The suicide bombers who killed 42 people at Istanbul’s airport incited panic then took lethal advantage, unleashing a deadly tide of bullets and bombs, it has emerged.
Tuesday’s atrocity at Ataturk Airport echoed the carnage earlier this year at Brussels’ airport, down to the taxi that carried the men to their target.
Turkey has blamed Islamic State for the Istanbul bloodbath, a coordinated assault on one of the world’s busiest airports and on a key Nato ally that plays a crucial role in the fight against the extremist group.
Although the attack took a heavy toll, the assailants were initially thwarted by the extensive security on the airport’s perimeter, Turkish officials said.
“When the terrorists couldn’t pass the regular security system, when they couldn’t pass the scanners, police and security controls, they returned and took their weapons out of their suitcases and opened fire at random at the security check,” prime minister Binali Yildirim said.
One attacker detonated his explosives downstairs at the arrivals terminal, one went upstairs and blew himself up in the departure hall, and the third waited outside for the fleeing crowd and caused the final lethal blast, two Turkish officials said. None of the attackers was Turkish, another source said.
As the chaos unfolded, terrified travelers were sent running, first from one explosion and then another. Airport surveillance video showed a panicked crowd of people, some rolling suitcases behind them, stampeding down a corridor, looking fearfully over their shoulders.
Other surveillance footage posted on social media showed one explosion, a ball of fire that sent terrified passengers racing for cover. Another showed an attacker, felled by a gunshot from a security officer, blowing himself up seconds later.
Cihan Tunctas had just left a flight from Azerbaijan when he heard the sound of gunfire.
“Then the bomb exploded. We were at the exit and … the roof collapsed on our heads,” Tunctas said. The group tried to escape, but their path was blocked by the arrival of a second attacker,” he said.
“Two of the security guards noticed him. They walked towards him. Just as they were walking towards him, I turned that way. They just caught him and at that moment he detonated the bomb.”
Investigators later found a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a handgun and two grenades on the bodies, according to the state-run Anadolu news service. Raids at two addresses also uncovered encrypted organisational documents and computer files, the agency said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility by IS, which did not mention the bloodshed on its social media sites. But an infographic released to celebrate the second anniversary of its self-proclaimed caliphate claimed to have “covert units” in Turkey and other countries.
IS however, rarely claims responsibility for attacks in Turkey. One possible reason is a reluctance to be seen as killing fellow Muslims, said Anthony Skinner, director of analyst group Verisk Maplecroft. Another is its desire to exploit the violent rift between Turkey and Kurdish rebels, he said.
“It very clearly meets Islamic State’s strategic objectives to leave this ambiguity,” Mr Skinner said.
Mr Yildirim also suggested the attack could be linked to steps Ankara took on Monday towards mending strained ties with Israel and Russia.
Late on Wednesday, he told the Turkish public the authorities were increasingly convinced that IS, also known as Daesh, was responsible for the ghastly attack.
“Our thought that it is Daesh, continues to gain weight,” he said.
Turkey, a key partner in the US-led coalition against IS, faces an array of security threats from other groups as well, including ultra-left radicals and Kurdish rebels demanding greater autonomy in the volatile south east.
The country shares long, porous borders with both Syria and Iraq, where IS controls large pockets of territory, and the government has blamed IS for several major bombings over the past year, including in the capital Ankara, and on tourists in Istanbul.
Victims of Tuesday’s attack included at least 13 foreigners and several people remain unidentified. The Istanbul governor’s office said more than 230 people were wounded and dozens remained in a critical condition.
Among the dead was Muhammed Eymen Demirci, 25, who had just been given a job on the airport’s ground services crew after more than a year of unemployment. “I got the job bro!” he texted to a friend in May.
Dozens of anxious friends and relatives waited outside Istanbul’s Bakirkoy Hospital.
“You can hear that people are wailing here,” said Serdar Tatlisu, a relative of a victim. “We cannot cope any more, we can’t just stay still. We need some kind of solution for whatever problem there is.”
The devastation at Istanbul’s airport was a reminder of the March 22 attack on Brussels International Airport, where two suicide bombings ripped through check-in counters, killing 16 people.
IS claimed responsibility for that attack, as well as an explosion on the same day at a Brussels tube station that killed 16 more people.