Turkish investigators pored over footage and witness statements on Wednesday after three suspected ISIS suicide bombers opened fire and blew themselves up in Istanbul’s main airport, killing 41 people and wounding 239.
“This attack, targeting innocent people, is a vile, planned terrorist act,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters at the scene in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
“There is initial evidence that each of the three suicide bombers blew themselves up after opening fire,” he said. The attackers had come to the airport by taxi and preliminary findings point fingers towards ISIS.
Two U.S. counterterrorism officials familiar with the early stages of investigations said the terrorist group ISIS was at the top of the list of suspects even though there was no evidence yet.
No group had claimed responsibility more than 12 hours after the attack, which began around 9:50 p.m. on Tuesday.
The attack on Europe’s third-busiest airport was the deadliest in a series of suicide bombings this year in Turkey, part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and struggling to contain aftermath and terrorist influx from neighboring Syria’s civil war.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the attack should serve as a turning point in the global fight against terrorism, which he said had “no regard for faith or values”. U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned it in separate phone calls with Erdogan, his office said.
Five Saudis and two Iraqis were among the dead, a Turkish official said. Citizens from China, Jordan, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Ukraine were also among the 13 foreigners killed.
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.
Video footage showed one of the attackers inside the terminal building being shot, apparently by a police officer, before falling to the ground as people scattered. The attacker then blew himself up around 20 seconds later.
“It’s a jigsaw puzzle … The authorities are going through CCTV footage, witness statements,” a Turkish official said.
Istanbul’s position bridging Europe and Asia has made Ataturk airport, Turkey’s largest, a major transit center for passengers world-wide. The Istanbul governor’s office said 109 of the 239 people hospitalized have been discharged, but the health minister said 41 remain in intensive care.
“There were little babies crying, people shouting, broken glass and blood all over the floor. It was very crowded, there was chaos. It was traumatic,” said Diana Eltner, 29, a Swiss psychologist who was travelling from Zurich to Vietnam but had been diverted to Istanbul after she missed a connecting flight.
Delayed travelers were sleeping on floors at the airport, a witness said, as some passengers and airport staff cried and hugged each other. Police in kevlar vests with automatic weapons prowled the kerbside as a handful of travelers and Turkish Airlines crew trickled in.
The national carrier said it had cancelled 340 flights although its departures resumed after 8:00 am .
Paul Roos, 77, a South African tourist on his way home, said he saw one of the attackers “randomly shooting” in the departures hall from about 50 metres (55 yards) away.
The attack bore similarities to an ISIS-staged suicide bombing 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.
ISIS militants claimed shootings and bomb attacks that killed 129 people in Paris last November
“In Istanbul they used a combination of the methods employed in Paris and Brussels. They planned a murder that would maximize fear and loss of life,” said Suleyman Ozeren, a terrorism expert at the Ankara-based Global Policy and Strategy Institute.
Turkey needs to work harder on “preventative intelligence” to stop militants being radicalised in the first place, he said.
The European airports association ACI Europe said airport security had been stepped up across the continent after the Brussels attacks, but said many of the fatalities in Istanbul came as people queued for security checks at the entrance.