The attacks in Paris are the deadliest terrorist incident on European soil since the Madrid bombings in 2004. But they weren’t even the most severe terrorist attack of the past month.
On Tuesday, the Russian government released footage in which the country’s intelligence chief said that Metrojet flight 9268 was destroyed by a bomb composed of 2.2 pounds of homemade TNT.
The aircraft came apart over the Sinai peninsula on October 31, killing all 224 people onboard.
Wilayat Sinai, a group formally known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis that pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014, quickly claimed responsibility for the plane’s destruction. In media interviews, anonymous US intelligence officials had expressed a high degree of confidence that the plane had been bombed. But the Russian announcement includes the most specific evidence that the plane was destroyed with an explosive.
Like the Paris attacks, which revealed the advanced state of ISIS’ external-attack capabilities, the Metrojet bombing has some jarring implications.
The attack was apparently executed on the initiative of Wilayat Sinai and without any specific orders or coordination from the Syria and Iraq-based “caliphate’s” leadership. It involved the construction and transport of an explosive device under the noses of Egypt’s security services, which are not exactly known for their adherence to concepts of human rights or due process. And it involved the recruitment or cultivation of insiders at the Sharm el Sheikh airport — people with the access needed to place a bomb onboard an aeroplane.
Like in Paris, ISIS-affiliated terrorists carried out a sophisticated plot within a difficult security environment, demonstrating capabilities that they weren’t widely believed to have.
In short, ISIS pulled off of its most alarming attacks in the space of less than a month.
The Paris attack proves how ISIS has succeeded in expanding its operations in Europe. The Metrojet bombing is important for showing how ISIS has shifted the outlook and strategy of jihadist groups outside of its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
As Zack Gold, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center and an expert on Sinai militancy, explained to Business Insider, the Metrojet attack actually involved an explosive device less sophisticated than others Wilayat Sinai has constructed. As he noted, the construction of the bomb itself was one of “the easiest parts of the entire plot.”
But in targeting a plane full of tourists, Wilayat Sinai was pursuing goals that go beyond simply inflicting a high body count or punishing civilians for the policies of their government. Instead, the group wants to do everything it can to undermine the Egyptian government, even if its actions would undermine local support.
“Wilayat Sinai and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis before it have this operational strategy that’s more than simply fighting against soldiers and security forces of the state,” Gold said. “Really, they’re trying to collapse the state, and part of that is going after economic drivers of the state itself.”
As Gold puts it,Wilayat Sinai and its predecessor organisation hasn’t just attacked tourists but tourism itself, releasing statements that described its bombing of a bus of Korean tourists in February 2014 as an act of “economic warfare.”
Egyptians will lose their livelihoods from a decline in tourism in the wake of the Metrojet attack, which has already led to a suspension in flights between Sharm el-Sheikh and both Russia and the United Kingdom. But such a downturn also denies the Egyptian state of foreign currency and erodes the economic justification for the current authoritarian regime’s rule over the country.
This strategy represents a reversion to an earlier era in Egyptian jihadism. In 1997, jihadists killed 62 people at the 3500-year-old Temple of Hatsheptsut in Luxor, while tourism in the Sinai never fully recovered from a string of hotel bombings in the mid-2000s. Popular support for jihadist groups evaporated as soon as their actions began to cut into Egyptians’ livelihoods.
Wilayat Sinai militants, many of whom have fought with ISIS in Libya or Syria, don’t seem to care about that precedent.
“The group is no longer attempting to gain the support of the local population,” Gold said. “They’re now simply going full speed in their own agenda.”
ISIS’ strategy of total warfare against the states and societies that oppose it has percolated beyond the caliphate. This is one possible link between the apparent Metrojet bombing and the attacks in Paris, along with what they both suggest about ISIS’s burgeoning attack capabilities: Both events demonstrate how ISIS has oriented jihadist groups around inflicting maximum damage with little consideration for tactical victories or short-term goals.
In Egypt, Wilayat Sinai seeks to undermine the basis of the Egyptian state, regardless of the ground-level consequences. And in Europe — and far beyond — ISIS-affiliated terrorists are attacking the softest possible targets, like restaurants, museums, and houses of worship.
The two attacks show how jihadist networks have internalized ISIS’s brutal goals and methods — at the same time these groups are becoming even deadlier and more sophisticated.
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