In Sultanahmet, many locals looked on in disbelief as the tourist district struggled to come to terms with a bomb which shook the city to the core. Police quickly cordoned off the sight of the explosion and imposed a blanket media ban, and much of the touristic area was empty of the usual throngs of tourists. The Turkish PM, Ahmet Davutoğlu, announced that all the victims of the suicide attack were foreigners, with most of them believed to be German.
Citizens across Istanbul reportedly felt the impact of the blast as far away as the Asian side of Istanbul, indicating the scale of the bomb. The government claimed that the suicide bomber was a 28-year-old Syrian national named Nabil Fadli who was born in Saudi Arabia. The Deputy PM Numan Kurtulmuş told reporters that he had entered Turkey from Syrian soil recently.
The confusion on the precise details of the blast continued due to the media ban, forcing television channels to halt broadcasting in Sultanahmet as factual evidence surrounding the incident continued to be revealed. The main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, chastised the government for imposing such a ban: “A suicide bomb explodes in a place like Istanbul, at the heart of tourism in Sultanahmet, and you impose a ban on reporting even before ambulances arrive [on the scene]. This is a disaster. This government is not able to rule the country.”
A target on Turkey’s tourist industry?
Ever since the downing of the Russian jet on the Syrian border in November, the number of Russian tourists has declined, who had previously holidayed in Turkey in large numbers. Many fear that this latest attack will also lead to a sharp decline in German tourists, who make up the single largest nationality of tourists in Turkey.
“It is a disaster for tourism and business as less people will come to our shop,” said Ahmet who runs a local gift shop opposite the sight of explosion. “We were talking to some British customers when we heard the bomb explosion, and it was a shock for all of us. This time last year a police station was attacked, and now they target our historical sights killing many tourists. This country is getting worse.”
Some locals appeared more upbeat. “It won’t affect tourism here in Turkey in the long-term,” said Murat, who runs a tour agency in the heart of Sultanahmet, “ISIS-related bombs are happening across the whole of Europe, people will have completely forgotten about this bomb in a couple of months.”
Despite the clear lack of tourists, there was a surprising spirit of defiance in the old city, with people united in swiftly moving on from the explosion. A feeling persists that Turkish citizens are growing more indifferent to the frequent suicide bombs that have rocked Turkey, coupled with a belief that the ongoing conflict in Syria means that they don’t expect an end to the carnage anytime soon.
Is ISIS Changing Tactics in Turkey?
Before the Istanbul explosion, ISIS were the perpetuators behind two deadly suicide bomb attacks, in Suruç and Ankara, killed 34 and 100 people respectively in July and October. The Suruç attack led to the breakdown of the peace process between Ankara and the PKK, whilst the Ankara bomb targeted pro-Kurdish activists attending a peace rally.
However, unlike Suruç and Ankara, this explosion directly targeted tourists in a central tourist spot. Both Suruç and Ankara targeted pro-Kurdish leftists groups attending demonstrations against the government, and thus the Sultanahmet suicide bomb marks the first time ISIS have targeted non-Kurdish targets on Turkish soil. The precise reason behind the targeting of tourists in Istanbul remains clear, but targeting Turkey’s economic interests appears the primary aim. Turkey has recently joined the anti-ISIS coalition bombing campaign in Syria, as well as using artillery against ISIS positions.
Since the breakdown of the peace talks between the PKK and Ankara, the security situation in the Kurdish-majority south-east has rapidly deteriorated, with hundreds of civilians being killed due to the escalation of the conflict. One Kurdish carpet-seller, who sells his rugs near the Grand Bazaar near Sultanahmet, expressed sadness at the sole focus on the Istanbul bomb compared to the daily deaths of Kurdish civilians trapped under indefinite curfews in the south-east.