Why it matters who built the bomb that brought down the Russian passenger jet

REUTERS
If it was a bomb that brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, the most logical conclusion is that Russia was targeted because of its military intervention in Syria.

If it turns out that a bomb planted by Islamic State loyalists brought down a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula, the attack would constitute a game-changing tactic by a movement that so far has been intent on controlling territory.

But in order to assess the risk is of more terror attacks, and who might be vulnerable, it matters who built the bomb and how it got on board.

Investigators haven’t reached a definitive conclusion that a bomb did indeed bring down Metrojet Flight 9268 on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board. But information slowly emerging on several continents points in that direction. On Sunday, Texas Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he had a “high degree of confidence” that the Islamic State was responsible for planting a bomb on the plane.

Russian and Egyptian officials are being more cautious, and given the political sensitivities for both, it might take a while for them to announce the results of the investigation. Over the weekend, an Egyptian official said an unusual noise was heard just before the plane broke apart in mid-air. French sources have described the noise as an explosion. Russia has suspended all flights to Egypt.

If it was a bomb, the most logical conclusion is that Russia was targeted because of its military intervention in Syria. Russia certainly has had its terrorism problems in the past, particularly in response to its actions in Chechnya and other largely Muslim areas of the Caucasus region. But it has not suffered anything like this for some time.

And if the Islamic State were responsible (an Egyptian affiliate active in Sinai claims it downed the plane), that would be a first. The movement has so far been much more interested in capturing and holding territory in Iraq and Syria.

So this would signify a major change of tactics.

But did the plot come together relatively quickly, after Russia began its buildup this fall, to take advantage of lax airport security? Or did Russia become a target of opportunity for a plot that was already well under way?

Up to this point, long-range, meticulous planning of terror attacks has been the hallmark of Al Qaeda, not the Islamic State. Years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen was responsible for plots to blow up a flight headed for Detroit in 2009, and a pair of Chicago-bound cargo planes in 2010.

Al Qaeda is not out of the game, but its capabilities have been degraded since then. If the Islamic State has picked up the mantle, that would probably mean: 

• The plot was launched well before Russia intervened in Syria.

• The Islamic State, or its Egyptian affiliate, may have a sophisticated bomb maker who has found a new way to assemble an explosive device that can evade airport security.

• Aircraft of other countries, not just Russia, could just as easily have been targeted, or might be targeted in the future. That includes the United States and Western European countries, which also are enemies of the Islamic State.

• Other airports may be vulnerable.

On the other hand, the Islamic State more than a year ago encouraged “lone wolf” attacks on Western targets because of the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. They did not have to be planned by or coordinated with the movement’s leadership. 

If investigators find evidence of a less sophisticated operation, it may mean:

• The plot came together relatively quickly, in response to Russia’s military actions in Syria.

• The key to the plot was not so much the technical makeup of the bomb, as finding a way through airport security specifically at Sharm el Sheikh — an opportunity that would not be widely available elsewhere.

• Russia is particularly vulnerable.

The Egyptian economy is heavily dependent on tourism, including visits to resorts in Sinai — a particularly popular destination for Russians. But the government of President Abdel Fattah Sisi, a former army officer, is also fighting militants in Sinai, and reports indicate that airport security was patchy.

That provides an opportunity for members of the Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, reportedly led by a former scholar and clothing importer known as Abu Osama Masri, to evade airport security or perhaps use an airport worker to plant the bomb. Such a plot would be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

Even if terrorists had long ago penetrated the airport in preparation for an attack, this one was aimed at a Russian plane, not one from Britain or other European countries that also fly directly to Sharm el Sheikh.

That doesn’t mean Western European countries or the U.S. won’t face smaller “lone wolf” attacks. But Russia appears to have been singled out.

If it was a bomb, President Vladimir Putin is likely to respond aggressively, falling back on his image as a tough guy. But in the past, terrorists have shown an ability to evade security services and hit Russia repeatedly. If they’ve decided to focus on Russia again, this time because of its  involvement in Syria, more pain could be coming.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/09/2015 - 10:26 am.

    The Logical Conclusion

    While the conclusion that a Russian airliner was targeted due to Russia’s involvement in Syria is a logical conclusion, it is not the only one. Russia has its own recent track record of anti-Muslim behavior, especially in Crimea and the areas its “volunteers” are occupying in Ukraine. It is also plausible that this plot was put together by someone working with an Egyptian sympathizer.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 11/09/2015 - 10:32 am.

    The next round of pain coming will not be Russian pain it will be poured on whoever Putin decides did this bombing. There will not be any talking or policy decisions it will be a pure revenge bombing on whoever did this. Things are about to get worse in the Mid East folks. Whether is ends up being ISIS or Al Qaeda (I thought they were defeated) they will suffer and the area will get more divided and dysfunctional, if that is even possible.

  3. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/09/2015 - 11:12 am.

    An important missing fragment of responsibility

    In a simple clarifying sentence, The Telegraph recently noted that a few operatives told ISIS leaders that they had placed a bomb on board the airplane. So what does this small story fragment mean?

    Well, it seems to certify the long-suspected fact that command centralization is clearly not the operating structure these days. Because Western agencies succeed (and fail) in their bureaucratic top-down matrices, we tend to view adversaries in that same model, albeit more condensed.

    As we have become quite successful in “droning” their chains of command, ISIL and others appear to have decentralized in response. And, that puts us back to the seemingly erratic and random techniques of 1970s European dissidents, as well as IRA cells in Britain.

    It’s been hard enough to keep track of all the tracks in the desert to date. We are now faced with the strategy of even fewer tracks to follow.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/10/2015 - 09:02 am.

      Centralization

      I question whether the bomb was planted by ISIL operatives, or sympathizers who told them about it after the fact. ISIL has been focused on capturing and holding territory, so acts of terrorism in other areas would be quite a departure for them.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/12/2015 - 09:02 am.

        Perhaps

        Following European news outlets often leads to better information. The British and French have been in the region a very long time, and seem to still have the best operatives there, as do the Israelis, for that matter. In this case, London and Paris developed the bomb story and Washington adopted it.

    • Submitted by Patrick Tice on 11/11/2015 - 04:02 pm.

      An astute comment

      The evolution of threats is like the evolving flu virus – always something new. Our ponderous top-down centralized systems are ill-suited to respond. The seminal conflict of the 21st Century will be between rational civilization and superstition-infused anarchy, but many in politics are still fighting the Cold War.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/14/2015 - 09:08 am.

    11-13-15

    Friday:

    The day France gained clearer perspective, and Europe began to tremble as the virus spreads.

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