Istanbul bombing: 'ISIL's vulgar display of power'

Analysis: The latest attack will put pressure on Turkey to increase its efforts in the war against ISIL.

     Istanbul bombing: 'ISIL's vulgar display of power'
    ISIL increased the international impact of the bombing by choosing a site that is frequented by foreign tourists, analysts say [Emrah Gurel/AP]

    The explosion that struck Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet Square on Tuesday - killing 10 people, most of them German nationals - was "a vulgar display of power by a cornered ISIL," according to Turkish analysts, using the acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.

    The location of the latest bombing, metres from popular tourist attractions like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, showed that this attack was significantly different from the Suruc and Ankara bombings.

    "It is important that this happened in Sultanahmet. It is true, Sultanahmet is in the heart of Istanbul, but this square is also in the heart of the world," said Mehmet Yegin, a political analyst for Istanbul's International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

    "People from all around the world - Americans, Germans, Arabs, Koreans and many others - are here every single day. This is a cosmopolitan hub. ISIL was sending a clear message to the world with this terror attack," he told Al Jazeera.

    Tuesday's blast in Sultanahmet was the latest in a series of bombings that have rocked Turkey in recent months. 

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    Last summer, ISIL targeted a group of Kurdish activists in the town of Suruc with a suicide bombing that killed 33 people. In October, 102 people were killed at a peace rally in another similar attack, the deadliest on Turkish soil, in the capital Ankara.

    It is possible to say that by attacking a popular tourist site in Turkey, ISIL sent a message to the entire anti-ISIL coalition.

    Ercan Citlioglu, terrorism expert

    Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIL was responsible for the blast.

    Claiming that an attack taking place in a popular tourist spot like Sultanahmet should not be seen solely as an attack against Turkey, Yegin said. "It is dim-sighted to only talk about the effects of this terror attack on the Turkish tourism and economy - to say that the purpose of this attack was to damage Turkey."

    "The attack, of course, will cause harm to Turkish economy; this has been mentioned many times after the attack. But we cannot analyse what's going on here in the narrow context of Turkey. There is a lot more going on here."

    Ercan Citlioglu, a terrorism expert at Baskent University's Center for Strategic Research (BASKENT-SAM), agreed. Citlioglu argued that ISIL increased the international impact of this bombing by choosing a site that is frequented by foreign tourists.

    "There are two main terror targets in Istanbul: Taksim and Sultanahmet squares. Sultanahmet is an area frequented mostly by foreign tourists. So militants know that if they attack this site, most of the victims would be foreign nationals. And they also know that killing foreigners will have a stronger impact on the international community. Indeed, the victims of this latest attack were mostly German nationals," he said.

    "It is possible to say that, by attacking a popular tourist site in Turkey, ISIL sent a message to the entire anti-ISIL coalition."

    Analysts also pointed out that this attack could be seen as ISIL's reaction to Turkey's new and strict border policy. Many similar attacks by ISIL, they argued, may be seen in Turkish territory in the future.

    In the last couple of years, the Turkish government increased its control over its southern borders to be able to contain the fallout from the civil war in neighbouring Syria. The escalating pressure coming from the West to do so, partly caused by the ongoing refugee crisis, also played a significant role in this decision.

    This development caused a lot of pain for ISIL.

    "Turkey's decision to block border crossings was a lot more significant than its decision to bomb ISIL targets," said Citlioglu. "ISIL was receiving most of its new recruits through the Turkish border. But when the government started to control the border, it became harder for the group to add more militants to its fold. I believe this terror attack may be a reaction to this development."

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    Analysts agreed that the latest attack would lead to more pressure on Turkey from the international community to increase its efforts in the fight against ISIL and to prioritise it over Ankara's current clash with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

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    They argued that this attack could motivate the Turkish government to further its efforts to eradicate ISIL's presence in Turkey instead of backing down. "Recently, Turkey had been fighting ISIL within its borders. The security forces were carrying out operations against ISIL cells," explained Yegin. "We know security forces stopped a terror attack in Ankara on New Year's Eve. We believe these efforts will escalate after this incident."

    Turkey, according to Yegin and other analysts, is expected to contribute more to the fight against ISIL outside its borders after this attack. "I do not think Turkey will choose to play a more significant role in the military response to ISIL, but it will certainly increase its border security and share intelligence more willingly with its allies."

    The latest ISIL suicide bombing, which, according to the Turkish government, was committed by a 'Syrian', also raised questions about the situation of more than a million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

    Last year's Paris attacks, initially alleged to be orchestrated by Syrian nationals, caused a powerful backlash against asylum-seekers from the Middle East in Europe.

    Yet, Turkish analysts talking to Al Jazeera argued that the Sultanahmet bombing "will not result in a significant change in refugees' living conditions in Turkey".

    "Syrians are already not allowed to move freely within Turkey," Bakri Azzin, a Syrian humanitarian worker living in Turkey, told Al Jazeera.

    "Even if you manage to get into the country, you need travelling permission from the government to go anywhere. So, I do not believe government can make life any harder for Syrians in the wake of the Sultanahmet bombing."

    Azzin also pointed out that the Turkish border had been closed to the refugees for over a year. "Nothing is going to change for people trying to get into Turkey from Syria."

    Analysts also speculated that what happened at Sultanahmet Square is not likely to change Turkish public's attitude towards the Syrian crisis or the refugees.

    However, the public reaction to the incident was divided as usual: While supporters of the government perceived the terror attack as "yet another attempt to weaken the AK party government", the opposition claimed that what happened in Sultanahmet was a direct result of the Turkish leadership's impotence.

    "Turkey is already polarised and tense as it is. This terror attack may strengthen the criticisms about the government's Syria policy, but I do not believe this incident will lead to further polarisation. Events like this one create a need for solidarity against fear and threat," Citlioglu said.

    "I do not believe this incident will change Turkish public's attitude towards Syrians," Azzin said. "We all remember the same thing happening in Reyhanli [in 2013], and the Turkish people's attitude towards us did not change after that."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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