Istanbul bombing picture becoming clearer

Turkish authorities have reportedly arrested 13 people in connection with Tuesday’s terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, an attack that has now claimed at least 42 lives with another 239 people injured. The bombers themselves have been identified, or at least their nationalities have been determined: one was Chechen (Russian), one Uzbek, and the third Kyrgyz.

This new information about the bombers’ nationalities probably puts to rest any chance that this was a Kurdish attack, leaving ISIS or some unknown group as the likely culprits. And the more that’s learned about the bombers the likelier ISIS becomes:

Turkish officials have strong evidence that the Istanbul airport attackers came to the country from the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria and that ISIS leadership was involved in the planning of the attack, a senior Turkish government source told CNN on Thursday.

Officials believe the men — identified by another Turkish official and state media as being from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — entered Turkey about a month ago from Raqqa, bringing along with them the suicide vests and bombs used in the attack, the source said.

They rented an apartment in the Fatih district of Istanbul, where one of the attackers left behind his passport, the Turkish government source told CNN.

The attack was “extremely well planned with ISIS leadership involved,” the source said.

My anecdotal impression is that there seems to be some disbelief on US media that the (alleged) attackers were Caucasian and Central Asian rather than, I guess (?), Arab. I have to say this is one of those times where I don’t know if our cable news networks are just being collectively dumb or if ISIS activity in the Caucasus and Central Asia is really not a widely known thing. Because I feel like this is something we (“we” here meaning the general US public) already knew, but I don’t have any real basis to support my feeling. This is particularly true with respect to Chechnya–people were writing pieces on the very effective (and now maybe dead) Chechen-Georgian ISIS commander Abu Omar al-Shishani (“al-Shishani” means “the Chechen”) and ISIS’s Chechen recruits at least as far back as 2014, and the prevalence of Chechen fighters in ISIS’s ranks was cited (by me, at least) as one of the factors that might have motivated Moscow to get involved in Syria last year (whether it actually was one of the factors that motivated Moscow to get involved in Syria last year or not is another question).

It’s been a little trickier to get a handle on ISIS’s ability to project into and recruit from Central Asia, in part because the various horror-show dictators of that region have long since seized on ISIS as a bogeyman they can wave around to deflect attention from their own human rights abuses. But there’s no doubt that ISIS has been trying to recruit from the former Soviet republics for a while now, and while it’s not really known how successful they’ve been it’s clear that they have been successful to some degree. For example, Russian, still to some extent the lingua franca of Central Asia, is the third most commonly used language in ISIS’s propaganda materials, and that’s not because ISIS is trying to get its message out to the St. Petersburg media market, and the group also produces materials in Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, etc., meant to target young people who are less likely to know Russian than their elders. Some of the same conditions fueling radicalization in the Middle East–repressive governments, for example, and widespread social and economic inequality–are also manifest in Central Asia.


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