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Turkey: Ten Dead, Twenty Plus Injured In Airport Attack. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired June 28, 2016 - 16:30   ET



ERDEM AYDIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He was lightly injured, but there -- there was -- there was heavy injuries as well.

Now the police are pushing us back. And the attack was (INAUDIBLE) from the entrance. And it is very hectic out here. You can hear the sirens, the sirens of ambulances coming out of Ataturk Airport.

This is Istanbul's largest airport. Events like this are very rare in the airport. So this is (INAUDIBLE) something like this happening at the airport.

According to eyewitnesses, we heard gunfire in the -- in the car park area, and then later we heard two explosions. We heard two suicide bombers, as you have mentioned.

Now the police are pushing us further. And we managed to get in as well before they (INAUDIBLE) up. And what we saw was -- I saw (INAUDIBLE) on the floor and (INAUDIBLE) on the floor.

I even saw -- I'm sad to say that I saw blood on the floor as well. That was -- that belonged to one of the casualties, we must (INAUDIBLE) and this is the situation from Istanbul Airport.

And we're just -- people are waiting here to hear from their loved ones. There's a sense of -- it's not panic. It was panic before, as well as angry citizens, because they were trying to get into the airport, and the police did not let them.

But now there's a sense of waiting. And I don't know how -- I'm not seeing passengers being evacuated from the airport. Now people are coming out of the airport.


TAPPER: People are being evacuated?


AYDIN: ... from the airport. And now they're walking out, working their way out.

TAPPER: Erdem Aydin. If you're just joining us, Erdem Aydin is with the CNN's -- CNN Turk, CNN's affiliate in Turkey.

Erdem, do you know the time the attack took place?

AYDIN: As I said, we got here 45 minutes, one hour ago. I assume this must have happened around (INAUDIBLE) minutes -- minutes ago, maximum, two hours ago.

TAPPER: About two hours ago, OK.


TAPPER: All right. Stay with us, Erdem. We will bring you back when you learn some more information. Thanks so much for joining us.

I also want to bring in right now another journalist in Istanbul, Andrew Finkel.

Andrew Finkel, what can you tell us? Has there been any news on whether or not any terrorist group has claimed responsibility for this horrific event?

ANDREW FINKEL, REPORTER: No, no one has yet claimed responsibility and no one has pointed the finger at anyone.

But, of course, there are the usual suspects. There have been incidents like this in the past. ISIS has been responsible for suicide bombings in Istanbul and in Turkey in the previous year. The PKK, which is a terror -- a Kurdish group, has also carried out armed attacks inside Turkey.

But they tend to go after security targets, rather than innocent bystanders. So the smart money, as it were, is on ISIS, on Islamic terrorists, but this is purely speculation at this stage.

TAPPER: Right, speculation.

But we should point out that ISIS suicide bombers have targeted Istanbul twice just this year in January and then again in March. Just in the last few months, ISIS has targeted Istanbul.

And, Andrew, a friend of mine just returning from Turkey says that business is down significantly in Istanbul because of all the terrorism that has been going on there in recent months.

FINKEL: That is very much the case.

Turkey really relies on tourism. It's a major industry here. It provides employment, construction. It's a really big thing in Turkey. But, of course, this has been a terrible year, partly not to do with terrorism, because Turkey has been in a dispute with Russia, and Russia has forbidden its citizens to visit Turkey, which has meant the beaches are sort of empty.

But, of course, you walk down the street, you go to the restaurants in Istanbul, and it is easy to get a reservation these days. People are just not coming.


TAPPER: Just a recap on some the ISIS-related terrorism that has happened in recent months in Turkey.

In March 2016, a suicide bomber struck a busy tourist area in central Istanbul, killing at least four people. In January of this year, ISIS was blamed for a suicide bombing which killed at least 12 German tourists. And, then, of course, we all remember last summer, where there was an attack. Mostly university-age students were killed, 32 of them, and 100 people were hospitalized.

Turkey immediately blaming ISIS.

Let's bring in Richard Quest.

Richard, you have been to this airport several times as well. We are hearing from people who have been there that the security is rather intense.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is absolutely intense. It is multilayered.

It is at the front entrance of the terminal. You don't even get into the terminal building unless your bags are X-rayed. And that's even before you have checked in, which is why we're hearing that perhaps the explosions took place outside the terminal and not in the terminal itself.

But, Jake, not only do you end up with this very strict security at the entrance to the terminal. Within the terminal itself, there are multiple levels of security right the way through to immigration and beyond.

You see, the reason why, Jake, is that Ataturk Airport, like Turkey itself, the crossroads between Europe and Asia, so this airport is itself a crossroads, the headquarters and main hub of Turkish Airlines, which has built its entire business on crisscrossing and transferring passengers.

