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ISIS bomb on plane would alter outlook for Mideast, West, analysts say

| Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, 11:38 p.m.
Pieces are all that remain of a Russian airliner that crashed in central Sinai near El Arish city, north Egypt, on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015.
REUTERS
Pieces are all that remain of a Russian airliner that crashed in central Sinai near El Arish city, north Egypt, on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015.

CAIRO — If an ISIS bomb brought down a Russian jetliner, it will “change everything” in the Middle East as well as the West, intelligence and political analysts told the Tribune-Review.

The disaster, and the possibility it was a terror attack, have damaged Egypt's tourism-dependent economy and its diplomatic relations with two key allies: the United States and Britain.

Nervous Western nations have restricted commercial flights to Egypt and tightened airport security at home.

All of that fits the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — to destabilize Arab regimes, unbalance Western nations and, ultimately, drive the West from the Arab world.

Yet the real impact of ISIS graduating from ground offensives and car bombs to sophisticated attacks in the air would be the rise in its high appeal for would-be jihadis around the world. Furthermore, the analysts say, it would elevate the global Islamist threat to a level not seen since al-Qaida's 2001 attacks in the United States.

ISIS immediately claimed credit for the Oct. 31 crash that killed 224 passengers and crew shortly after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh, a popular resort in Egypt's southern Sinai.

Russian and Egyptian investigators have not determined why the plane disintegrated in midair, but American, British and French officials say a bomb is the likely cause. French authorities said Friday that an explosion could be heard on the jetliner's cockpit voice recorder.

“Now we are talking about (ISIS) being able to pull off an attack that, until now, only al-Qaida was able to pull off,” said Olivier Guitta, managing director of GlobalStrat, a British security and political risk-assessment firm.

“This is totally different, and this changes everything in the threat they represent to the West.”

Egyptian officials have discounted terrorism as a cause and challenged Western speculation, asking why intelligence warnings hinted at by American and British officials were not shared.

The head of Egypt's investigation into the Russian MetroJet crash said Saturday that identifying the cause would be premature as his team is still collecting data.

Investigators have seen media reports favoring “a certain scenario” but were “not provided with any information or evidence” by foreign governments, Ayman al Muqaddam said during a news conference.

Much is at risk for Egypt: Tourism dollars, crucial to the economy, were just returning, having evaporated amid the instability that accompanied the nation's 2011 revolution.

“For a country that depends on tourism to such an extent, obviously this is going to be devastating,” said Issandr al Amrani, North African director of the International Crisis Group, headquartered in Brussels.

Many Egyptians complain that they are learning more from foreign media reports than their officials — yet another unwelcome public relations problem for Egypt's government.

“The Egyptians really need to ... start controlling the narrative, at least to say what they have learned so far from the (plane's) black boxes, ” Amrani said. “At the very least, maybe they are not ready to say it is a bomb, but say ‘That is one possibility and we are looking into it.'

“They have been terrible on the information flow.”

A Russian jihadi?

In an audio statement posted on Twitter, a spokesman for Ansar Beit al Maqdis — a North Sinai ISIS affiliate — said it targeted the jetliner “in response to Russian airstrikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land.”

The attack was timed, he said, to the anniversary of the Egyptian group's alliance with ISIS.

“We, with God's grace, are the ones who brought it down, and we are not obliged to disclose the mechanism of its demise,” the spokesman said in Arabic. “So go to the wreckage, search, bring back your black boxes and analyze ... and prove that we did not bring it down.”

The claim initially was dismissed, since ISIS is unlikely to have the surface-to-air missiles needed to hit a jetliner flying at 30,000 to 40,000 feet. The skepticism soon disappeared, however, as President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron mentioned the possibility of a bomb on the doomed flight.

Guitta, among others, believes the ISIS statement should be taken seriously.

“Their history and their credibility is most important for them. Until now, they haven't had a claim of responsibility that was wrong,” he said.

The Egyptian ISIS affiliate, which arose in Sinai in 2011, has “the bomb-making expertise” for this kind of attack, according to Amrani.

“They have been using (explosive devices) in the Northeast Sinai for quite a long time,” he said. “The situation (there) looks a bit similar to Iraq in the mid-2000s — they have used large and quite effective truck bombs” to kill hundreds of police and soldiers.

He cautioned that “we can't assume it was an Egyptian” who placed a bomb aboard the jetliner: “It could have been a Russian jihadi (affiliated with ISIS), and they have a lot of them.”

Russia unsuccessfully fought Islamists in Afghanistan for a decade, starting in 1979, and has battled them in its restive province, Chechnya, since 1999. Chechen rebels and other Russian Islamists have carried out terror attacks in Russia or joined insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

Guitta agreed that a Russian jihadist could be responsible but said he doubts the bomber was on board “because they would have had a testimonial video,” a farewell message that is a staple of suicide attacks.

ISIS might not identify such a jihadist, either, he noted, “because they don't want (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to go after (his) family.”

Potential ‘game-changer'

Western sources have criticized Egyptian security procedures at Sharm el-Sheikh's airport, but “Sharm is a very secure city,” Amrani said.

“It has big meetings, it has the tradition of (deposed) President Hosni Mubarak spending a lot of time there, it is a major tourist destination,” he said. “At all the access points to the city, there is a lot of security, and all the security in South Sinai has been beefed up” since Islamist violence erupted in the north in 2011.

“This takes it to a whole other level, although it is not entirely surprising,” Amrani said. “The security situation has deteriorated continuously over the last few years, in that we are seeing more frequent attacks and they are spreading” across Egypt.

The country's overall security, he added, “is very worrying … for the foreseeable future. Everyone is going to start looking at the worst-case scenarios and … for a country that is pretty dependent on remaining open to the outside world, it is bad news.”

If ISIS's claim of responsibility holds up, “it is a game-changer” for the entire region, Guitta said.

“Until now, most experts — including myself — have concluded that the Islamic State is a low-sophisticated organization — you know, you have guys strapping themselves up in a suicide vest and blowing themselves up,” he explained.

Betsy Hiel is Trib Total Media's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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