What really happened to Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 over Sinai a few days ago? Forget it. The fatal crash does not matter any more. Regardless of what truly did or did not happen to the Russian plane, the prevailing theory is that ISIS planted a bomb that led to the plane crash, and this has entered and stuck in the global mindset.
Communications and “chatter,” allegedly uncovered by British intelligence, followed by Britain suspending all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh has been enough to cement this possibility within the global consciousness. Britain and the United States have offered no evidence, however, as it is too late for a drawn out inquiry. Perception has won the day and Islamic State (IS) has secured a major psychological victory.
The Islamic State affiliate in Egypt has gained a prestigious reputation. It is now portrayed in global media as an upgraded, sophisticated terror group that has extended its sphere of influence beyond its initial bases in North Sinai, capable of recruiting Egyptians in sensitive positions, and maintaining their names and details in secret. Egypt will now live under the shadow of this monstrous perception with a tremendous impact on its security and economy.
Since the rise of the Islamic State, counter-terrorism experts have explained the main difference between this group and others like Al-Qaeda by the far enemy/near-enemy theory. As such, Al-Qaeda focuses on far enemies like the United States and Israel, launching attacks like 9/11. Meanwhile, the Islamic state has had different priorities, mainly establishing a “state” for itself and for its affiliates in countries around the region. This is precisely why, when Egypt’s Al-Qaeda affiliated terror group Ansar Beit Al-Magdis (ABM) swore loyalty to the Islamic State in November 2014, it shifted its focus from targeting the Israeli border to more local targets against the Egyptian Army in North Sinai and other areas, with fewer attacks in the rest of Egypt.
What has made the IS shift in style and copycat old techniques from its rival Al-Qaeda? The easiest answer is to respond to the Russians who are officially fighting IS in Syria. However, this answer ignores how the Russians focused on moderate rebels in Syria and not ISIS. In contrast, other countries, mainly America and France have been targeting IS for month, but none of their planes were attacked. If IS has managed to recruit conspirators at Sharm El-Sheikh airport, why it did not do the same in other failed states in the region, such as Libya, Syria or Iraq?
The assumption that Sharm El-Sheikh is more vulnerable than other Middle Eastern airports is false, and there have never been major security incidences in any other airport. In Egypt, however, since the collapse of Mubarak regime, there have been far more episodes of instability with deteriorating security, chaos, prison breaks, and street fights. If the group has agents in the airport, why they did not try to bring down more planes? Domestic Egyptian planes are arguably more vulnerable and easier to attack. Why didn’t IS release any details? The bomb’s theory is very plausible, but plausibility and some intelligence leaks are not enough to make it a fact.
Regardless of all this speculation, in fact, whether or not the Russian plane crash was indeed caused by a terror attack, it is more paramount for Egypt to turn this tragic event to its advantage. The Islamic State should not be allowed to establish its dream state by targeting domestic planes. If the terror group resorted already to such tactics, then is a potential sign of weakness hiding under the evil glamour of terror. The group has failed to clinch a state in Egypt, and it may have resorted to bombing planes just to maintain a deceptive perception of existence.
Therefore, the Egyptian authority must work harder to project this weak side of IS, and enhance its counter-terrorism abilities. Airport security may need substantial updates, but other aspects of fighting IS must also be considered.
This Russian tragedy might have been Egypt’s version of 9/11. Egypt should project itself as a responsible country that need support, not a reckless state that is hiding its own wrongdoing. Bomb or not, Egypt must prevail against terrorism in these circumstances.