Now, most of the passengers are beyond immigration and security. That's where the big business, if you like, take place. But what you do get at Ataturk, and what you're seeing here, because of the large population in Istanbul itself, you see a large number of people coming in, gathering at the entrance, and that's why you have got a death toll of 10 tonight near the entrance of the actual airport itself.

This is a major hub airport at a crucial city in international transportation.

TAPPER: And, Richard, Bob Baer, former CIA operative, was on the show earlier, and others have discussed this, that targeting the international terminal of Istanbul Ataturk Airport is targeting a cosmopolitan symbol, it is targeting someplace that shows how much Turkey is ingrained with Europe, with Asia, with the rest of the world.

It would be, although nobody has claimed responsibility for this horrific attack, it would be a natural target for an Islamic terrorist.

QUEST: Absolutely, because it is at this crossroads, the secular nation on one hand, but obviously the internal tensions over religion on the other.

That is why this would be the sort of target they would go for. But one thing that is important is, most of the business of Ataturk Airport is done by the transfer of traffic on Turkish Airlines. Now, Turkish has built their entire business on flying people from Europe to the Middle East and onto Asia, changing and connecting, very similar the U.S. system of hub and spoke.

That is what they have been working on. That is what they have been growing. That is what they have been very successful about. But the Turkish government, recognizing the significance not only of the airline, but the airport and the security threat, has raised an extremely high level of security around it, which makes it even more surprising that both of these explosions were able to take place, but notice, of course, from what we hear in this early stage, not within the terminal building themselves, at least not at the moment, as we understand it.

TAPPER: On the periphery, at least according to initial reports, much like the attacks in Brussels a few months ago.


TAPPER: Richard, go ahead.

QUEST: Well, well, well, no, Brussels, they got into the departure area in that particular case.


QUEST: Actually through the front door and into the building.

In Turkey, along with many other Middle Eastern airports, they take it very seriously. You don't get through the front door of the terminal without your bags being scanned. And because of that security threat at Ataturk that I have been through many times, and your bags get scanned and they get -- and your ticket gets looked at, and it is done properly.

TAPPER: I just mean that, on the edge of the periphery level, but what you're saying is that the periphery level is even farther out in Turkey than it is Brussels.


TAPPER: Point made.

This just into CNN. A White House official says that the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco, has briefed President Obama on the explosions at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey.


Let's go back to CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott.

Elise, you just got new information. What can you tell us?


Well, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara right now is doing a phone tree for all their employees in Istanbul. They're assisting the consulate in Istanbul, which is really overtaxed right now, getting calls from families, getting calls from American citizens on the ground.

So they're doing phone trees to try and account for all U.S. personnel. Now, right now, they don't have any indications of U.S. personnel that were affected or that could have been victims. But they don't know if any of their employees were at the airport at the time.

They're also sending consular officers to the airport to see about any American victims. Right now, again, no indications, but it is very early. And you remember, during the attacks on the airport in Brussels, how slow it was to get information about victims, the nationalities.

The hope is that the Turks will be a little bit -- it will work a little bit more smoothly than it did in Brussels. Now, right now, U.S. officials are not leaning towards a responsibility. There has been no claim. Obviously, could it be ISIS? Could it be the PKK?

Usually, the PKK targets security targets, such as the Turkish military or military facilities. But right now, they see the airport as a very strategic location. There has been a lot of concern about this airport.

But I must say, there's been a lot of frustration on the part of U.S. officials about Turkey getting very slow to understand the ISIS threat in the country, that the government has been very preoccupied with its fight against the PKK and their efforts to set up an independent state along the border, that they say that maybe they have slowed down on the job in terms of fighting ISIS, although they have picked up in recent months -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, the State Department in Turkey trying to account for the whereabouts of its personnel.

Elise Labott, thanks for that report.

Let's right now bring in CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem. Also with me, CNN senior law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes.

Juliette, what is your initial read on this attack?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So, substantively, it's just that there will always be soft targets. (OFF-MIKE)

TAPPER: Juliette, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude. The audio is tough to hear right now. Let's try to get that fixed up so we can bring you back.

But, right now, let me bring in Tom Fuentes.

Tom, right now, what are law enforcement officials in Turkey doing right now to try to secure the scene and to try to figure out who did this?

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, right now, Jake, they're trying to figure out who the bomber or bombers are, what is their identity, and then go from there, and see if they are affiliated with ISIS or affiliated with PKK or some other group that we don't know about.

But I have been through that airport many times. It's one of the most secure airports in the world probably. The FBI has an office in the embassy in Ankara and an office in Istanbul in the U.S. Consulate there, working very closely with the Turkish authorities.

But, as mentioned before, they have been very overwhelmed for several decades with terrorism from the PKK.


