A Chechen extremist masterminded the triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s busiest airport that killed at least 44 people, a U.S. congressman said.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told CNN that Akhmed Chatayev directed Tuesday night’s attack at Ataturk Airport, one of the world’s busiest, which also wounded more than 230.
Turkish and Swedish media have also identified Chatayev as the organizer, although Turkish authorities have not confirmed his involvement. Sabah newspaper, which is close to the government, said police had launched a manhunt to catch him.
McCaul said it is unclear where Chatayev is, but he is known to have served as a top lieutenant in the Islamic State group’s war ministry.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, the Islamic State group is suspected, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated Friday that IS was “most probably” behind it. The group has boasted of having cells in Turkey, among other countries.
“They have no connection to Islam. Their place is in hell,” Erdogan said, speaking in Istanbul following Friday prayers. “These people were innocent; they were children, women, elderly … They embarked on a journey unaware, and came face to face with death.”
Authorities said the three suicide bombers in the attack — which echoed the carnage earlier this year at the Brussels airport — were from Russia and the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They did not provide further details on their identities.
Thirteen people suspected of possible links to the attack were detained in raids in three Istanbul neighborhoods on Thursday, officials said. Haber Turk newspaper said 11 more suspects — all of them foreign nationals — were detained in a separate raid on a house in Istanbul early Friday. A government official in Istanbul could not immediately confirm the report.
The IS group, which has used Turkey to establish itself in neighboring Syria and Iraq, has repeatedly threatened Turkey in its propaganda, and NATO member Turkey has blamed IS for several major bombings in the past year in both Ankara and Istanbul.
Turkey’s interior minister said the explosives used were a mix of RDX, TNT and PETN that were “manufactured,” which chemist and explosives expert at University of Rhode Island, Jimmie Oxley, described as being military-grade, raising the question of how the attackers obtained the bombs.
Swedish authorities said Chatayev, the alleged organizer of the attack, was convicted of weapons smuggling in 2008.
The 35-year-old was sentenced to 16 months for smuggling an automatic weapon and two handguns with munition and silencers into Sweden in on March 3, 2008, according to the city court in the southern Sweden port city of Ystad.
Court documents obtained by The Associated Press on Friday show Chatayev had arrived by ferry boat from Germany. He and two others in the car said they were heading to Norway to go fishing and meet friends.
The documents show that he denied knowing about the guns hidden in a spare wheel in the trunk. A local paper says he was freed from prison in January 2009.
Turkey, a key partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group, also faces security threats from Kurdish rebels who are demanding greater autonomy in Turkey’s southeast region and from ultra-left radicals. Kurdish rebels have carried out numerous car bomb attacks in the past year, including an attack Feb. 17 in Ankara that killed 39 people, and another devastating bombing in the capital in March.
An official said Friday that security forces have killed the mastermind of the Feb. 17 attack.
Mehmet Sirin Kaya was killed in the town of Lice in the mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
The attack against military personnel was claimed by an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
Story by the Associated Press