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Carnage And Panic Abound During Attack At Istanbul's Busy Airport

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are spending much of this morning learning whatever we can about an attack on Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport. It happened last night, and here's what we know so far. More than 40 people have been killed, well more than 200 injured - those numbers coming from the Istanbul governor's office.

Officials in Turkey say three attackers armed with bombs and guns struck near an entry point to the airport. And witnesses described a scene of carnage, crowds in panic - this at one of the world's busiest airports. Judy Favish was there.

JUDY FAVISH: I heard the shooting. And then there was a very big bang. And all I could think of was to run and hide under the counter.

GREENE: Favish is from South Africa. She was on a two-day layover in Istanbul. And she described the scene as complete chaos.

FAVISH: And I was very lucky. I only lost a suitcase.

GREENE: She only lost a suitcase, she said, but many people sadly lost much more than that. As of now, no one has claimed responsibility for this. But Turkey's prime minister says he suspects the attack was carried out by ISIS.

We are joined now with two voices - one in Istanbul, Washington Post correspondent Erin Cunningham. She joins us from Skype and has been covering this story.

And here in our studio is Omer Taspinar. He is a Turkish scholar and a professor at the National War College here in Washington, D.C., who focuses on Turkey and international relations. Good morning to you both.

OMER TASPINAR: Morning.

ERIN CUNNINGHAM: Good morning.

GREENE: Erin, let me begin with you. What was the scene at that airport?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, like you said, it was a scene of carnage and chaos. It is one of the world's busiest airports. And particularly during Ramadan, people travel to see family. So the attack happened at the international arrivals terminal.

And there were three separate bombers that struck different locations around that terminal. They managed to kill dozens of people, including foreigners. They also managed to kill a number of police. It was a very serious attack.

And I know that this morning, the airport has been partially operating. But there's also a lot of debris, and people are trying to pick up the pieces.

GREENE: It sounds like mostly travelers who might have been traveling for the Muslim holiday and, you know, on their way to the airport to pick up flights when this happened.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes, definitely.

GREENE: Erin, stay with us. Omer, I want to bring you in here. Turkish officials already saying these suicide bombers - they think affiliated with ISIS. Are they sure at this point?

TASPINAR: Well, the organization ISIS - the terrorist organization ISIS - has not claimed responsibility yet. However, the Turkish prime minister was on TV late morning. And he said that all indications are in that direction.

The other suspect could be a Kurdish organization - Kurdish separatists who have been also conducting terrorist attacks in Turkey. But right now, I think the style of this attack, the way it's been conducted, looks like more - it's more like Islamist terrorism, rather than a Kurdish organization.

GREENE: Why do you say that?

TASPINAR: Because most of the time, the Kurdish groups are reluctant to attack civilians. Although they have changed their tactics, there is a offspring of the PKK, the Kurdish organization that has engaged in terrorist attacks. But they target - try to target Turkey's security officials.

For instance, in the last year, they targeted Turkish military headquarters and also the Turkish police. There are, of course, civilian casualties in their attacks. But overall, the PKK has been conducting more of a guerilla war in the southeast of Turkey, whereas ISIL has attacked more civilians in Turkey in the last couple of years.

GREENE: ISIL - you're using a different acronym - but the same organization, the Islamic State, you're talking about.

TASPINAR: Exactly.

GREENE: Such a complicated part of the world. I mean, we hear about Kurds in Iraq, Syria helping the United States fight ISIS. But there's a group - this Kurdish group you mentioned - separatists - the PKK, which has been battling Turkey. And the United States considers them a terrorist group. I mean, there's just a - sort of a lot to understand here.

TASPINAR: Indeed there is. I mean, Turkey's Syria policy is also partly to blame. In the eyes of many Turks, especially secular and progressive Turks, the president of the country, Erdogan, has conducted a foreign policy in Syria that has helped the Islamists.

And in a way, Turkey was blamed up until recently for foreign jihadists entering Syria for not having strong border security, although this has changed. In the last year, Turkey began cooperating with the United States. There is an American base in Incirlik in the south of Turkey where American airstrikes are being conducted.

And ISIL has now been targeting Turkey. And there are reports that there are many ISIL cells in Turkey. And Turkey also, of course, is fighting at the same time - simultaneously - an insurgency - a Kurdish insurgency.

And the Kurds of Syria are closely linked with the Kurdish separatist group in Turkey. And Turkey has been blaming, basically, the United States for supporting the Kurds in Syria at the same time.

GREENE: Very complicated indeed. Erin Cunningham, how afraid of ISIS are people in Istanbul?

CUNNINGHAM: I think they are quite worried. There have been a number of attacks in Istanbul in recent months, including at, you know, major tourist attractions and areas. And I think that they're worried. They know that there will be blowback from the war in Syria and that the Islamic State has an extensive network inside Turkey.

So I know that Turks have expressed concern, both about the Islamic State and also Kurdish militants. But as we were saying - that the Islamic State also primarily targets civilians.

GREENE: And I guess this could be a blow to a country that relies, you know, a good bit on tourism, if the airport was bombed like this.

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely. Istanbul is a hub. The airport is a hub. They rely on tourists. It's a major industry here. And so there's a lot of worry there, as well, that the economy will suffer.

GREENE: All right. Well, we'll have to leave the conversation there. We'll be covering this story all morning long. That was the voice of Washington Post correspondent Erin Cunningham in Istanbul and Omer Taspinar of the National War College and the Brookings Institution here in Washington. Thanks to you both.

TASPINAR: Thank you.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.