And, Tom, in the last year, ISIS has been blamed for at least three suicide bomber attacks in Turkey, killing around 50 people. We don't know yet who is responsible for this attack, but it certainly has the hallmarks of the kind of attacks we have seen launched by ISIS against Turkey in just the last year.

FUENTES: Well, unfortunately, Jake, when someone goes into any facility, soft target or near a hard target, wearing a suicide vest and blowing themselves up, just about everybody is a suspect initially, because it's pretty much the way they all do it.

So, whether it's ISIS or PKK or al Qaeda or anybody, to start with that doesn't narrow it down any.

TAPPER: All right.

And do we have Juliette Kayyem on the phone with us? No. OK.

So, Tom, at what point does it become protocol for the FBI to offer to help investigators in a foreign country? Does there need to be an American victim? How does that work?

FUENTES: No, the offer for assistance is absolutely immediate

[16:45:00] as soon as the event happens, the FBI was probably already notified by the Turkish authorities, by assistance. That assistance will be to query databases (inaudible) possible threats that may have come up already or that were heard about and to help in the aftermath with the investigation, which is going to be an international investigation. So it's going to include trying to identify who the individual or individuals are, who they are affiliated with, what countries they came from, and it will become quickly an international investigation because of the nature of where Istanbul sits, a cross roads of east and west, north and south.

TAPPER: And a cross roads and not just geographically, but also more existentially as well as the majority of Muslim country, the only one in NATO and also a sight where there is push and pull between religious extremists and those who want to be more part of the secular world.

Let's bring in CNN senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson, who used to live in Istanbul and cover the region for CNN. Ivan, obviously ISIS has struck or at least is suspected of having struck Turkey three times in the past year.

Killing almost 50 people, German tourists, other individuals, university students, how much has a strike against the airport been a concern of local national security officials?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's certainly a well-protected gate way in and out of Turkey's largest city, its commercial capital as well. As we are trying to evaluate which possible suspect could have been behind it, look at the previous attacks that Istanbul has seen just this year.

Not long ago there was an attack on a police bus in Istanbul that is believed to have been carried out by Kurdish militants. There have also been two suicide attacks in Istanbul believed to have carried out by ISIS against foreign tourists in some of the bustiest tourist districts of the city.

So just looking at the past record, it would seem to suggest one could speculate that ISIS would be a more logical suspect for a potential attack against the airport. Now to get there and I've traveled probably hundreds of times in and out of that airport over the last 15 years, Jake.

Cars coming into the airport have to first go through a security check point that has police. They can stop cars and they can search them. Now the attack, officials say, took place in the entrance to the arrivals area.

That is basically a basement area of the airport that will have a line of, perhaps dozens of taxis waiting there. And to get into the arrivals area, you have to go through security check points. So they have police. They have private security guards. They have metal detectors and x-rays.

You have to put your bags to them. You take your watch, your belts off. All of that just to get in, and then you're in an area that can be very crowded with families, greeting their loved ones there coming off of flights.

There is also a Starbucks there. There are coffee shops, cell phone shops, car rental businesses there as well. That is just giving you a little lay of the land there. The justice minister of Turkey says that an attacker opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle first and then detonated an explosive.

Another government official that have spoken with CNN says that in fact it was police that open fired first, and then two suicide bombers detonated their explosives. So the differing accounts from different government officials, but this took place less than an hour and a half ago. So it's going to take some time to figure out what exactly happened.

TAPPER: That's right. Ivan Watson, a former Istanbul-based reporter for CNN, reminding us that when there is a breaking news story such as this one, often the official accounts from law enforcement officials, national security officials, and the government contain information that is conflicting, often the information is retracted and updated. Just a cautionary note.

This is a breaking and developing story. Let's bring in right now, Nayyera Haq, a former U.S. State Department spokesperson for the Obama administration.

It is early yet in the investigation to this incident. It certainly has all of the hallmarks of an ISIS attack although there are more terrorist groups in the region.

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: I agree with you, Jake. The hallmarks of ISIS are as ISIS loses ground in Iraq and Syria. We declared victory against them in Falluja just this weekend. ISIS tends to spread outwards to other countries, in particular, Europe. Everything about Turkey as a culture and an economy is offensive to the ISIS caliphate. For decades, Turkey has been the example of a secular Muslim country.

[16:50:08]And just the other day Turkey made a peace deal with Israel, is making overtures to Russia and Egypt, and trying to be a peacemaker in the region. Everything about this is offensive to ISIS. So whether it's ISIS or al Qaeda, it is likely to be extremist from the region that don't want to see a westernized Muslim government.

TAPPER: That is right. An excellent point from Nayyera Haq, the former U.S. State Department spokesperson that Turkey and Israel have been involved in a standoff for years now at least four or five years and they are working towards settling that tension, and having reestablishing a closer diplomatic relations.

