Tuesday’s attack on Istanbul Ataturk airport will only exacerbate Turkey’s tourism and economic woes.
On Tuesday, June 28th Islamic State-linked militants assaulted Istanbul Ataturk international airport. The attack was a coordinated operation conducted by at least three foreign militants armed with assault rifles and explosive vests. The death toll has so far reached 44 dead and 239 others were wounded.
The attack came as a stern reminder of the elevated terrorist threat faced by Turkey. It also underscores the fact that the country is currently located at the cross-roads of ISIS international and regional terrorist strategies. The attacks at Istanbul airport will deal an additional blow against the Turkish economy. They will also raise further questions concerning the security of in-country and international large civilian infrastructure.
The wave of terrorist attacks that has been marring Turkey’s security environment since July 2015 has had a major impact on the national economy. The most direct hit has so far been felt by the national tourism sector.
Since the beginning of 2016, hotel occupancy rates have steadily been dropping every month in comparison to the same periods in the previous year. In March, the occupancy rates of hotels in Istanbul were down by approximately 30%. Two months later, these overall rates in Turkey reached 57%, marking a more than 40% drop.
These indicators are directly linked to a steady decline of foreign travellers reaching Turkey for touristic reasons. The two main groups of foreign tourists, Germans and Russians, experienced a 30% and 90% decrease respectively since the beginning of 2016. While the number of Russians coming to Turkey may increase following the lifting of Moscow’s travel ban, the volume of Russian tourists will likely remain substantially lower than usual during summer 2016.
It is probable that the bombing at Istanbul international airport will further increase foreigners’ concerns over the overall security environment in the country. The attack will have its biggest impact on planned travels to Istanbul and will also lead to an overall decrease of the demand for holidays in the western and south-western coastal regions of Izmir and Antalya. Indeed, post-attack security operations targeted suspected networks in Izmir raising concerns over the potential presence of ISIS networks in the area.
The bombing in Istanbul underscored the overall deterioration of the local security environment. Since the beginning of 2016, the city has experienced four major terrorist attacks conducted by two of the principal terrorist groups operating in Turkey. Istanbul is exposed to operations carried out by both Islamist militants as well as Kurdish separatists.
It is noteworthy that ISIS militants have been carrying out operations in Istanbul, as well as Ankara, as part of the groups’ international strategy aimed at hitting high-level targets such as airports and key civilian places. Istanbul had previously experienced suicide bombings in touristic and commercial districts in which the perpetrators specifically targeted foreign nationals.
The selected targets are clearly chosen to hurt Turkey’s international standing in a bid to generate economic woes by hampering the national tourist sector and increasingly portraying the country as an unsafe place.
The latest attack raised questions over the Turkish security forces ability to prevent further terrorist operations. It also led to additional interrogations regarding the overall response to secure global airports.
While it has been positive that June’s attack in Ataturk airport did not lead to major air travel and operation disruptions like March’s attacks in Belgium, ISIS’ assault in Istanbul shows that airports continue to be a relatively soft target.
Security measures such as preliminary checkpoints, luggage and vehicle checks as well as identity controls may diminish the risk of attacks within the terminals but increase the volume of travellers exposed to potential violence on the outskirts of the airport perimeter.
As such, security managers of global airports and governments are increasingly looking for innovative ways to respond to the terrorist threat to airports. Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion international airport is attracting international interest over its unique system of airport security based on technical and human controls.
In the near-future, Istanbul and other international airports are expected to review their security measures to try to step up capabilities to mitigate the risk of additional attacks.
For Turkey, the elevated terrorism risk is unlikely to abate in the coming months. Kurdish separatist groups, Islamist radicals and far-left militants will continue trying to carry out attacks against security forces and institutions, as well as touristic and commercial areas.
This will result in an ongoing campaign against terror mainly directed against PKK-linked militants and ISIS-associated networks. Anti-terrorist operations will continue to occur in major cities, as well as along the southern border with Syria and in Kurdish-majority south-eastern provinces. Such raids increase the risk of localized violence and generate an overall risk of retaliatory violence.