June 29, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Terror in Istanbul

• An attack involving three men with suicide vests and semi-automatic rifles at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul left at least 36 people dead and more than 140 wounded

• There were no immediate claims of responsibility, though Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that the Islamic State was responsible

• If the Islamic State is indeed the culprit, it would mirror the Brussels’ airport attack of March 2016; this recent attack comes on the two-year anniversary of the group’s caliphate declaration

• Already struggling with Kurdish and Islamic State threats, Turkey will likely see more domestic attacks as it seeks to repair foreign ties.


The June 28 terrorist attack at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul, one of the world’s busiest, is the latest in a string of attacks in Turkey that have killed several hundreds and wounded many more. No group has yet claimed credit for the attack at the airport, which killed at least 36 people and wounded 140. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that the attack was the work of the so-called Islamic State, which has carried out several attacks in Turkey in the past year, as have various Kurdish terrorist groups.

A sign of how troubled Turkey’s domestic security has become is that there is no shortage of plausible suspects: it would equally unsurprising if the culprit was the Islamic State or Kurdish militants. Still, the attack is somewhat similar to the March 22 attack at the Brussels airport, in which multiple attackers detonated explosives on the periphery of the security zone. The lines at enhanced security are now prime targets for terrorists. Rapid action to counter the threat in Istanbul appears to have mitigated the loss of life, as police quickly opened fire on the attackers.

Turkey has become a prime target for the Islamic State in the last year. It has been mentioned several times in the group’s English-language magazine, Dabiq; President Erdogan was featured on the cover of issue 11. The timing is also suggestive of—but does not prove—Islamic State involvement. The attack comes during the month of Ramadan, a time in which the Islamic State has specifically called for its supporters to carry out attacks wherever possible

Militarily, the Islamic State is facing defeat across multiple battlefields. One of the key factors in the push by U.S.-supported forces against the Islamic State in the northern Syrian town of Manbij is to finally close off the 'Manbij Pocket’ from which nearly all Islamic State foreign fighters heading north depart. Retaking Manbij will help stem, but not solve, the foreign fighter exodus from Syria into Turkey and beyond.

The attack also came on the eve of the second anniversary of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. The June 29, 2014 announcement came as the group was at its peak, and was on the verge of becoming a true proto-terror state in Syria and Iraq. After two years, the group is facing military defeat and is currently sliding back down the scale from proto-state to insurgency to terrorist group. Attacks such as the one in Istanbul will become more common as the group shifts its targets to match its capabilities. Unable to seize territory, the group will attack soft and symbolic targets. Turkey's proximity to Syria ensures that it will be a prime target for the foreseeable future. 


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