Istanbul airport

Image courtesy of Reuters

Dozens Arrested After
Airport Attacks

| published July 1, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

In the wake of terror attacks which left at least 44 dead and more than 150 injured, Turkish police and security have cracked down on suspected terrorist cells, launching a wave of arrests in the days after ISIS-linked militants opened fire with machine guns and detonated explosive vests at the crowded Ataturk International Airport near Istanbul.

Turkish law enforcement arrested at least 14 people on Thursday, detained some 30 others, interviewed hundreds of people, and announced that more arrests may soon follow. At least three others suspected as being part of the planning of the airport attack are being sought by Turkish police and security. The arrests of ISIS suspects were retribution for the massacre at Ataturk, even though the Islamic State has not officially taken credit for the attacks, now believed to be have been carried out by militants originally from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In separate round-ups in coastal and border cities, police arrested other individuals known to have associated with ISIS operatives.

Despite the Islamic State’s apparent reluctance to take credit, Turkish police, as well as intelligence groups in the U.S. and U.K., have concluded that the attack fits the profile of an ISIS-managed or ISIS-planned assault. The well-devised Ataturk attack also bears a striking resemblance to the way ISIS coordinated and executed major recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

Additionally, on late Thursday, numerous major media outlets were reporting that intelligence agencies in Turkey and in several European countries had uncovered direct evidence of ISIS planning in the Ataturk attacks, and that the militants who opened fire at the airport may have arrived in Turkey only three or four weeks before by way of Islamic State-controlled Raqqa, in war torn Syria.

Police believe that the attackers received training and obtained equipment, including the explosives vests detonated during the attacks, while in Syria. The attackers themselves may have been from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, regions known to have produced active terrorists in the past, and a region some analysts say is responsible for perhaps 2,000 to 4,000 hardened fighters now engaged with ISIS troops along the front lines in Iraq and Syria.

After receiving training, weapons, and explosive materials in Raqqa, the would-be terrorists travelled to Turkey, where officials believe they rented a small apartment in Istanbul—a small flat from which they engaged in surveillance of the airport by day, while preparing their explosive vests at night. At least one of the alleged terrorists left behind identification cards.

Based on this new information—as well as identification gleaned from surveillance videos and security camera footage in and around the airport—a special anti-terror unit of the Turkish national police conducted more than a dozen raids on various locations during the night and throughout the day, according to officials in Ankara. Police also interviewed scores of neighbors near the apartment allegedly used by the attackers; some who lived close to the apartment recalled the presence of a distinct chemical odor in the two or three days immediately prior to the attack. Neighbors say that the men kept to themselves, occasionally stepping outside to smoke cigarettes, but otherwise keeping the curtains closed. The owner of the apartment told police that the renters paid in advance for the use of the flat, and that the men had installed additional locks on the doors.

The airport attack was one of the bloodiest in Turkish history, though scores of survivors say that the attack could have been far worse had it not been for the brave and swift intervention of police and airport security personnel.

On Monday, three heavily armed terrorists emerged from a taxi just outside the airport in Istanbul, one of them opening fire before he had even entered the building. Taking advantage of the chaos and confusion, two others quickly entered the terminal and began firing moments later. The shootings left dozens dead within minutes, but the fast response and direct intervention of Turkish police and airport security brought a swift end to the assault: one militant was shot, the other trapped, and each detonated powerful explosives contained in vests worn around their chests and waists.

The attacks forced the closure of the airport for more than 14 hours, and spurred air traffic across Europe to be rerouted. The terror also sparked additional conversation across Europe and in the U.S. over just how reliably safe airports can be made in an age in which terrorists can strike seemingly at will and at any location.

The assault at the busy, crowded Ataturk airport were the seventh major terror incident in Turkey this year. Several of the most recent terror attacks have been sponsored by ISIS, which is now expanding its campaign of militant extremism into other countries, beyond the more or less contiguous area it controls inside parts of Syria and Iraq.

Terrorism experts worry that with the air campaign and ground campaign beginning to make modest headway—bringing about some measurable shrinkage to ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate—the Islamic State’s leadership may become more dangerous, and its recruiting methods more aggressive in seeking ways to extend terror into other countries.

U.S. officials worry that going into the July 4 weekend, many traditional American venues may become attractive targets for would-be terrorists or individuals drawn into the world of ISIS propaganda so easily found on the internet. Though most U.S. airports are considered secure, terror experts worry about the potential for attacks on so-called soft targets—locations with minimal security but with large, sometimes dense crowds.

U.S. law enforcement officials stress that although there are no credible terror threats, there is always the possibility that individuals motivated or inspired by ISIS or al Qaeda may choose to launch lone wolf attacks during a holiday weekend when potential high profile targets are numerous.

Turkey is a NATO ally and a participant in the coalition now fighting ISIS along a broad set of fronts in the Middle East. But the Turkish government is also facing complications domestically, since ISIS is not its only internal foe; the so-called Kurdistan Workers Party, made up largely of Kurdish separatists, has been waging its own campaign of terror and violent retribution for more than three years. In Iraq and Syria, and even in some parts of Turkey, Kurdish groups are among the most reliable allies of the U.S. led coalition battling the Islamic State.

Of those injured in the Ataturk airport attacks, some 90 remain in hospitals. Some with gunshot wounds are in critical condition, an indication that the death toll may yet rise again. Many with more minor injuries are expected to be released over the next few days and weeks.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Terror Attacks in Turkey Kill at Least 44; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; June 29, 2016.

FBI Director: Orlando Shooter Was Radicalized by ISIS; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 13, 2016.