Three suicide bombers opened fire then blew themselves up in Istanbul’s main international airport on Tuesday, killing 36 people and wounding close to 150 in what Turkey’s prime minister said appeared to have been an attack by Islamic State militants.
One attacker opened fire in the departures hall with an automatic rifle, sending passengers diving for cover and trying to flee, before all three blew themselves up in or around the arrivals hall a floor below, witnesses and officials said.
The attack on Europe’s third-busiest airport was one of the deadliest in a series of suicide bombings in Turkey, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State and is struggling to contain the spillover from neighboring Syria’s civil war. It is also battling an insurgency by Kurdish militants in its largely Kurdish southeast.
Police fired shots to try to stop two of the attackers just before they reached a security checkpoint at the arrivals hall, but they detonated their explosives, a Turkish official said.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said: “This attack, targeting innocent people is a vile, planned terrorist act.”
“There is initial evidence that each of the three suicide bombers blew themselves up after opening fire,” he told reporters at the airport. Yildirim said the attackers had come to the airport by taxi and that preliminary findings pointed to Islamic State responsibility.
Two U.S. counterterrorism officials familiar with the early stages of investigations said Islamic State was at the top of the list of suspects even though there was no evidence yet.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the use of suicide bombers against “soft” targets was more typical of Islamic State than the other obvious suspect, Kurdish PKK militants who generally attack official government targets.
One of the officials also said that, while Islamic State had recently stepped up attacks in Turkey, the group rarely claims responsibility because Turkey remains one of the main corridors for its fighters traveling from Europe to Syria and Iraq.
No group had claimed responsibility more than nine hours after the attack, which started around 9:50 p.m. local time (1850 GMT).
The attack bore similarities to a suicide bombing by Islamic State militants at Brussels airport in March that killed 16 people. A coordinated attack also targeted a rush-hour metro train, killing a further 16 people in the Belgian capital.