Paul Pillar

Why the U.S. Should Pay Attention to the Plane Crash in the Sinai

As usual after incidents comparable to the crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai, interpretations and theories have gotten ahead of facts and investigations. Amid the widespread assumption that a bomb downed the aircraft—which may well have been the case—we might remember TWA Flight 800, which exploded off Long Island shortly after taking off from New York City in 1996. That incident was the subject of comparably strong assumptions that terrorism was involved, until a very long investigation finally concluded that the explosion was caused by an electrical short circuit that ignited vapor in a fuel tank. Nonetheless, if a bomb indeed was what brought down the Russian plane, some useful albeit conditional analysis is still possible.

Suspicion immediately focused on the most active violent group in the Sinai, which formerly called itself Supporters of the Holy House but last year said it was affiliating with Islamic State or ISIS and now calls itself the Sinai Province of ISIS. While recognizing that there is another factual gap involved—if a bomb downed the plane, it remains to be proven that this particular group was the perpetrator—the suspicion is well-founded. The group has been carrying out a series of lethal attacks, especially in the two years since the Egyptian military under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted the country's elected president in a coup.

The fact that the Sinai group now carries the ISIS name has repeated a pattern that was prevalent when various violent groups in different countries were announcing that they were affiliating with al-Qaeda. This process of affiliation led to the habit in commentary of treating this network of groups as if it were a single organization even when it really wasn't. Al-Qaeda was functioning as a well-known brand name that groups adopted to identify with something larger than themselves, and with a cause larger than their own local concerns. Since the name ISIS—and ISIS itself began as one of those al-Qaeda affiliates—has displaced al-Qaeda as the most popular brand name in the world of Sunni radicals, a similar pattern has arisen under a different name, with similar habits in how this is all perceived in the West.

The attachment of the ISIS name to the Sinai group suspected of attacking the Russian airliner that flew out of Sharm el-Sheikh has understandably raised questions about what, if anything, the attack has to do with what the Russian military is doing in Syria. But given that the group now calling itself the Sinai Province of ISIS really is a distinct group from ISIS itself in Syria and Iraq, motives for the attack are at least as likely to do with the Sinai group's objectives in Egypt as with what is going on in Syria. Those objectives involve toppling the regime in Cairo. Attacking a plane carrying foreigners who vacationed at Sharm el-Sheikh is a way of attacking the tourist trade in Egypt, which is a way of degrading the Egyptian economy, which is a way of undermining the el-Sisi regime. This is basically the same strategy that an earlier generation of Egyptian terrorists tried to use against the Mubarak regime in the 1990s.

An implication here for U.S. policy has to do with how the policies of the el-Sisi regime, which are more repressive than those of Mubarak, are feeding an upsurge of Egyptian-based terrorism. For the United States, this should be a major factor in shaping U.S. relations with Cairo, including what is still a major aid relationship. The incident in the Sinai is a reminder that among the other costs of el-Sisi's repressive policies is a violent reaction that can take classic international terrorist forms and can harm interests well beyond Egypt itself.

Another implication for the United States involves that possible Syrian angle. Russian military activity in Syria to date, despite the way Moscow has described its campaign, has mostly not been directed at ISIS but instead at other Syrian opposition groups. The Russian airstrikes may actually have been helping ISIS indirectly by strengthening its ability to present itself as the only viable alternative to the Assad regime. This is all a reason to question whether ISIS would have had any motive to go after Russians in particular.

Retribution from ISIS is, however, a factor to be taken very seriously. ISIS, lacking Al-Qaeda's “hit the far enemy” doctrine and focused instead on building its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, did not start out with a reason to go looking for ways to use transnational terrorism to strike at the West and the United States. But those who interfere with the group's caliphate-building plans make themselves potential ISIS targets by doing so. And it is the United States, not Russia, that is the outside power intervening most extensively against ISIS today.

The Russian airliner may have been a target of opportunity for someone able to infiltrate the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh and wanting to strike a blow against the Egyptian tourism industry. Russians have been the biggest foreign users of Sharm el-Sheikh, and U.S. airlines don't fly there. But a search for U.S. targets in response to what the United States is doing in Syria may already be under way.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sergey Korovkin