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Jun 28, 2016 | 20:37 GMT

3 mins read

An Attack on Turkey's Airport, and Its Ambitions

An Attack on Turkey's Airport, and Its Ambitions
(MEHMET ALI POYRAZ/Getty Images)

Many details are unclear and the situation is evolving, but an attack at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport has wounded at least 60 people and killed 28 others. Three suicide bombers, at least one of whom was reportedly wielding a Kalashnikov, entered the airport's international departures area. When police tried to stop the bombers from passing a security checkpoint, the assailants detonated their explosives.

Turkey has grappled with three separate strands of terrorist threats, including Kurdish militant groups. But the attack's target — one of the world's busiest airports — suggests that the Islamic State is likely responsible. Staging a dramatic attack during the final days of Ramadan offers a theatrical means to convey anti-state and anti-Western sentiment. Over the past several months, Turkey has witnessed a number of major suicide attacks against tourist targets in metropolitan cities. The Islamic State carried out suicide attacks outside Ankara's central railway station in October 2015, in Istanbul's Sultanahmet Square in January and on Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue on March 19. In striking popular tourist attractions, the attacks differed from those executed by Kurdish groups around the same time on government and military targets.

The assault on Istanbul's bustling airport, particularly during the busy summer travel season, is a significant blow to the Turkish government. Ankara has tried to position its national airline as a competitor to the world's leading carriers, and Turkish Airlines' ambitious plans to expand worldwide hinge on Istanbul's security and efficiency as a hub. The attack will only further deepen Ankara's resolve to preserve the anti-terrorism legislation that has become a sticking point in EU negotiations over the migrant crisis, visa liberalization and accession talks. Moreover, the attack will likely further impair Turkey's tourism industry, which accounts for 12 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The Culture and Tourism Ministry reported June 28 that visits to Turkey fell by 34.7 percent in May, the largest drop registered since the 1990s. Turkey's security concerns will remain a key deterrent to tourists, particularly in light of the airport attack.

Tension between Moscow and Ankara has harmed Turkey's tourism industry as well. Since relations between Russia and Turkey soured in late 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian jet, Russian tourists have kept their distance. Now that the countries are back on speaking terms, Turkey hopes to revive Russian tourism in the country. The countries' tepid reconciliation also raises the question of whether Turkey will pursue its long-standing plans to intervene in northern Syria. Islamic State attacks give Turkey a pressing reason to extend its operations across the border, where Ankara would like to contain the Kurdish People's Protection Units. But it can risk doing so only if it first reaches a tactical understanding with Russia. Turkey has rounded up Islamic State militants from the North Caucasus in Russia — another key point that will drive Turkey toward enhancing intelligence cooperation with Russia.

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