ISTANBUL –– The suicide bomber who killed at least ten foreigners today in a popular central Istanbul tourist area belonged to ISIS, officials said –– an attack that shows the group’s nerve, reach and capacity for terror.
No group claimed responsibility for the blast, yet Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pinned blame on the group that calls itself the Islamic State, which has entrenched itself in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
At least eight Germans died in the blast between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque tourist attractions in Istanbul’s cultural and historic heart, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said, warning that figure might rise. A Turkish official earlier told CNN that at least nine Germans were killed. Davutoglu indicated that the 15 wounded were from inside and outside his country, with Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier saying nine of those were German.
“They haven’t just targeted those who died,” Davutoglu said. “They have targeted the whole of Turkey and the whole world.”
Born in 1988, the man responsible for the blast was not among the thousands being tracked by Turkish authorities, having “newly [come] into Turkey from Syria”, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said.
Just to Turkey’s south, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war for nearly five years –– a conflict that, according to the United Nations, has cost more than 250,000 lives, spurred more than half the country’s 17 million residents to flee and caused humanitarian crises for those left behind, as illustrated by the hundreds starving in the siege of Madaya.
This violence can be pinned on many groups, including forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
A member of NATO, Turkey has increasingly been engaged in this fight –– including allowing the United States to launch strikes from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey and clamping down to curb more fighters from going through its territory to join the group. ISIS has responded by singling out Turkey as a primary target, and a recent issue of its Dabiq magazine had a cover showing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alongside America’s President Barack Obama.
And Davutoglu stressed Turkey wouldn’t back down after today’s attack, urging his countrymen and people worldwide to unite against this threat.
“We will continue our fight against terror with the same firm attitude,” said the prime minister, insisting his country will continue working with the American-led coalition to combat ISIS. “We will never compromise, not one single inch.”
Today’s blast rattled Sultanahmet Square around 10:20 a.m. and brought a rush of ambulances and security forces to an area that would have been heavily guarded on any day.
“I’ve never heard such a loud explosion in my life,” Sener Ozdemir, a 45-year-old shop owner, told Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency. “. . . Just after the incident, I saw shocked tourists falling to the ground.”
Targeting outsiders would be in line with attacks executed or inspired by ISIS, which has enemies everywhere and has proven willing to strike those who don’t subscribe to its twisted, hard-line version of Sharia law.
Turkey is a popular destination for Germans, and Germany’s foreign ministry urged travellers in Istanbul “to avoid public gatherings [and] tourist attractions for now” after the attack.
The Peruvian foreign ministry said in a statement that one of its citizens was in stable condition at a hospital after being wounded. A Norwegian citizen was taken to a nearby hospital after the incident, foreign ministry spokesman Frode Andersen told CNN.
Sajjan Gohel, international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, doesn’t think it’s a coincidence this suicide blast happened in a square that’s both a draw for tourists and significant to Turkey’s history and its diverse cultural identity –– the type of place, he said “ISIS is so deeply opposed to”.
“The type of monuments that are in Sultanahmet Square are the type that ISIS has been blowing up in Syria,” Gohel told CNN. “It’s seen as a place where you have a mesh of different entities. It’s a real melting pot.”