On Tuesday, three men arrived in a taxi and walked into Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport wielding assault rifles and suicide bombs. They indiscriminately shot their way past a security checkpoint and then set off their bombs, killing 44. The tactic was a familiar one, practiced in Paris and Brussels, but the nationalities of the perpetrators were not: Russian, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz.
It’s not unusual to find Central Asians fighting in Syria or Iraq for the Islamic State or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, said Seth Jones, a former Defense Department official and now analyst at Rand Corp. “What’s unusual is for them to be at the tip of the spear conducting attacks in Turkey.”
And that raises a pair of new security challenges for a Turkey still reeling from one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history. Large numbers of migrants from former Soviet nations like Uzbekistan already live and work in Turkey, so militants sent into the country from Syria or Iraq have a tight-knit community of expatriates they can disappear into. That means, in turn, that Turkish security personnel who have long focused on their country’s restive Arab and Kurdish populations must now look for signs of radicals hiding among their Caucasian and Central Asian communities as well.
Turkish police have identified Ahmet Chatayev, a Chechen terrorist, as the mastermind of the attack, according to the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak. He is described as working for the founder of the Caucasus Emirate and joined the Islamic State in 2013. Chatayev is currently wanted in Russia on terrorism charges and is sanctioned on a U.N. terrorism list for “training and redeploying” Russian-speaking militants in Syria back into Russia. Quoting unidentified intelligence sources, the Turkish newspaper said Chatayev planned the attack in a rental house in an Istanbul neighborhood near a shopping mall. And it said surveillance video shows the terrorists taking a taxi from the shopping mall to the airport on the day of the attack.
Although Turkey and Western governments believe the Islamic State was linked to the massacre, it remains unclear if the attackers were dispatched to Turkey by top Islamic State leaders. But if the effect of the Istanbul bloodshed persuades the group’s commanders to call on Russian-speaking cadres to launch more terrorist attacks, it would mean the extremists have committed some of their most capable fighters to their foreign terrorist enterprise.