On June 28, three suicide bombers armed with AK-47s attacked Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, the eleventh-busiest airport in the world. The terrorists killed more than forty people, leaving more than 200 wounded. The attack, presumed to be carried out by ISIS operatives, reveals alarming operational and tactical sophistication, especially considering the fact that Ataturk International Airport has been known to have a very tight security apparatus, which was recently reinforced in the wake of terrorist attacks in Belgium’s Zaventem airport.
Different from most airports of its size, Ataturk Airport has two, not one, security checkpoints, the additional one guarding the very entrance to the main terminal building. Regardless, the terrorists behaved like a special forces unitand carried out a three-stage attack. The first bomb went off in the parking lot and served as a distraction for the security forces in the second (outer) checkpoint. This allowed the second attacker to blow himself up right in front of the outer checkpoint. The third attacker then exploited the very physical breach and chaos created by the second explosion to advance into the “safe zone,” shooting his way deep into the terminal, only to be shot by a member of the airport’s security establishment before he had the opportunity to inflict more damage. As can be seen in a video taken from the airport’s surveillance system, the wounded terrorist then went on to explode his suicide vest before reaching a more crowded section of the terminal, which most likely limited the number of casualties.
The level of sophistication displayed by the terrorists in Istanbul should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. The terrorists are diligently studying the soft targets, aiming to exploit their weaknesses where they find them. At Ataturk International Airport, the security forces focused on making sure that the potential attackers never made it to the planes, which then created choke points where a great number of people had to wait in the outer checkpoint, vulnerable to suicide bombers and/or shooters. The terrorists exploited this vulnerability and ended up wreaking havoc in one of the most guarded airports in the world. Moving ahead, we should start thinking about airport security in a more comprehensive fashion. The attacks of September 11 sensitized us about securing the planes. The attacks in Belgium and Istanbul, in turn, should make us think harder about how we can secure not only the planes, but also the airports, which remain high profile and vulnerable targets for terrorist groups like ISIS.