and London is that airstrikes, and Kurdish and moderate militias on the ground in Syria and Iraq, have put IS on a “losing” track. According to testimony that Brett McGurk, the State Department's point person on IS, gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, IS has lost 47 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria.
"Whereas [IS] once promised lavish pay for recruits, and free services in its 'caliphate,' it is now slashing pay, cannot provide services, and is facing internal resistance," Mr. McGurk told the committee on Tuesday. "We know from other sources, as well, that [IS] fighters are panicking on the battlefield, foreign recruits are now looking to return home, and leaders are struggling to maintain discipline, even despite the threat of execution for disobedience."
But experts say the Istanbul strike is proof that the organization can adapt and mutate into a more traditional terrorist group. In a rare message last month, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani signaled just such a shift in strategy.
“It’s not enough to say that ISIS is losing; but what kind of mutation, what kinds of forms of terrorism will ISIS conduct in the future?” asks Gerges. “ISIS is a dynamic, resilient organization that learns.”
The attack could well shift the priorities of Erdogan, who thus far has prioritized the fight against Syria's Assad regime and Syrian Kurds, wrote Cagaptay. “For Turkey, fighting ISIS as a first order battle could now be unavoidable.”
Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott