Empty Streets, Fear on Day After Terror Attack at Istanbul Airport

According to a senior Turkish official, at least one of the attackers is a foreign national. A senior security source says all three were possibly foreigners.

Relatives of a flight attendant killed in the Ataturk airport attack pray at her funeral in Istanbul, June 29, 2016.
Bulent Kilic, AFP

ISTANBUL - Two South American tourists exit the taxi of Darwish Fargul, a veteran driver from Istanbul, at the entrance to Istanbul Ataturk Airport, where three suicide bombers blew themselves up less than 24 hours ago, killing 41 people. “Taksim Square is almost empty,” Fargul tells Haaretz, referring to where he picked up the tourists. “We’re not afraid of the situation, and we’re strong enough, but it wouldn’t be correct to say that what’s been happening recently in Turkey is a normal situation.”

Although he claims that the government and the security forces are doing their job and trying to stop the situation from deteriorating, he adds that not everything depends on them — certainly not the number of tourists or their sense of security. “In my opinion there’s a decline of 50 percent in the number of tourists. Taksim Square and Istiklal Street [a major shopping area] are almost empty.”

A visit to Taksim Square in the city center does find it almost empty. That may be because of the holy month of Ramadan, but a young man selling pretzels from a wagon says that the number of tourists at this spot is low even compared to the average during the holiday. The yellow taxis stand in a long line, waiting for hours for a passenger, and mainly locals sit in the restaurants. Due to people’s fear of being in crowded places, there are few riders in the subway.

Policemen walk around the city holding their automatic weapons in an attempt to provide a sense of security, and there is an increased presence of security guards as one nears the airport. But despite the reinforcements, the first inspections of those entering the airport are conducted only at the entrance to the terminal. Would the Israeli security model, which includes profiling, would be possible here? “We can’t change in a moment. The Israeli system won’t necessarily work in Turkey,” an airport security guard claims.

Large teams of cleaning personnel, laborers and glass and plaster contractors have been trying since the morning to eliminate any trace of the attack, which left almost no glass windows intact and damaged the stalls which offer souvenirs, cell phones and car rentals. Despite the chaos, employees arrived for work today as usual and found themselves making car and hotel reservations without any glass partitions separating them from the customers.

Mustafa Erkon of the BAF travel agency sits with two idle friends in his office, located inside the terminal. “In any case there isn’t much work” because of Ramadan, he says. “For us, Tuesday's incident is only a continuation of something bad that’s been happening recently. Those who came in here today to take a hotel room or to rent a car are mainly businessmen. But our real test will be after Ramadan, when we’ll know to what degree tourism in Turkey has really been damaged, and whether we’re in a new situation.”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim admitted Tuesday in a television address that one of the terrorists who committed the attack succeeded in entering the terminal before blowing himself up. Previously it had been reported that the terrorists, who also fired weapons, had blown themselves up outside the terminal.

According to a senior Turkish official, at least one of the attackers is a foreign national. A senior security source told AP that it was possible that all three were foreigners.

Turkish flags, with the control tower in the background, fly at half mast at the country's largest airport, Istanbul Ataturk, June 29, 2016.
Murad Sezer, Reuters

One person who thinks that there is no need to wait until the end of Ramadan in order to understand the extent of the damage is a journalist from a Turkish channel who has been at the entrance to the airport since Tuesday's incident, running back and forth among the passersby, dragging her photographer along behind her. “Most people are saying that they’re satisfied with the way Turkey is handling the situation,” she says. “But in Turkey they distinguish between attacks by the Kurdish underground and attacks by the Islamic State.”

She hastens to explain herself in order not to sound as though she justifies the motivation behind the Kurdish attacks. “In eastern Turkey we have a problem with the Kurds. In Turkey no attack is seen as an excuse to start doing something. But as opposed to ISIS, the Kurds have leadership, and we know what they want. A significant percentage of the Turkish people believe that the problem with the Kurds can be solved through diplomacy.”

Local media outlets reported that Turkish police had arrested six people suspected of involvement in the attack, but a senior Turkish official denied that there had been any such arrests.

She adds that “nobody will blame the government for the attack that took place Tuesday, because ISIS is a problem everywhere in the world, all over Europe. We are participating in a problem that at the moment has no solution anywhere in the world. This is an extremist group that wants to sow fear and destruction, a group without leadership, without an ability to talk and without any concrete requests, so that in attacks perpetrated by ISIS there is far more unity surrounding the country and the army.”

At the same time, Turkish Airlines is trying to find solutions for the tourists who got stuck at the airport. Every few moments an airline representative emerges with a list of passengers and announces a flight setting off in a specific direction, or the name of a hotel for those who must continue waiting.

“I’ve been here since 11 P.M. I came from Izmir because they didn’t let us land, and now we’ve been waiting for hours already without anyone telling us when we’re returning,” says Avraham Israeli, an Israeli living in South Africa who is waiting for his flight home. “Now we were told that until Friday we’ll stay in the hotel at the airport. It’s not simple, there are children and adults here who want to return and it’s hard for them to run from one hotel to another.”

As is the case everywhere in the world, in Turkey too local rubberneckers come to stand next to the television crews scattered inside and outside the terminal in order to shout and to express their feelings. “We aren’t afraid and it’s important that they understand that,” translates one of the Turkish journalists for an irritable Turkish citizen who is standing next to him and yelling. “It’s an attempt to scare the Turkish people, but we aren’t afraid, we’re continuing with our routine and our lives.”