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.