As of yet, the deadly triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28 has yet to be claimed by any terrorist entity in the region.
The suspected culprit, the Islamic State (IS), has been notably quiet, releasing no messages on the matter while its online community of supporters remains noticeably quiet. Recent reports have stated the attackers were identified as Russian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz nationals, and that the operation was organized by Akhmed Chatayev, a Chechen IS recruiter designated by the U.S. Treasury and UN as a terrorist.
Teyrebazen Azadiya Kurdistan (TAK), a Kurdish separatist group which has claimed multiple deadly bombings in the country, has also been quiet thus far, though the style of attack and attackers’ nationalities have pushed suspicions more toward IS.
Considering IS as the primary suspect in the attack, the lack of any claim begs questions. As I write this article, it has been almost two full days without any such message—significantly longer than it took for IS to claim the Paris attacks (made less than 12 hours after their initiation), the Brussels attack (less than five hours after), and the downed Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 (less than six hours after).
It is not surprising, however, that such a deadly attack would go unclaimed in Turkey. Sure, it seems illogical: why would any terror group put resources into an attack like that at the Ataturk Airport and not claim it? Would that not be a waste of resources and forced public attention?
Yes, it would, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a terror attack in Turkey was left unclaimed. On October 10 of last year, for example, over 100 civilians were killed when two bombs exploded at the Ankara—a deadlier attack than Tuesday’s, but one that still has yet to be claimed.
Likewise, on July 20, 2015, over 30 were killed in a bombing in Turkey’s Suruc district of Sanliurfa, located near the border of Syria; no group has yet claimed this attack.
For IS to maintain support among its followers and prospects, it must take different considerations into account when planning an attack in a Muslim country versus non-Muslim countries.
We cannot say precisely why these attacks were not claimed, but those killed and injured in the attacks may very well be key variables. For IS to maintain support among its followers and prospects, it must take different considerations into account when planning an attack in a Muslim country versus non-Muslim countries. IS encourages the killing of random civilians in France, Belgium, America, or other Western nations, but in a country like Turkey, IS must be sure that it isn’t killing Muslims—or at least make it look like it's trying not to.
IS-Claimed Attacks in Turkey
IS has claimed attacks in Turkey, but all were made against specific individuals. IS has never claimed an attack in Turkey that killed random Muslims (though that does not necessarily mean the group isn't behind these attacks), nor has it ever claimed an attack immediately after it was carried out. For one attack (listed below) it took IS more than six months to claim responsibility, while others took just under a week. Also of note is that of the attacks in Turkey which IS did claim, none were claimed formally; these attacks were instead reported on by its al-Bayan Radio news broadcast, its Turkish magazine, “Constantinople,” or its news agency, ‘Amaq, indicating a level of distanced embrace by the group.
It might sound surprising, but IS has only claimed three attacks in Turkey:
• A December 2, 2015 claim via “Constantinople” magazine for the April 2015 murder of Shuja Gannun, a teacher whom IS claimed was spying on the group for Erdogan and “other puppet organizations.”
• The June 12, 2016 claim of killing Ahmet Abdulkadir, founder of anti-IS activist group “Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently,” in Urfa.
• A June 17, 2016 claim of killing Thaddeus Mitchell Borowicz, an American military officer, in Adana (though news reports have called his death an accident).
IS has shown comparable discretion when conducting attacks in other Muslim countries, focusing on government targets, perceived religious deviants, and enemy factions, as opposed to random civilians. For example, this week, IS claimed its first suicide bombing in Jordan against “the Rukban American-Jordanian [military] base.” Other comparable attacks include IS’ May 22, 2015 suicide bombing on a Shi’ite mosque in Saudi Arabia’ al-Qatif province, or IS’ June 30, 2016 claim killing of a Coptic priest in al-Arish, Egypt (accompanying its attacks on other military targets in the country).
Even for its January 14, 2016 attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, IS was sure to frame the attack as one against foreign tourists, not locals. In claiming the attack, the group touted killing “nearly 15 Crusader foreigners along with those tasked with protecting them from the apostates, and injuring several of them.” Reports described the attack as taking place near a police post and retail stores, all within close proximity to a United Nations office.
IS’ claims of attack in Turkey are perhaps most comparable to those in Bangladesh, regarding its style (not volume) of targeting individuals. Recent attack claims by IS for Bangladesh include a June 10 one for killing a Hindu man in Pabna, and another from three days before for killing a Hindu priest, also in Pabna.
Complicated IS-Turkey Dynamics
The relationship between IS and Turkey is far more complicated than with other countries. Turkey has functioned as an entry point for migrant fighters to enter IS in Syria, and both parties reserve the People's Protection Units (YPG) as a common enemy.
But when the Turkish government eventually began tightening its border security and stepping up military activity against IS—beginning with airstrikes against the group on July 24 and then formally doing so under the U.S.-led coalition on August 29—IS and its supporters reacted with threatening rhetoric.
Upon Turkish military strikes against IS in July of 2015, fighters and supporters on social media stated, “Now that #Turkey has entered into war with #Caliphate. Keep coffins ready for your nationalist heroes.” Alleged IS fighter “Abu Khalid Al Amriki” threatened:
IS also threatened Turkey and reached out to its citizens in more than half a dozen official releases this past year. In a March 28 IS video showing the beheading of a captive Peshmerga fighter in Iraq, a narrator commented on Iraqi Kurdistan President Mas'oud Barzani allying with the Turkish government, threatening:
As for you, O Mas’oud, and you, O Erdogan, you both will pay a very high price for being involved in killing the Muslims. The days come in turns, and what is coming is worse and more bitter.
Other official IS releases from this past year have warned Turkey of a “penalty” for democracy and have called for Turkish Muslims to leave the country for its secular governance, stating, “…the Islamic State is not in need of you, but you are in need of living in the patronage of this religion…”
Given what we know now, the question of who organized yesterday’s attack in Istanbul remains virtually unanswerable until we receive more information from investigators or a valid claim of responsibility. But should it turn out that IS carried out the attack and didn’t claim it, it would not be surprising given its complex relationship with Turkey and need to maintain support amongst its followers.