ISTANBUL — It was an attack that echoed the carnage earlier this year at the Brussels airport, down to the taxi that carried the men to their target: Inciting panic and then taking lethal advantage, three suicide attackers unleashed a deadly tide of bullets and bombs at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, leaving 42 dead.
Authorities blamed the Islamic State for the blood bath late Tuesday, 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.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility by the militant 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,” Turkish 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, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about the investigation publicly. None of the attackers were Turks, a third official 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.
Thirteen foreigners were killed, including five Saudis, two Iraqis and citizens from China, Jordan, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Ukraine.
One attacker opened fire in the departures hall with an automatic rifle, sending passengers diving for cover and trying to flee, witnesses said. Two other explosions hit the arrivals floor below, one of them just outside the building.
Video footage showed one attacker inside the terminal being shot, apparently by a police officer, before falling to the ground as people scattered. The attacker then blew himself up about 20 seconds later.
"It's a jigsaw puzzle ... The authorities are going through CCTV footage, witness statements," a Turkish official said of the investigation.
The Dogan news agency said autopsies on the three bombers, whose torsos were ripped apart, had been completed and that they may have been foreign nationals. It did not cite its sources.
No group had claimed responsibility, more than a day after the attack, which began around 9:50 p.m. (2:50 p.m. EDT) on Tuesday.
Istanbul's position bridging Europe and Asia has made Ataturk airport, Turkey's largest, a major transit hub for passengers across the world. The Istanbul governor's office said 109 of the 239 people hospitalized had since been discharged, but the health minister said 41 were still in intensive care.
Delayed travelers were sleeping on floors at the airport, a Reuters 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 canceled 340 flights although its departures resumed after 8:00 a.m.
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.
Islamic State militants also claimed responsibility for gun 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 radicalized 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.
"We must face the reality that when dealing with a terror threat based on suicide bombing, no security measures can ensure 100 percent protection," it said.
The two U.S. officials said the Istanbul bombing was more typical of Islamic State than of Kurdish militant groups which have also carried out recent attacks in Turkey, but usually strike at official government targets.
Yildirim said it was significant that the attack took place when Turkey was having successes in fighting terrorist groups and mending ties with some of its international partners.
Turkey announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel on Monday after a six-year rupture and has been trying to restore relations with Russia, a major backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"While some see it as a possible knee-jerk reaction to the rapprochement with Israel and Russia, given the preparation involved I think it is part of a general response to Turkey's intensification of security measures along the Turkey-Syria border," said Ege Seckin, political analyst at IHS Country Risk in London.
(Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Can Sezer, Humeyra Pamuk and David Dolan in Istanbul, Ercan Gurses in Ankara, John Walcott, Ismail Kushkush and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason in Ottawa, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Sami Aboudi in Dubai, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Warren Strobel and Bill Rigby)