‘Too close to home,’ is how most of my friends and colleagues in Istanbul described the attack at the city’s main airport. I feel the same. I fly in or out of Ataturk International airport a few times every month for work. I know its entrances and exits, the security barriers and shops, like the back of my hand. So when I saw the videos which emerged of the blast soon after, it’s like seeing the street I live on being blown up.
But I’ve been trying to work out why this attack feels more personal. Why it seems to have touched a nerve for me and so many other expats. After all, the bombs which killed 15 in the Sultanahmet tourist area and on the main drag, Istiklal, earlier this year are physically far closer to my home. Both caused fear but were soon shrugged off. The reaction to this attack is more pronounced.
For me it’s because the many other onslaughts have felt opportunistic. A lone wolf taking a punt. I don’t mean to demean the loss of life suffered at Sultanahmet and Istiklal, but after each one, conversations with colleagues often veered towards questioning why the bomber had detonated the device there and at those times. Had they panicked? Was this blast supposed to be more of a threat than an attempt to kill? Because in both instances the dead toll was, for the explosion, low. And had the suicide bombers wanted to cause the sort of carnage seen in the Ankara last October, it would have been easy.
Though both blasts happened in areas frequented by tourists, it still felt as if this was a message for the Turkish Government, rather than a desire for mass loss of life. The most recent attack was clearly different. It targeted the main airport and it was co-ordinated. Eye-witnesses have spoken about three attackers who opened fire before blowing themselves up. Suddenly this doesn’t feel like an insurrection against oppression; it’s more reminiscent of what happened in Brussels and Paris.
Turkey is under assault from various groups. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, better known as TAK, have said they were behind some of the incidents, while others have been placed squarely on the shoulders of Isis. But a number have yet to be claimed. The politics is so difficult and tense in the country, the finger could point in a number of directions.
There’s also a question about the timing of this attack. It came hours after Turkey’s President had made a very calculated move to begin the process of healing a rift with Russia and normalisation of ties with Israel. Relationships with both countries has been difficult of late, but the olive branch to Putin on Monday was significant. Numerous industries in Turkey have been bearing the brunt of the diplomatic breakdown which followed the shooting down of a Russian plane last year, killing the pilots.
Russians traditionally accounted for a big portion of tourists in Turkey, lured by cheap package holidays. They have been sorely missed in resorts like Bodrum and Antalya this year. Without them, bookings have been down in some areas by 90 per cent, hitting the pockets of an industry which accounts for a third of jobs here. Just as it looked like some sort of normalisation could return, Ataturk happened.
You can’t enter a shopping centre in Turkey without your typical airport type screening. At actual airports the security is far tighter. There are barriers before the terminal, bags are screened at the entrance and there is plenty of security around. So targeting an airport takes time and preparation. This is why I think the blast hits closer to home. Because now I’m left feeling that more planned events are likely and if attackers can make this look so easy, what is next? How did they manage to get assault rifles into the airport?
As the death toll rises I feel lucky that all my friends and colleagues appear to have escaped unscathed, particularly those who had a close shave, having left the area minutes before. But it feels like it’s only time before that luck runs out and one of those faces plastered all over the morning’s newspapers, is one I know well.