No organization has yet taken responsibility for the attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul in which at least 41 people were killed, but it’s hard not to see the hand of the Islamic State. The complexity of the terror operation and the previous series of similar attacks, directed at targets that combined both symbols of the Turkish state and Western civilians, all point to the same source.
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This attack also recalls the one against Brussels' airport three months ago. Three suicide bombers hid explosives in suitcases to create a series of explosions and maximize the carnage, but from a security point of view they were very different targets.
Entering the terminal building in Brussels was relatively easy for the attackers, as there were no security checkpoints at the entrances. To enter Ataturk’s terminals, you have to go through a metal detector and all luggage is scanned. That would seem to be the reason the attackers first opened fire on the entrance and one of the bombers blew himself up, clearing the way for the next two bombers.
Security experts disagree over the best location for checkpoints and the size of the “sterile area” around air-transport operations. It’s hard to reach clear-cut conclusions by comparing the two attacks.
Most Western airports impose strict security only on a limited area, usually after the check-in stage, deep inside the terminal building, where they carry out one stage of checks. Turkey, Russia and other countries that have experienced multiple terror attacks in recent decades have checkpoints at the entrances as well. (Ben-Gurion Airport has an even wider multilayer system with checkpoints already on the roads leading to the airport.)
Security is not the sole consideration. The management companies that own the airports want the processing of passengers to be swift and efficient, allowing people more time for shopping in the duty-free area by the gates, minimizing delays and keeping security costs down.
The high number of casualties at Ataturk proves that even a wider security net loses some of its efficiency when challenged by a well-organized group capable of bringing to a high-value target a number of attackers equipped with weapons and explosives.
This is where the attack in Istanbul resembles those in Brussels and Paris – the Islamic State’s operational success is based not only on the daring of its fighters, but also on the much earlier stages of planning and logistics.
Istanbul is over 900 kilometers (560 miles) from the closest point on the Turkey-Syria border where the Islamic State has bases. Turkey’s intelligence and security services are well-experienced in counterterrorism and have been working for months to locate and arrest the ISIS cells operating in its territory. (Previously they were more likely to turn a blind eye and even cooperate with the Islamic State.)
This cannot be said for the security services in Belgium and some of its European allies. But both countries, despite no lack of warnings, have failed to prevent the Islamic State from reaching its targets.
The previous attacks in Turkey were carried out by local citizens who had joined the Islamic State, just as the attacks in France and Belgium were the work of young French and Belgian Muslims who had been radicalized. This has become ISIS’ unique advantage – its ability to operate far from its bases in Syria and Iraq, using terror cells and networks of helpers who were all born and raised in the target countries.
In the United States, attacks were carried out in the Islamic State’s name by “lone wolves” or freelancers, radicalized online from afar but without the networks and logistical support available to attackers in Turkey and Western Europe.
Beyond local security failings, it seems the main problem in facing the Islamic State concerns the ability of intelligence and security agencies to swiftly and efficiently pass on information about potential attackers - between themselves and between different countries. Turkey, a conduit of weapons and fighters to Syria, which has only very recently begun improving its problematic relations with Israel, the European Union and other countries also fighting the Islamic State like Russia and Egypt, is still the weakest link in the crucial cooperation needed.