January 12, 2016

ISIS attack in Istanbul - two targets in one

Sultanahmet Square from the Blue Mosque looking to Haghia Sofia (my photo - 2011)

According to Turkish authorities, a Syrian member of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) detonated a suicide bomb in a park between two of Istanbul's major tourist attractions - the Haghia Sofia and the Blue Mosque (officially the Sultan Ahmet mosque). Many Americans have been to this park while visiting arguably two of the most visited sites in the world - over 24 million people toured them in 2014.

I took the picture above across the park in 2011 - the explosion occurred on the left of the frame, behind where the white truck is parked. This BBC map shows the locations of the three venues.

Ten people were killed in the blast, including nine Germans - 15 other people (nationalities unknown) were injured. The tenth fatality was a Peruvian tourist. Germans make up the largest group of tourists to visit these sites - over five million per year, or about 20 percent of the total.

ISIS's targeting of a major tourism venue in Istanbul was not coincidental. Tourism is one of the easiest sources of revenue to disrupt - one need only look at the tremendous losses incurred by Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of sectarian violence. Turkey has suffered as well, with 2015 revenues estimated to be about $30 billion, down almost 15 percent over previous years.

Although there have been previous ISIS attacks in Turkey, those targets have been aimed at either Turkish or Kurdish targets. This attack on a clearly tourist venue marks a shift in ISIS's focus in Turkey.

Turkey is a priority target for ISIS - in the past, the Turks were not as strident in closing their often porous border with Syria, resulting in thousands of fighters transiting Turkey into Syria, including many from Western Europe. With the Turks reacting to Western pressure to more tightly control their borders, the flow of foreign fighters - necessary to replenish ISIS's substantial manpower losses - has been stemmed, but not stopped.

Also, the Turkish government last year opted to allow the United States and other coalition countries to use its air bases located just north of Syria - including the large NATO facility at Incirlik - reducing the flight times from takeoff to target to mere minutes rather than a few hours. The airstrikes have taken a toll on ISIS - they are attempting to punish Turkey for aligning with the U.S.-lead coalition.

With this attack in Istanbul, ISIS is not only striking at Turkey, but at the West. I doubt that the suicide bomber knew that he would be killing Germans - I assume he was simply attacking westerners - Europeans and Americans. In its own twisted manner, ISIS's selection of a tourism venue hit both Turkey and the West.

Turkish leaders claim that this attack only strengthens the country's resolve. I hope that is true, even though they will pay an economic price.