Saturday, July 2nd, 2016

Under-reporting the Istanbul airport bombing: Missing the forest and the trees

Rushda Siddiqui | July 2, 2016 1:08 pm Print
Istanbul's Ataturk airport was rocked by explosions and gunfire this week. It was the fourth terror attack in Turkey since the beginning of 2016. As the death toll keeps rising, the Turkish government prepares for a crackdown on the terrorists. World leaders have been issuing statements condemning the incident. Muslims leadership across the world has gone on an apology overdrive denouncing the attack as being un-Islamic says Rushda Siddiqui

istanbul-attack-11While the Turkish government and mainstream media focus on the ISIL being responsible for the attack, their focus remains on the international character of the ISIL, its ruthlessness in killing people from different parts of the world irrespective of their religion, disregard for Islam, the terror technique of shooting and bombing and the attempt of the ISIL to de-stabilize the region.

The focus has also been on the striking similarity between the Belgian and the Istanbul airport bombing.

The fallout and the repercussions have been predictable. The West casually mentioned the tragedy and focused again on the monster that the ISIL had grown into.

It took only a couple of days of expression of regret for the lives lost.

Istanbul Airport after attack

Predictably, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is being held responsible for lack of security checks of the refugees from Syria, the unresolved Kurdish crisis and being socially conservative that has led Turkey moving further away from its Western supporters and allies, and taken the country on a path of conflict with religious fundamentalist forces across the region.

The country has been witnessing a spate of violent attacks and clashes with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the ISIL since the beginning of 2016.

While most of the issues and allegations are true, viewing them in isolation and as independent variables makes for an extremely distorted picture.

There are a host of developments before and after the bombing that needs to be understood to put the Ataturk airport attack in context.

To begin with, the term of Erdoğan from his being the Prime Minister to being the president has witnessed many changes in the internal and external relations of Turkey.

Erdogan bridge

The external relations, in particular, have swung like a pendulum changing friends and foes over the decade.

In a fast changing regional dynamics, Turkey found itself partly flowing with the stream and then swimming against the current.

The rejection by EU sent it to the path of nationalism and fundamentalism that made its foreign policy one of strengthening relations with its hostile neighbours.

The years between 2003-2016, however, saw volatile changes in the region, including the rise of the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), its split and the emergence of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

In 2013, Turkey was one of the first countries to identify and declare the ISIL as a terrorist group.

It was also one of the first countries to declare armed hostility to the Islamic State as it found roots in Iraq and grew into Syria in 2013.

A major driving force for the declaration was the attempt of the government to return to the European fold.

If being part of NATO was a step closer to strategic partnership with Europe, identification and being allies in a war on common enemies was the second step to closer economic-political and social integration.

Moreover, the constant instability in Iraq and Syria had been responsible for major economic declines in Turkey.

While Turkey has not been extremely vocal about the influx of refugees from the conflict ridden region and has housed thousands of them from Afghanistan to Syria to Palestine, it has been finding it difficult to cope with the rapid influx.

As a result of its over-stretched resources and staff, the terrorists have successfully fallen through the cracks as was visible in the Brussels bombing and now in the Ataturk airport bombing.

Moreover, the constant clashes with the PKK and the homegrown fundamentalists had been diverting national resources away from the development projects.

Collaborating with the US in keeping the northern Syrian border in check, and tying up with the European partners in managing the refugee crisis, went a long way in strengthening the economy and ensuring that Turkey’s standing in the global economy did not fall any further and its stock market position got strengthened.

The most important point about the Ataturk airport bombing is the declaration of the ongoing war between ISIL and Turkey by the former. While skirmishes between the two have been taking place since 2014, it was in May of this year that the conflict became more intense.

The timing of the airport bombing could not have been more perfect for the ISIL to make its point. It happened with hours of the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey after a six year break in relations.

On June 27, as the two countries exchanged notes to revive and improve their strategic and economic relations with the tacit approval of the Palestinian authorities and Hamas, the retaliation was imminent.

While the world waits about the details of the international outreach of the ISIL in its war with Turkey, it is the next stage of battle that would determine the outcome of the war.

As Turkey makes it very clear that the ISIL recruits belonged to every nationality but its own, it seeks the co-operation of all the countries involved (Russian and Uzbek among others) to support its efforts in changing the government in Syria.

With the inclusion of Israel in the list of allies, the conflict seems geared to being decidedly in favour of Turkey.

By ignoring the understanding of the fundamentalist dynamics of Turkey, the media and the strategic analysts would be making the mistake of trying to fit the complexity into a known paradigm.


It is to the credit of Erdogan and Davutoglu that the region has evolved its own understanding of religion, nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

The significance of the decision in 2013 to take on the other fundamentalists in the region came under the aegis of the two, who are themselves seen as hard line religious fundamentalists.

The clash is between the Turkish fundamentalists who have legitimate state power to back them and the largest non-state fundamentalist in ISIL.

It is the dimensions of this conflict that will have far more over-reaching consequences in the region than any other conflict.

Rushda Siddiqui
Rushda Siddiqui
Rushda Siddiqui is the Co-ordinator of Research with the Humanities Trust. Her area of specialization is the socio-political dynamics of change in West Asia and North Africa.