ISTANBUL– The suicide bomber who killed nine people Tuesday in a popular central Istanbul tourist area had Syrian roots, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said — an attack that further demonstrates Turkey’s challenge in confining the violence and terrorist presence in its southern neighbor.
Erdogan did not specify which group his government thinks is behind the explosion, which happened between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque tourist attractions in the cultural and historic heart of the city.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus later said the bomber was born in 1998 and was from Syria. No group immediately claimed responsibility.
ISIS and various militant factions have been battling in Syria, with Turkey siding against those groups. ISIS has targeted Turkey in recent months, putting Erdogan on the cover of its Dabiq magazine with President Barack Obama and playing up the country’s NATO role.
At least 15 people were wounded in the explosion around 10:20 a.m. (3:20 a.m. ET), the Istanbul governor’s office said. The city’s Sultanahmet Square, already a heavily guarded area, was swarming with security forces and ambulances in its aftermath.
“This incident showed one more time that we should be united against terror,” Erdogan said.
The blast occurred in a square significant to Turkey’s history and its diverse cultural identity.
“(It is) a center for the cultural history that ISIS is so deeply opposed to,” said Sajjan Gohel, international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, noting that ISIS in Syria has targeted just the kind of monuments found in Sultanahmet Square. “It’s a real melting pot of life.”
‘I saw shocked tourists falling to the ground’
The dead include a “significant number” of foreign nationals, Kurtulmus said. Targeting outsiders would be in line with attacks executed or inspired by ISIS, which has enemies everywhere and has proven willing to strike those who don’t subscribe to its hard-line version of Sharia law.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “we are very worried” that her county’s citizens are among the dead and wounded after a German tourist group was apparently “impacted” by the explosion.
While the breakdown of victims wasn’t clear around midday, what happened was enough to spur Merkel’s foreign ministry to issue a travel warning for Turkey, which is a popular destination for German tourists.
“Travelers in Istanbul are urged to avoid larger gatherings, also in public squares and to avoid tourist attractions for now,” the German ministry statement said.
A Norwegian citizen was taken to a nearby hospital after the incident, foreign ministry spokesman Frode Andersen told CNN.
“I’ve never heard such a loud explosion in my life,” Sener Ozdemir, a 45-year-old shop owner, told Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency.
“It was very violent. Just after the incident, I saw shocked tourists falling to the ground.”
‘This could be part of a series of plots’
The blast comes at a time when Turkey is dealing with multiple security threats — from longstanding nemesis the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as well as ISIS, which has taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq on its quest to form a far-reaching caliphate.
Ankara has persistently battled the PKK, which the United States and other governments have branded a terror group.
Turkey’s actions against ISIS are more recent but have nonetheless made it a target of that terrorist group.
Its anti-ISIS moves include allowing the United States to launch strikes from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey as well as clamping down along its border to prevent more fighters from joining the group. This cooperation has angered ISIS, said Fadi Hakura, associate fellow at Chatham House.
In October, two explosions hit a lunchtime peace rally in Ankara, in which demonstrators were calling for an end to the renewed conflict between the PKK and Turkish government. More than 100 people were killed and more than 240 injured.
Tuesday’s blast — if it’s confirmed to be the terror group’s work — ups the ante for Ankara, forcing it to step up its anti-ISIS fight even more, according to the Asia-Pacific Foundation’s Gohel.
“An attack like this is designed to create economic, political and social consequences,” Gohel told CNN. “Turkey has to realize that the pipeline that feeds ISIS from Turkey to Syria has to now be cut off, because incidents like this are not one-offs. This could be part of a series of plots.”
CNN’s Arwa Damon and Gul Tuysuz reported from Istanbul. CNN’s Greg Botelho and Ed Payne reported and wrote from Atlanta.
By Greg Botelho, Arwa Damon and Ed Payne