Sinai slaughter in the skies: The terror dimension
BEIRUT - The apparent bombing of the Russian Airbus A321-200 that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard, marks a new milestone in modern terrorism, an era that began with the carnage of September 11, 2001.
The slaughter in Sinai was the first successful in-flight bombing of a civilian passenger jet since Chechen jihadist suicide attackers, both women, destroyed two Russian airliners in flight almost simultaneously on August 24, 2004, killing 90 people.
The Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province, the Egyptian wing of the Muslim caliphate declared by Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014, claimed three times that it destroyed the Airbus operated by Russia’s Kogalymavia airline, also known as Metrojet.
It did not specify how but said the attack, Russia’s deadliest air disaster, was retaliation for Russia President Vladimir Putin’s armed intervention to rescue the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
US and British intelligence reported that before the October 31st crash electronic surveillance networks intercepted “chatter” between the ISIS leadership and its Sinai wing that indicated a major operation was under way.
Investigators say the jet blew up at an altitude of 9,400 metres, 23 minutes after taking off for St Petersburg from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh carrying mostly Russian vacationers.
If flight 9268 was indeed bombed, it would be one of the most lethal terrorist actions since the 2001 attacks and possibly the most significant because it suggests that ISIS, al-Qaeda’s savage successor, is branching out from conquering Arab territory for its self-proclaimed caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq to mass-casualty attacks on the non-Arab world.
British analyst Simon Tisdall observed that “Putin has put Russia directly in the firing line” by sending forces to support Assad and supposedly hammer ISIS, which Moscow sees as a threat by fanning the flames of jihad in Russia’s volatile, Muslim-majority republics.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned in October that Putin’s armed intervention into the increasingly toxic war in Syria “will have consequences for Russia itself… In the coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer casualties.”
The 224 people who died in the Metrojet crash may not have been what Carter had in mind but that slaughter in the skies over Sinai could be a brutal precursor of what’s to come as a vengeful Russia concentrates its firepower in Syria, and probably Iraq as well, on ISIS.
The Baghdad parliament has been seeking Russian air power to escalate the war against ISIS in Iraq, a campaign that has been largely stymied since the Iraqi military collapsed after ISIS seized the northern city of Mosul and declared its caliphate.
If Metrojet flight 9268 was destroyed by a bomb, the shock waves could be widespread and deadly.
Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think-tank, noted that “the irony is that Vladimir Putin could be pressed into actually doing what he has been pretending to do for a month: directly targeting ISIS in Syria.
“Moscow has dropped over 90% of its bombs on areas where ISIS has little presence. Instead it has focused more on moderate rebel groups fighting the regime of Bashar Assad, including many backed by the US. But pressing ISIS harder could bring the Russians into closer proximity to the US-led coalition” in Syria, Joshi said.
Moscow, he added, could use the Sinai disaster to justify expanding its presence in Syria, which the United States says has already grown from 2,000 military personnel in early September to 4,000 now.
“That could further constrain the West’s own options and massively amplify the already growing refugee flow,” he warned. “If the official investigations point towards ISIS, we could see things moving quickly.”
The Americans have hammered ISIS in Iraq and Syria with a campaign of air strikes since the summer of 2014. These may have done some damage but they have not diminished ISIS’s operational capabilities and its stunning rise or the threat its self-proclaimed caliphate represents through its transcendent appeal to marginalised Muslims.
The barbaric group, having thoroughly eclipsed its predecessor, al-Qaeda, “is uniquely resilient and remains extremely dangerous and unpredictable”, the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
If ISIS’s Sinai wing was indeed responsible for destroying the Russian Airbus, it will mark a sharp intensification of its operational capabilities, hitherto restricted to Egypt.
By escalating its actions outside the Middle East into a “foreign strategy”, ISIS will transform itself from a regional threat to a global one — a major boost to its claim to be the standard bearer of militant Islam.
“If confirmed, this attack would mark a major shift by the Islamic State and should force us to rethink the threat that the group poses to the world,” warned Daniel L. Byman, a counterterrorism expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington.