Resilient Istanbul grapples with aftermath of ‘IS attack’

Published June 30, 2016
Istanbul: A relative of Gulsen Bahadir, a victim of the attack on Ataturk airport, mourns over her flag-draped coffin during her funeral on Wednesday.—Reuters
Istanbul: A relative of Gulsen Bahadir, a victim of the attack on Ataturk airport, mourns over her flag-draped coffin during her funeral on Wednesday.—Reuters

The people of this city lost no time in getting back on their feet on Wednesday, a day after an audacious attack — blamed on the militant Islamic State group — on Ataturk Havalimani (Ataturk airport) left 41 people dead and over 200 injured.

According to Turkish officials, three attackers armed with automatic weapons tried to force their way into the airport — one of the three busiest in the world — but were challenged by police and other security personnel. One assailant was shot almost immediately, but managed to blow himself up as he lay on the floor.

In the ensuing chaos, the other militants opened indiscriminate fire, sending passengers running for cover as security personnel prevented them from forcing their way into the terminal.

The city’s governor said 41 people had been killed, including 13 foreigners, and 239 wounded. The dead include several Saudis, a Chinese national, a Tunisian and a Ukrainian.

Forty-one people injured in the incident were still in intensive care in hospitals, Health Minister Recep Akdag said. Among the injured people were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Uzbe­k­istan, Pakistan, Ukraine and Swit­zer­land, he said in comments broad­cast live on Turkish television.

“There were little babies crying, people shouting, broken glass and blood all over the floor. It was very crowded and there was chaos. It was traumatic,” said Diana Eltner, 29, a Swiss psychologist who was travelling from Zurich to Vietnam but had been diverted to Istanbul after she missed a connecting flight.

After a brief exchange of fire, the two remaining assailants also detonated suicide vests, leaving behind a scene of carnage. Mobile phone footage shared by locals, and seen by this writer, shows the 25-foot-wide road in front of the terminal’s arrival gate littered with debris through which emergency staff manoeuvred their way, carrying the injured to waiting ambulances.

Although no claim of responsibility emerged in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told journalists after visiting the injured at a hospital that “findings of security forces indicate that the attack was committed by Daesh.” He was using an Arabic acronym for the militant Islamic State (IS) group.

“I agree that this is almost certainly the work of Daesh,” said Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “It fits in with their strategic aims and targets. This was an airport and had foreign nationals present. A substantial number of them were killed in the attack.

“If we look at the other terror group active in Turkey — the PKK — it does not fit in with their goals of attacking military personnel or Turkish civilians. It was also an indiscriminate attack, which is a hallmark of Daesh.”

As far as motives were concerned, Mr Ulgen dismissed comments from observers who said it could have been a reaction to Turkey’s recent thawing of relations with Israel and Russia.

“I think it’s a bit naïve to assume that such an attack could be orchestrated on such short notice. If you study any such incidents in the past, they take months of planning and design. I think this attack had been in the making for several months.”

Initial findings of a probe into the attack, released by the local prosecutor’s office, suggested that the assailants were foreign nationals.

That would seem to point the finger at Syrian refugees who have been entering Turkey as the conflict between the Assad regime in Damascus and the rebels in the country’s north has devastated Syria.

Turkish authorities have not imposed strict border checks and have generally been hospitable to the Syrian refugees. In fact, in contrast to Pakistan’s policies during the Afghan refugee crisis, the Turkish government has tried to integrate the refugees who have been able to reach Istanbul. Child­ren are automatically enrolled in state-run schools and other benefits are available to families who register themselves.

However, analysts like Mr Ulgen believe that stricter checks on those crossing the borders are needed, and that Turkey’s intelligence services must launch a more active information gathering initiative against IS.

Meanwhile, residents in Istanbul were out and about on Wednesday, as markets and businesses remained open. And unlike Karachi there was no palpable sense of dread or fear; a sign that despite the recent attacks the trust of the people on the writ of the state remained strong.

However, this did not mean that the Turkish authorities were doing everything right, Mr Ulgen said. “I think Turkey did initially vacillate over taking action against Daesh (IS), but that was more due to concerns regarding the PKK rather than any sympathies. That policy has now changed with the deal with the US over the use of Incirlik base (for drone and aircraft bombing raids) against IS, in which Turkey is actively participating.

“But more action needs to be taken against Daesh supporters in the country, and a mechanism must be worked out to combat their growing propaganda.”

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2016

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