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Istanbul airport attack bears hallmarks of Islamic State group

Bulent Kilic, AFP | The daughter of a man killed in the Istanbul airport attack reacts as her father's coffin is carried during his funeral ceremony on June 29, 2016

The location and timing of Tuesday’s deadly attack in Istanbul’s airport suggest it was the work of the Islamic State group, even if the jihadist organisation has never claimed responsibility for its operations in the terror-struck country.

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Turkey declared Wednesday a day of national mourning over an attack at Istanbul's Ataturk international airport that killed at least 41 people and wounded more than 230 more the previous evening.

The government in Ankara has been facing assaults from both fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and religious radicals from the Islamic State (IS) group over the past two years.

The Ataturk airport attack was the sixth attack to rock Istanbul in the past seven months. Some of those have been claimed by Kurdish separatists, while others have been blamed on IS group militants. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s carnage, but Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said "the evidence points to Daesh", using an Arabic name for the IS group.

Experts said the attack was unprecedented in scale and agreed that it bore the hallmarks of the jihadist movement, from the decision to use suicide explosive belts to the targeting of foreign travellers.

“Targeting the airport is very important. The airport is the sixth biggest in Europe and the twelfth biggest worldwide. It is a very significant and symbolic place,” said Jana Jabbour, an associate researcher at Sciences Po CERI. “The intention here is to hurt Turkey’s image abroad.”

“The timing is also significant. It comes near the end of Ramadan, when people from European countries are likely to head to Turkey for the summer holiday. The message is clearly ‘don’t come to Turkey, it is a dangerous country’,” Jabbour noted.

“The attack was meant to put pressure on the government. The aim was to damage the already fragile tourism industry and push Ankara to cease all cooperation with Washington,” said Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey at the London-based Chatham House.

He expressed little doubt that any other group besides the IS group could be behind the bloody incident: “The Islamic State [group] has been very careful to target foreign tourists and avoid going after any institution that is directly linked to the Turkish state.”

No claims

Sciences Po’s Jabbour said it was not completely clear why the IS group had never claimed responsibility for their operations in Turkish territory, but said it was a practice that was being replicated elsewhere.

Video: A year of terror attacks in Turkey

As many as eight suicide bombers detonated their explosives in the northern Lebanese city of Qaa, near the border with Syria, on Monday. The attackers killed five people and injured 30 others in the mainly Christian village, yet there was no claim of responsibility.

“Maybe it’s a new position to keep attacks ambiguous,” Jabbour said of the attacks in Turkey blamed on the IS group. “They leave the possibility open, the idea that perhaps it’s the PKK. Not being able to determine the perpetrator keeps Ankara lost and torn apart.”

Better relations

Jabbour thinks the brazen attack on the Istanbul airport will provoke an even tougher response from PM Yildirim and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but wondered what additional counter-terrorism resources the leaders could summon.

“They are already doing everything they can. They have increased the response of the army, of the intelligence services, and asking for cooperation with the international community. There is not much more left for them to do,” said Jabbour.

Chatham House’s Hakura said Turkey will struggle for a long time to “extricate itself from the Syrian and Iraqi quagmires” or to avoid the blowback from those nearby conflicts.

Both Hakura and Jabbour said improving relations with regional countries formerly seen as enemies – including Russia, Iran and Israel – was one of the few cards Ankara had left to play. “This will not resolve the security problems, but it will minimise Turkey’s growing challenges,” Hakura said.

A push for rapprochement indeed already appears to be under way.

Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Wednesday sought to heal ties in their first telephone exchange since Ankara downed one of Moscow's jets in Syria last year.

A statement from the Turkish presidency said Erdogan and Putin “highlighted the importance of the normalisation of bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia” during the call.

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