— -- The deadly bombing in Istanbul’s major international airport today is the latest in a string of attacks in Turkey that underscore the immense security challenge facing the nation on the frontline in the fight in Syria and Iraq.
At least 36 people were killed in the attack at the Ataturk airport around 10 p.m. local time. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that all signs point to the Syria-based terror group ISIS.
The majority Muslim nation shares long, porous borders with Syria and Iraq, which means it is both a transit hub for extremists looking to join the fight there and a tempting target for those looking to take advantage of the regional instability. At the same time, the Turkish government has to contend with active domestic terror groups, like the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), that have launched their own series of bloody attacks in recent months.
“They are essentially confronting a three-front war,” Steven Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, said, referring to ISIS, the PKK and a Kurdish splinter group called the TAK.
ISIS, which launched a similar airport attack in Brussels in March, has repeatedly called for attacks in Turkey as retaliation for Turkey’s involvement in U.S.-led anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria. Turkey was criticized -- publicly by Vice President Joe Biden in one case -- early in the ISIS fight for not enforcing their borders strictly enough and allowing foreign fighters to stream through Turkey to fill the ranks of ISIS and other extremist groups.
Turkey has more recently worked to stem the flow and ISIS has turned more attention on them, especially after Turkey agreed to let the U.S. and its allies use Turkish air bases for airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria last summer, Cook said.
ISIS was suspected in a number of attacks in Turkey in 2015, including a blast in October that killed nearly 100 people.
In January of this year an attacker purportedly linked to ISIS detonated a bomb in a busy section of Istanbul, killing 11. Then in March Turkish officials said ISIS was linked to a similar attack in the same city that left four dead, including two Americans.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, Ned Price, released a statement at the time that revealed the Obama administration’s frustration at the unending carnage.
“Turkey has once again suffered a horrific terrorist attack, and we remain steadfast in our support for our NATO ally and partner,” Price said. “These repeated acts of terrorism in Turkey must come to an end. We are in close touch with Turkish authorities and reaffirm our commitment to work together with Turkey to confront the evil of terrorism.”
But it’s not just external threats that Turkish security forces are focused on.
Just today Turkish officials reportedly blamed another car bombing in southern Turkey on the Kurdish group PKK. Turkey and the U.S. recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization and it has been at the front of a violent separatist movement in Turkey for decades.
The other Kurdish extremist group, TAK, which experts said was closely linked to the PKK, claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Ankara in March that killed 37 people. The group reportedly said the attack was in retaliation for continuing security operations by Turkish authorities in the southeastern part of the country.
Gonul Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, said that the Turkish government and PKK had made strides towards peace in recent years, but talks fell apart last summer and violence quickly followed.
Today the White House condemned “in the strongest possible terms today’s heinous terrorist attack” and said it remains “steadfast in our support for Turkey… as we continue to confront the threat of terrorism.”
But Tol said she wasn’t surprised when she heard about the bombing today, and Cook said that after such a violent string of attacks, he doesn’t see anything changing in the near future for Turkey.
“I think this is a reality now,” he said.