IS Prime Suspect After Suicide Bombers Kill 41 at Istanbul Airport

ISTANBUL (Reuters) -
Police officers patrol at Turkey's largest airport, Istanbul Ataturk, following yesterday's blast June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Police officers patrol at Turkey’s largest airport, Ataturk in Istanbul, Wednesday morning, following Tuesday’s blast. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)

Turkish investigators pored over video footage and witness statements on Wednesday after three suspected Islamic State suicide bombers opened fire and then blew themselves up in Istanbul’s main airport, killing 41 people and wounding over 200.

The attack on Europe’s third-busiest airport was one of the deadliest in a series of suicide bombings in recent months in Turkey, a nation that is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State and struggling to contain spillover from neighboring Syria’s war.

President Tayyip Erdogan said the attack should serve as a turning point in the global fight against terrorism, which he said had “no regard for faith or values.”

One terrorist opened fire in the departures hall with an automatic rifle, sending passengers diving for cover and trying to flee, before all three blew themselves up in or around the arrivals hall a floor below, witnesses and officials said.

Video footage showed one of the attackers inside the terminal building being shot, apparently by a police officer, before falling to the ground as people fled. The terrorist then blew himself up around 20 seconds later.

“It’s a jigsaw puzzle … The authorities are going through CCTV footage, witness statements,” a Turkish official said.

The Dogan news agency said autopsies on the three bombers had been completed and that they may have been foreign nationals, but did not cite its sources.

Broken ceiling panels littered the curb outside the arrivals section of the international terminal. Entire plates of glass had shattered, exposing the inside of the building, and electric cables dangled from the ceiling. Cleanup crews swept up debris and armed police patrolled as flights resumed.

“This attack, targeting innocent people, is a vile, planned terrorist act,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters at the scene in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

“There is initial evidence that each of the three suicide bombers blew themselves up after opening fire,” he said. The terrorists came to the airport by taxi and preliminary findings point to Islamic State.

Two U.S. counterterrorism officials familiar with the early stages of investigations said Islamic State was at the top of the list of suspects even though there was no evidence yet.

No group had claimed responsibility more than 12 hours after the attack, which began about 9:50 p.m. on Tuesday.

Istanbul’s position bridging Europe and Asia has made Ataturk airport, Turkey’s largest, a major transit hub for passengers across the world. A Ukrainian and an Iranian were among the dead, officials from the two countries said. Saudi media said seven Saudis were among the wounded.

“There were little babies crying, people shouting, broken glass and blood all over the floor. It was very crowded, there was chaos. It was traumatic,” said Diana Eltner, 29, a Swiss psychologist who was travelling from Zurich to Vietnam but had been diverted to Istanbul after she missed a connection.

Delayed travelers were sleeping on floors at the airport, a Reuters witness said, as some passengers and airport staff cried and hugged each other. Police in kevlar vests with automatic weapons prowled the curbside as a handful of travelers and Turkish Airlines crew trickled in.

The national carrier said it had cancelled 340 flights, although its departures did resume after 8:00 a.m.

The attack bore similarities to a suicide bombing by Islamic State terrorists at Brussels airport in March that killed 16 people. A coordinated attack also targeted a rush-hour metro train, killing a further 16 people in the Belgian capital.

The two U.S. officials said the Istanbul bombing was more typical of Islamic State than of Kurdish terror groups which have also carried out recent attacks in Turkey, but usually strike official government targets.

One of the officials said there had been a “marked increase” in encrypted Islamic State propaganda and communications on what is called the dark web, meaning, online terror information that is only accessible to group members. Some American officials interpret this increase as an IS effort to direct or inspire more attacks outside its home turf, in an attempt to offset its recent losses on the ground.

Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing the investigation, which they said is being led by Turkish officials with what they called intelligence support from the United States and other NATO allies.