Airport attack hammers Istanbul's once-lofty ambitions

In 2012, a glistening tower of shops, offices and residences opened in Istanbul, an emblem of the brash attitude of an ancient city that prided itself as an international gateway between Asia and Europe.

News 12 Staff

Jun 29, 2016, 6:53 PM

Updated 2,945 days ago


In 2012, a glistening tower of shops, offices and residences opened in Istanbul, an emblem of the brash attitude of an ancient city that prided itself as an international gateway between Asia and Europe. Those ambitions, increasingly dampened by internal conflict and spillover from the tumult in neighboring countries, were dealt another blow in the deadly assault on the city's main Ataturk Airport.
The attack that killed dozens and was blamed on the Islamic State group could have happened anywhere in the world, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Yet the three suicide bombers who used automatic weapons before blowing themselves up chose an especially sensitive target, an airport embodying Turkey's aim to become a global player and an international transit hub on a par with Dubai.
Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis of more than 15 million people that straddles two continents, had long drawn visitors who flocked to museums and palaces from an imperial past, coasted on ferries on the Bosporus Strait and, increasingly in the last decade, attended business forums, international conferences and shopped in high-end malls where security officials screened people at the glass doors.
It has been an ebullient time in a city that has billed itself as a cradle of ancient empires and a modern melting pot, in a country with a Muslim identity and Western leanings that seemed to be thriving after decades of authoritarian rule, factional violence and chaotic politics.
As with recent attacks in Brussels and Paris, and the kind that happen routinely in war zones such as Iraq and Syria, Tuesday's violence in Istanbul is likely to leave an impact, an unease or outright trauma, for a short time or much longer, even with those who were not directly affected.
Deniz Ergurel, a Turkish journalist who lives close to the airport, said he felt haunted by the sad stories of the dead.
"From my window I can see the planes taking off (from) the airport, meaning that things have turned into normal. But when I say we're fine, I only mean it as a physical statement. In fact, it is those rare times when you feel kind of ashamed to be well," Ergurel wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
"Only a few days ago I was there, returning from an international conference. It could be me, it could be anyone," Ergurel wrote. "This is a tragedy and shock beyond words. And it will definitely affect the psychology of everyone."
He suggested Turkish security procedures need a review, noting that more than a dozen deadly bombings had occurred in Turkey in one year. Even before Tuesday's attack, once-robust tourism was struggling because of attacks linked to Islamic extremists, as well as Kurdish militants whose peace efforts with Turkey had collapsed.
Istanbul's famed landmarks include the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica that was transformed into an imperial mosque and is now a museum. In January, a suicide bomber blew himself up nearby, killing 12 German tourists. Authorities blamed an IS-linked Syrian man who entered the country as a refugee from neighboring Syria.
The number of foreigners arriving in Turkey in May was 2.48 million, down 34.6 percent from the same month in 2015, according to government data.
A Turkish business leader predicted that the impact on tourism of the airport attack "will not be as high as one might think" because such violence has become sadly routine in some parts of the world.
Tarkan Kadooglu, president of Turkonfed, a non-governmental group that represents Turkish businesses, said recent efforts by NATO-member Turkey to reconcile with Israel and Russia, as well as closer intelligence-sharing with allies, could help curb militant attacks.
Allen Collinsworth, an international business consultant based in Istanbul, said there are "a lot of liquidity problems" in Turkey and that foreign investment has been drying up because of concerns about stability. However, he said the country has "always been in a boom and bust cycle" and that it has endured tough times in the past, including a crackdown on dissent that followed a 1980 military coup.
"It's not like the end of the world for Turkey," Collinsworth, an American, said in a telephone interview. "They always muddle through it."
Istanbul's bloody periods reach deep into history. Its ethnic Greek population endured devastating mob attacks in 1955, and hundreds of prominent Armenian luminaries were rounded up there in 1915 at the start of the massacres of Armenians during World War I. Crusaders pillaged the city, then Constantinople, in the early 13th century, and it fell to invading Ottomans in 1453.
The owners of the gleaming high-rise that opened in 2012 paid for the tower to carry the Trump name, presumably thinking it was synonymous with glamor and quality. Even there, the shine has come off because of comments deemed to be anti-Muslim by Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in the United States. Erdogan said this month that the name should be removed from the building, Turkish media reported.
Erdogan has championed some of Istanbul's massive projects, including plans for a huge mosque, a new airport to relieve congestion at Ataturk Airport and a canal, alternative to the Bosporus Strait, which would link the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. Critics describe the plans as grandiose.
In 2012, an AP reporter wrote: "Once a backwater aching with memories of a glorious past, Istanbul today is hectically, perhaps blindly, hustling to create a vibrant future."
For now, the feel-good times are over.
Christopher Torchia was Associated Press bureau chief in Turkey from 2007 until early 2013.

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