June 30, 2016 | Policy Brief

Istanbul Attack Must Prompt Tougher Turkish IS Policy

Three suicide bombers attacked the Istanbul Ataturk international airport Tuesday night, killing 43 people, including 19 tourists, and leaving over 200 injured. While no organization has claimed responsibility, Turkish officials point to the Islamic State (IS) as the culprit. The attack is not only the fifth IS-linked bombing in Turkey over the last year, but the most sophisticated terror plot carried out at the country’s most tightly controlled airport. Ultimately it serves as another sign of IS’s ability to evade Turkish security and conduct complex operations inside the country.

The plot bears striking similarities to the IS attack at the Brussels airport in March. Both, for example, involved three perpetrators and attacks in two separate locations. In Istanbul, one militant detonated explosives at the airport parking lot, while two others attacked the international terminal. Similarly in Brussels, one terrorist bombed a metro station while the other two attacked the airport. Finally, in both incidents, the terrorists were not merely suicide bombers. They began their attacks with automatic weapons – opening fire on civilians first before detonating themselves.

But Ankara has more reasons to worry about IS than does Brussels. Turkey is geographically closer to IS’s core area of operations – in Tuesday’s attack the perpetrators came from the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. Turkey is also home to thousands of IS militants – with cells reportedly along the Syrian border, in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Gaziantep, and a number of other cities. Alarmingly, the perpetrators of the four previous IS-linked bombings in Turkey all hailed from the same homegrown Turkish IS cell in the southeastern province of Adiyaman.

Turkey is increasingly suffering from IS violence. Much of this, however, could have been prevented. For years, Ankara turned a blind eye to the flow of jihadists across its borders. Even when IS began to capture territories along the Turkish-Syrian frontier in early 2014, Turkey was slow to seal the border. Similarly, it failed to crack down on the smuggling of cash, weapons, and militants that freely crossed Turkey’s eastern frontier. It is no coincidence that Turkey became the destination of choice for international jihadists looking to join IS. It was against this backdrop that IS was able to establish its networks within the country. The Istanbul airport attack was therefore tragic, but far from unexpected.

After a devastating suicide attack in a border town last July, Turkey officially declared war on IS. While the Turkish military struck IS targets in Syria, the lax policies at home continued, leading to the crisis we witness today. Since Tuesday’s attack, Turkey appears to have stepped up its game. Authorities raided several suspected IS cells in Istanbul and Izmir, and border troops killed two IS suicide bombers trying to enter Turkey from Syria. Washington should cooperate closely with Ankara to ensure that Turkey’s intensified efforts to counter IS are more than merely a response to Tuesday’s tragedy, but mark a genuine and lasting policy shift.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies