November 9, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Beyond Sharm El-Sheikh and the Downing of a Russian Jet
• With growing consensus—backed primarily by signals intelligence—that Metrojet Flight 9268 was brought down by a bomb, international focus will shift to future threats
• Sharm el-Sheikh represents somewhat of an anomaly, as it is the only place an active and lethal Islamic State affiliate abuts a busy tourist location and airport, but the group has plenty of worldwide supporters
• Technical defenses against aviation terrorism have proven incredibly effective since 2001; the subversive human element could prove to be a serious challenge in the age of backscatter scanners and explosive detection devices
• Background checks on airport employees are vital, but they are static measures, while the threat from radicalization is dynamic.
The nightmare scenario for aviation experts is the inside job; a trusted employee who can bypass the multiple layers of security enveloping international air travel. While certainty continues to elude investigators of the downing of the Russian civilian flight from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheik to St. Petersburg, the consensus is that a bomb—most likely in the cargo hold—brought down the plane, killing all 224 people on board. Speculation is that the bomb was placed by either an employee of the airport or someone given access to the plane by an employee—the nightmare scenario, given that it is almost impossible to stop if the terror cell is not penetrated ahead of time.
Much of the publicly revealed information about why the United Kingdom and the United States went out on a geopolitical limb and stated—in advance of forensic evidence—that the crash was the result of an act of terror, suggests that the countries collected ‘terrorist chatter’ of a highly compelling nature. Some press reports claim that Israeli intelligence services came across incriminating ‘chatter’ that something big was going to happen in the Sinai in the near term. This information was then passed to various Western intelligence agencies.
In the intelligence world, there are few things more compelling—yet maddening and misleading—than ‘terrorist chatter.’ Security and intelligence agencies have long sought to listen in on the communications of terrorist groups in hopes of spotting and stopping a terrorist plot. However, It rarely works out that way. If an agency raised an alert or heightened security measures every time someone online mentioned ‘something big about to happen,’ the world’s transportation systems would grind to a halt. Indeed, terrorist groups know this, and fill their communiqués with non-stop threats in hopes of overwhelming collective security measures while a real threat gathers momentum.
If the reports of chatter specific to Sinai are true, it still shows how difficult it is to obtain granular information from afar, with sufficient advance notice and detail to actually prevent it. Most chatter makes obvious sense only in hindsight; intelligence agencies get faulted for failing to prevent what was only apparent after the fact. It remains to be seen how much intelligence was collected before the apparent bombing of the Russian jet over the Sinai, but it is more likely than not that the pieces made sense only after the plane crashed to the ground.
A noticeable shift in claiming terrorist involvement is how early the UK and U.S. said the plane crash was the fault of the so-called Islamic State, which echoed the group’s repeated claims of responsibility. That the two governments stepped ahead of the forensic evidence suggests they believe that the threat was larger than a one-time event. The Islamic State affiliate has been cagey about how the plane was brought down, while maintaining its responsibility for the attack. The absence of a martyrdom video suggests that the group had someone on the inside; until that person is arrested, the threat persists, leading the U.S. and the UK to force immediate Egyptian security measures by going public with information they probably would have preferred to keep secret.
While there will be a worldwide reassessment of aviation security, particularly in the vetting and monitoring of airport personnel, the alleged bombing might not herald a new age of similar attempts. If there was any place where the Islamic State could have pulled this off, it was in Sharm el-Sheikh. Nowhere else is there an active and capable Islamic State affiliate in such proximity to a popular tourist destination and international airport. The Islamic State might be new to the Sinai, but its extremism and operatives have been in the region for decades. While the group’s lone wolves are spread, in theory, across the globe, its affiliates are operating in conflict zones. Sharm el-Sheikh is a resort area pretending it is not in the middle of Sinai. That the Islamic State possibly penetrated the airport's security is as unsurprising as it is tragic. The larger question related to aviation security is whether individuals in other regions who have restricted access to airports have bought into the violent ideology of the Islamic State or other like-minded groups.
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