Airport Attack in Istanbul: Can Turkey keep its citizens safe?

By Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

A series of deadly explosions tore through crowds at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport early yesterday evening, one of the busiest ports in the world. The blasts left at least 41 people dead and scores injured, including Iraqi, Saudi, Tunisian, Ukrainian and Iranian citizens, in scenes described to Independent Turkey as “chaos” and “total carnage”.

Carnage in the aftermath of last night’s bombing. Source: Reuters/Murad Sezer

Emergency services arrive to deal with the carnage in the aftermath of last night’s bombing. Source: Reuters/Murad Sezer

There have been no immediate claims of responsibility, however unconfirmed reports, including from the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, have indicated the involvement of the so-called Islamic State.

According to Turkish authorities, three attackers opened fire at airport guards at the terminal entrance and a shootout erupted. The attackers subsequently blew themselves up one by one, the final explosion occurring at around 9pm.

Security camera footage quickly circulated on social media appeared to capture two of the blasts. In one clip, a huge ball of flames erupted at the entrance to the terminal building, scattering terrified passengers. Another video shows a black-clad attacker running inside the building before collapsing to the ground – seemingly hit by a police bullet – and blowing himself up. Following the first two bombings, an eyewitness told Independent Turkey that “we are still under attack” and “the whole building is shaking” as the third bomber detonated.

President Erdoğan has called for a joint fight against terror after the attack. In his statement he said that; “If states, as all humanity, fail to join forces and wage a joint fight against terrorist organisations, all the possibilities that we dread in our minds will come true one by one and it is clear that this attack is not aimed at achieving any result but only to create propaganda material against our country using simply the blood and pain of innocent people.”

The Airport has reopened its doors on Wednesday morning as investigation continues,  however it is increasingly difficult to obtain information on the attack due to the broadcast ban, put in place just a few hours after the attack.

Turkey has been rocked by a string of terror attacks over the past year, weathering bombing campaigns by the so called Islamic State and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK – who some believe to be a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; whereas others argue is a separate organisation).

The Istanbul Atatürk Airport attack is worryingly only the tenth deadliest terror attack in Turkey over the past year. In this period, up to 300 people have lost their lives and more than 1,000 have been wounded in devastating attacks in Ankara, İstanbul and Bursa, not to mention the ongoing conflict with the state in the Kurdish south east. Who knows how many other attacks were prevented in one way or another?

It is becoming increasing difficult not to ask ourselves controversial questions in this dismal atmosphere; notably, why did all these attacks start after the June 2015 elections? What is the exact relationship between these attacks and Turkey’s foreign policy strategies as it becomes more and more embroiled in the catastrophic Syrian civil war? Why does the government increasingly concern itself with inconsequential issues such as Academics for Peace or the Gülen movement, rather than the Islamic State and TAK? And moreover, why does the government and the President give priority to the conversion of the parliamentary system to a presidential one instead of pursuing logical, and evidently necessary, anti-terrorism and security measures? In the context of the latest attack, this final question becomes most pressing.

At this point one may argue that it is impossible to define Turkey as a stable country, an argument that has come to the fore given the EU’s controversial one-for-one refugee deal and the debatable declaration of Turkey as a ‘safe third country’. Because of lack of intelligence and erroneous politicized perceptions of security, the country is falling into a vacuum of international crime and terror. Furthermore, disengagement from politics, widespread corruption, a moral breakdown and rampant societal polarization have been gradually increasing in Turkey.

In a particularly telling example of this, immediately after the Atatürk Airport attack, the Turkish Parliament was busy passing a bill which would allow the President to fully control the upper echelons of the judiciary. Despite a lack of accountability, a serious apology or resignations from the government, the Prime Minister defined the deceased as martyrs. To suggest that the victims were “martyred” is to suggest that they were somehow enlisted willingly in some sort of armed struggle; but martyrs for what, and in who’s war?

The normalization of this kind of violence was evident immediately. Airport taxi drivers wanted 100 Turkish Liras per person to transport victims away from the Airport, (almost five times more than the regular price). Social media was plastered with photos showing Turkish citizens listlessly playing cards as the devastating news about the attack unfolded on the TV behind them.

Following yesterday’s trauma, the governing party’s parliamentary majority rejected an opposition motion to investigate the attacks. This, at a time when the country is crying out for answers and is in clear need of a security apparatus capable and willing to prevent catastrophes such as this one.

As demonstrated in this case, the ruling administration seems reluctant to investigate these kinds of attacks, perhaps fearing it will be accused of negligence or held accountable for not doing more to prevent attacks from occurring. A common refrain among government officials after these kinds of terrorist attacks has become: “Kınıyoruz” or “Lanetliyoruz,” which means “We Condemn” and “We curse”. But as responses on Turkish social media reveal, many citizens have begun to ask; “All right, you’ve cursed the attacks. Now what?”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but under these circumstances, unfortunately, it appears that Turkey is standing on a precipice. To descend any further may see this country, once a flagship of democracy in the Middle East, collapse as a failing state. A state in which the government has lost political authority and control, unable to fulfil one of the basic responsibilities of a sovereign state: security.


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