Let me bring in right now, CNN law enforcement correspondent, Evan Perez, who can give us the view of this horrific attack as seen by U.S. law enforcement officials. Obviously, Evan, it's early yet, but what are you being told?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly, Jake. I think one of the things that they're trying to do get accurate information out of the Turkish government and that is very difficult at this stage. They still really don't know exactly in what order these explosions occurred. But it does appear that initial reports are that at least one of the explosions happened at this outside screening area. This is outside the terminal. It really underscores how difficult it is to secure soft targets like an airport.

If you remember after Brussels, a lot of people said, you know, maybe the answer is to push out the perimeter, to get people to be screened further away from the airport to reduce the danger to people inside the airport.

Well, what this does is it pushes people out and then they become the targets and that appears to be what happened here. These attackers first went to this outside perimeter area where you have police screening people before they can even get inside the terminal.

And that is where they appear to have detonated at least one of these suicide vests or whatever explosives they had. And really, you know, Istanbul has been a big area of concern of U.S. law enforcement and U.S. intelligence.

In the last couple of years, it's been a way point for people trying to get to Syria. Some of these foreign fighters from the United States, other countries from the Western Europe. If you travel to Istanbul, there is a lot of travelers who will notice that after they've traveled there, they're selected for additional screening even months afterwards.

You will see an FSSS (ph) on your boarding pass and that really what it means is you're get additional screening because of this concern of the number of people who have been using Istanbul, this airport in particular, to try to get to Syria and these terrorist groups to join some of these groups like ISIS and to become foreign fighters.

Some of them are coming back this way. So tremendous concern about Turkey, this airport and the security there has been on the minds of U.S. officials today. They said we have been waiting for this to happen, it was just a matter of time. I think as some of our reporters said, the first suspect is ISIS --

TAPPER: Because I mean, you just had in January and March of this year, ISIS being blamed for two different suicide bomb attacks. One targeting and killing at least 12 German tourists and another one killing at least four people in another tourist area.

PEREZ: And there is no mistaking that, you know, these attackers chose the international terminal for a reason.

TAPPER: Right, not the local terminal.

PEREZ: Right, exactly, and -- or they could have chosen a local municipal airport for instance. There is another airport there that they could have chosen. So there is something there that certainly leads officials to believe that your first suspect is going to be ISIS or some extremist groups that's aimed at the west and aimed at international travelers. Not necessary a domestic audience there. Obviously there are other groups in Turkey that you have to worry about including PKK. They sometimes target security officials of the Turkish state. That is at the top of the minds right now of officials.

TAPPER: And one of the other things that I've heard from lawmakers in this country and also I know European officials have complained about and let me bring in CNN senior international correspondent, Nima Elbagir, who is in right now Southern Turkey near the Syrian-Turkish border.

There is concern among officials outside Turkey that the Turkish officials do not secure this border enough with Syria. Nima, tell us about where you are?

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're in one of the areas specifically mentioned in that U.S. State Department travel warning released yesterday. You can see Turkey's attempts at securing this border, they also have a built up presence accord the border, but that does not circumvent.

And ISIS is a threat to Turkey is not just coming from those able to infiltrate across this border and those that Turkey is attempting to bridge the gaps of, but it's also the home grown network.

[16:55:13]One of those attacks that you were talking about earlier this year that brought such dame is someone that is linked to ISIS. That is someone who didn't come across the border. That was someone that was within Turkey and was able to foster that relationship and those links to ISIS.

This is having a really -- a real impact. We have seen it ourselves in that arrival hall in Istanbul airport when we come, there has been a real impact on Turkey's multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

TAPPER: All right, Nima Elbagir, at the Southern Turkish border. I want to go right now to Mitch Frothrow (ph), who is inside the terminal at Istanbul, Turkey airport where these explosions happened within the last couple hours.

Mitch, thanks for joining us. I hope you're OK. Tell us about the scene. Mitch, I don't know if you heard me, Jake Tapper here with CNN. Tell us about the scene.


TAPPER: Mitch, can you hear me? It is Jake Tapper with CNN.

All right, we're having problems with his cell phone obviously. Evan, let me bring you back in. How do they determine whether or not a specific terrorist group is responsible for an attack such as this? Do they wait for the group to claim responsibility? Do they identify the bomber and then see if he had any known affiliations?

PEREZ: Well, you know, you do all of those things, but one of the things that's happening right now, the U.S. Intelligence Committee is looking at communications. You look to see what communications there might have been, if somebody made a phone call, you can try to look and see who they were communicating with. That might give you an indication if there was somebody and their connections with any known groups. It takes a while to try to do that -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much. Much more on this breaking news out of Istanbul in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Stay with CNN.