November 5, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Terror in the Skies

• The United Kingdom has concluded that the downing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai on Saturday was most likely caused by a bomb


• The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for what is now increasingly presumed to be an act of terror, and is the most likely culprit for the deaths of all 224 people on board


• This would be a new departure for the Islamic State, and will require a recalculation by the direct and indirect participants in the Syrian civil war as to the consequences of their involvement


• The attack on the Russian aircraft is a depressing reminder that the world is still trapped in an age of terrorism.


The British authorities concluded last night that the Russian airliner that crashed in the Sinai peninsula on Saturday was, in all likelihood, brought down by a bomb. Comments by unnamed intelligence sources in the U.S. have backed up this conclusion, though with less conviction. While the British statement made no mention of the so-called Islamic State, or of the reasons for the suspicion that this was a terror attack, it appears that the assessment was made on the basis of intercepted Islamic State communications. As terrorists often claim responsibility for events that have nothing to do with them—and are constantly encouraging each other with reports of impending attacks—the intelligence in this case must have carried particular weight.

Whether or not it was a bomb, and whether or not the Islamic State was responsible, the narrative is now set: the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, which claimed to have brought down the plane soon after the crash on Saturday and again yesterday, will now forever be regarded as having pulled off the largest mass casualty terrorist attack outside a conflict zone since 9/11. This narrative will endure, regardless of whatever contradictory evidence comes forward in the official inquiry into the disaster.

While it is of course still possible that the Islamic State had nothing to do with this tragedy, the fear that it did will have a major impact on the calculations of the parties involved in the Syrian civil war. Until now, most observers believed that the Islamic State was focused almost entirely on attracting more recruits to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria. The exhortation to its foreign supporters to attack in their home countries was presented only as an inferior alternative to traveling to Syria and joining the effort to build the self-declared caliphate and fend off its immediate enemies. While some minor attacks in the West could reasonably be described as having been inspired by the Islamic State, there had been no clear evidence that any attack on a non-Arab target had been planned or directed by the group itself. The Sinai attack would be a first, and would signal that the Islamic State has become both capable of—and interested in—joining the dreadful ranks of global terrorism.

For the individual states involved in the Syrian conflict, the attack will give serious pause for thought. President Putin has regarded Syria as an opportunity to promote Russia’s world standing at relatively low cost and risk, but will now be keeping a close eye on public opinion at home. Shortly after the start of the Russian military campaign in Syria, his approval rating stood at close to 90%. But if the Russian people now believe that as a result of Russian intervention they are unsafe in their favorite holiday spots in Turkey, the Gulf states and North Africa—let alone at home—the mood may swing against him. There are around 2,500 Russians fighting with extremist groups in Syria, and there is some evidence to suggest that the Russian authorities have been encouraging others to join them rather than create problems at home. But if the result is more terrorism against Russian targets outside Russia, this policy may look short-sighted.

On the other side, those countries that have been supporting the rebels will be even more careful about the equipment they supply. In the fluidity and complexity of the war in Syria, it is always uncertain who will end up fighting with whom, or which group may strip another of its weapons. Already, the Russians have made clear that they will hold accountable any country that supplies weapons to a rebel group that are later used against its own aircraft or support staff. The attack in Sinai, however, both increases the range of possible targets and heightens the severity of the consequences of weapons falling into the wrong hands—presenting a dilemma to states that know only too well that the Syrian Army’s sole advantage over the rebels is their ability to dominate the air.

Beyond the immediate theater of the Syrian civil war, the international community will have to recalculate the degree to which the threat from terrorism has increased as a result of the Islamic State joining al-Qaeda as a group capable of attacks outside its main area of operation. It is depressing that after 14 years of counterterrorism measures that have focused in particular on protecting civilian aviation, the threat to passenger transportation seems as real as ever.


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