Why Would ISIS Target A Russian Airliner Instead Of An American One?

13/11/2015 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
VASILY MAXIMOV via Getty Images
People stand next to flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Russian MetroJet Airbus A321 crash on November 4, 2015 in Saint Petersburg. Russian airline Kogalymavia's flight 9268 crashed en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg on October 31, killing all 224 people on board, the vast majority of them Russian tourists. The Islamic State group claimed again on November 4 it was behind the October 31's Airbus A321 crash but there has been no evidence yet to support the claim and experts say a mechanical failure may have been the cause. AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

"The worst is yet to come," worried Egyptian analyst Ismail Alexandrani in July after local militants claiming Islamic State (ISIS) patronage struck an Egyptian warship and set it ablaze. His fears have come true in an unexpected way.

The "Wilayet Sinai", or Sinai Province (SP) offshoot of ISIS, took credit for downing a Russian-owned Metrojet airliner on 31 October. All 224 passengers flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg died in the crash. In its self-congratulatory tweet, SP referred to those killed as "Russian crusaders."

The first few days after the crash were fraught with confusion. Egyptian President Abdul Fateh el-Sisi dismissed ISIS claims as "propaganda," while Kremlin spokespersons insisted that any verdict without proper evidence was premature.

"[SP] has waved a giant red flag at the continent-sized bull called Russia and invited its ire for no apparent reason."

The UK government, however, was quick to speculate based on intelligence reports that the plane crash was indeed terroristic in nature. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said there was a "significant possibility" that the plane fell prey to an "explosive device" in the cargo hold.

US President Barack Obama also chimed in 24 hours later, saying it was "certainly possible that there was a bomb on board." This irked the harried Russian and Egyptian officials desperately trying to find some technical fault or pilot error to pin the crash on.

SP militants, on the other hand, have clearly never heard of Sun Tzu. This highly rated Chinese general and strategist from over two millennia ago wrote in The Art of War: "If he [the enemy] is in superior strength, evade him." SP's failure to comply with his time-tested wisdom means it is either remarkably brave or incredibly stupid.

A group formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis before it pledged fealty to ISIS last year, SP has been fighting Egyptian forces in the Sinai peninsula since 2011. The army engineered ouster of former Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohamed Morsi in 2013 angered the Islamists and stoked the Sinai insurgency.

Last October, an SP car bomb killed 29 Egyptian soldiers at a check-post in the North Sinai town of El-Arish. More recently, just a few days after the Metrojet crash, a suicide attack linked to the group targeted a police club in the same town, killing at least six Egyptian police officers.

Like jihadist movements everywhere, SP fuses local grievances with pan-Islamism to justify its actions, solicit funding and keep the recruits rolling in. Since the 1979 peace accord with Israel, Egyptian governments have used the Sinai as a buffer zone between Cairo and the perpetually restive Gaza Strip. Local Bedouins cannot join the army and countrywide development projects have largely ignored the peninsula.

After Morsi's removal especially, it is not hard to imagine that Muslim Brotherhood partisans inside Egypt's state machinery would be willing to lend SP a hand to hit back at the usurping general-turned-President, Abdul Fateh el-Sisi. An inside job is exactly what a cargo bomb entails after all, something called the "baggage handler" theory.

Still, SP was doing fairly well as an annoying critter in a non-newsworthy desert until this grand statement of intent. In the process, the group has waved a giant red flag at the continent-sized bull called Russia and invited its ire for no apparent reason.

If the Chechnya and Ukraine conflicts were any indication, Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval ratings at home will not take a significant hit. If anything, Putin now has the moral high ground to both continue military operations in Syria and widen their radius to strike back at ISIS throughout the Middle East.

"[O]n 8 October, [Ashton Carter] predicted, 'In coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer from casualties.' The astonishing accuracy of his prediction opens up a whole new can of conspiracy theories."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also profits from this tragic incident. His position as a necessary, secular ally to fight regional extremism grows stronger with every ISIS-related fatality. It is going to become increasingly hard for the White House to keep referring to ISIS and Assad in the same breath.

Curiously, if SP reports to the ISIS nerve-centre in Raqqa, why target Russia at all? The US-led Operation Inherent Resolve has been far more damaging to the group's activities in Syria and Iraq than recent Russian airstrikes. This is also Obama's core criticism of Putin, that his troops in Syria are keeping Assad afloat by hitting Syrian rebels and not ISIS terrorists.

The US Department of Defense itself estimates that 85-90% of Russian military manoeuvres in Syria target anti-Assad militias. So, if anything, Russia has given ISIS a breather by making US intelligence gathering more difficult.

There is, of course, also the "wrong number" theory. It is possible that a bomb on board the Russian airliner was pure coincidental and could have ended up on any international flight leaving Sharm-el-Sheikh. This would explain why SP is being so cryptic about the operational details of the attack. The bomb may have been theirs, but someone else smuggled it in.

Interestingly, the newly clairvoyant US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter saw this coming. At a NATO meeting in Brussels on 8 October, he predicted, "In coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer from casualties." The astonishing accuracy of his prediction opens up a whole new can of conspiracy theories. Who, then, really downed Metrojet Flight 9268?

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