The Turkish government is calling Tuesday’s bombings at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul a terrorist attack, but determining which group is responsible can be difficult in a country with multiple active extremist elements.
Exact details of the explosions were unknown, but Turkish officials say initial reports indicate “a terrorist at the international terminal entrance first opened fire with a Kalashnikov and then blew himself up.” Another report indicates there were at least two attackers and three explosions that have killed at least 28 people and injured 60, with both totals expected to rise.
Turkey, which lies to Syria’s north, has been a main access point for foreign Islamic State fighters who wish to join the group in that country. But Turkey is also battling its internal extremist element, the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, and it can take days or more for officials to verify who perpetrated a specific attack.
The PKK, which Turkey and the U.S. consider to be a terrorist organization, has increased its assaults since a truce with the government collapsed last July. The group seeks autonomy from Turkey and its attacks typically target military and other government assets. Turkey has responded by placing curfews on Kurdish areas and government forces have killed an estimated 5,000 militants.
The PKK uses bases over the border with Iraq from which to launch attacks, which has led to Turkish aerial bombardments of those areas.
Prior to Tuesday’s airport explosions, the most recent attack took place earlier this month in Istanbul when a bombing targeted a bus carrying police and killed 12 people. Several days later, a Kurdish offshoot of the PKK claimed responsibility for the attack and announced that Turkey was no longer safe for tourists.
Increasing attacks have greatly damaged the Turkish economy, which relies heavily on tourism. Some of the bombings have targeted areas frequented by foreigners and large crowds, which have scared off many visitors.
The Turkish government can be quick to blame the PKK for an attack, even when no group immediately claims responsibility. In the case of a January attack in the city of Diyarbakir which targeted a police complex, no terrorist organization took credit for a bombing that killed six people. The government blames the PKK.
That group has claimed responsibility for a March bombing in Ankara that killed 37 and another in the same city that took place in February and killed 29.
The Islamic State group, which has spread rapidly in the wake of the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, has been found responsible for several other attacks in Turkey. A January bombing in Istanbul killed 13 in a popular tourist district, and the perpetrator was identified as a member of ISIS. Another bombing in Istanbul in March killed five people, and although the Turkish government initially blamed it on the PKK, DNA evidence found the bomber to be an ISIS member of Turkish origin.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian in response to the escalation of attacks on Turkish soil. His policies restricting civil liberties and the media frustrate the West, including the U.S., which sees Turkey as a valuable strategic ally from which to wage its collective campaign against the Islamic State group. Turkey, a NATO member, joined the coalition in August 2015 as a reluctant participant, but remains distracted by eradicating the PKK.
Although both the Islamic State and the PKK are responsible for bombing attacks in Turkey, Erdogan continues to see that internal terrorist element as a greater threat.