SANLIURFA, Turkey — The deadly suicide bombing in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist district on Tuesday has taken Turkey’s conflict with ISIS to a dangerous new height.
Signs of the escalation have been there for months. Turkish police have arrested dozens of suspected militants in raids around the country, and the government has increased its cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the group in Syria.
ISIS has responded in turn, murdering Syrian journalists on Turkish soil and carrying out three suicide attacks since the summer. The deadliest, at a rally in the capital Ankara on Oct. 10, left 102 dead and, like the other bombings, targeted Kurdish activists and civilians. Tuesday's bomb was the first time the militants targeted Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city — and it also hit at the heart of the country’s massive tourism economy, which helped bring in more than 30 million visitors last year. As of Tuesday night, the attack had killed 10 people and injured 15, all of them foreign citizens, according to the Turkish government. Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister, said the attacker was a 28-year-old ISIS militant who had entered the country from Syria.
Until Tuesday, ISIS’s attacks in Turkey had focused on its enemies across the border. The murdered journalists had investigated its atrocities, while it is battling ethnic Kurdish militia in Syria. But the bodies of tourists sprawled near the entrance to Istanbul’s iconic Blue Mosque on Tuesday were a signal that ISIS has set its targets on a bigger fight — one aimed more directly at Turkey. Containing that threat could prove to be the biggest challenge the government has faced amid the enormous turmoil of recent years.
Tuesday’s bombing comes as Turkey is expected to increase its cooperation with Washington against ISIS, possibly helping to clear the militants from a crucial stretch of territory along the border, said Soner Cagaptay, who directs the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. An upcoming visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden may have helped to motivate the attack, he added. “ISIS is acting preemptively to hurt Turkey so Ankara will stand down or at least cool off against the group,” Cagatpay said. “Part of ISIS’ strategy of targeting ‘non-Turks’ is to both divide Turkey and also escape punitive action. Though, this time the second one won't work. Hitting Istanbul is stupid even from the group’s Machiavellian take.”
A newly emboldened ISIS could prove a difficult enemy for Turkey to contain. As the months of arrests across multiple cities show, the group has posted operatives throughout country. (On Tuesday, after the attack, police arrested 21 suspected ISIS militants in the southern city of Sanliurfa in one of their biggest raids on ISIS to date.) The 565-mile border with Syria remains porous and difficult to police. And the human crush of the refugee crisis — Turkey hosts more Syrians than any country, at nearly 2 million — only adds to the confusion and sense of chaos.
No one knows the group’s permeation of Turkey better than the Syrians who work against it here. Rebels and activists taking shelter in Turkish towns and cities near the border have experienced a new wave of paranoia in the wake of the recent murders of their colleagues.
In a cold office building in Sanliurfa on Tuesday afternoon, one such activist, who works with a rebel group that is fighting ISIS, opened a bulky laptop and connected it to an external hard drive. Inside were photos of files that he said had been sent to him by a spy within ISIS. Most showed the kind of mundane bureaucratic concerns for which the militants are famous — permission slips to travel through checkpoints, ledgers tracking borrowed cash. But three sheets of paper contained parts of a list of names of ISIS members who had apparently been dispatched to two cities on the Turkish border, showing 32 in all.
The list could not immediately be verified, but one of the jihadis it named was a man BuzzFeed News had previously confirmed to be an ISIS member working in the area. To the activist — a Syrian in his late twenties with a bullet wound from the war, who requested anonymity to protect his safety — the list was far from a surprise. He said that ISIS operatives were everywhere, and the idea of them finding him in Turkey haunted his days. He visited only cafes that weren’t frequented by Syrians, and if he heard someone speak Arabic on the street, he hid his face. He considered ISIS, even as it was hunted by the Turkish authorities, to be something like a security service too. “I’m wanted,” he said.