US and European intelligence sources said Wednesday that there is a strong possibility an ISIS affiliate based in Sinai placed a bomb on a Russian plane bound for St. Petersburg.
The new evidence linking ISIS to the crash, which killed all 224 people on board, has the international community buzzing over ISIS’ sudden transformation into a major global threat.
And even as the investigation into the crash continues — the White House said Thursday it could not rule out the possibility of “terrorist involvement” — ISIS has already accomplished a significant feat, regardless of what the fuller picture of evidence eventually presents as their overall role in the attack.
“ISIS in a sense has already won the public back-and-forth because enough people suspect that ISIS may have done it, and for a group like ISIS the objective reality doesn’t matter — it is a propaganda war,” Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who studies Islamist movements, told the New York Times on Thursday.
“Objective truth of whether ISIS downed the Russian plane simply doesn’t matter as much now,” Hamid tweeted, after calling the group’s claims of responsibility for the crash a “propaganda coup” in a previous tweet.
“ISIS already won this round.”
A briefing by The Soufan Group echoed this sentiment: “Whether or not it was a bomb, and whether or not the Islamic State was responsible, the narrative is now set: the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. … will now forever be regarded as having pulled off the largest mass casualty terrorist attack outside a conflict zone since 9/11.”
‘They’re showing off’
That the MetroJet attack and the threat it poses to passenger transportation worldwide is being compared to the effect of the September 11, 2001, attacks on US soil displays how the incident has helped ISIS achieve a level of notoriety once enjoyed by Al Qaeda.
Taking responsibility for downing a civilian aircraft places ISIS in the ranks of Al Qaeda, which viewed global jihad as more of a long game and preferred to undermine the West and its partners with large scale, dramatic attacks.
The possibility that ISIS — which has long relied on territorial conquest and summary executions to consolidate power across the Middle East — has changed its approach to waging jihad would constitute significant momentum for the group.
“The Sinai attack would be a first, and would signal that the Islamic State has become both capable of — and interested in — joining the dreadful ranks of global terrorism,” The Soufan Group noted.
But as geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer pointed out to Business Insider, ISIS’s strategy hasn’t necessarily changed — it is still, at its core, a terrorist organisation that wants to be taken seriously and lure recruits to its ranks.
“ISIS is trying to project power against their enemies, big and small,” Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider in an email.
“They’re showing off their capabilities. If their top interest is gaining notoriety to attract recruits and financial support, the strategy is consistent.”
It is consistent with ISIS’ strategy, too, in that it keeps the target local rather than global.
“The Russians are a target because of their armed intervention in the Syrian civil war from a month ago, not because of their actions outside this theatre,” Jason Burke wrote in The Guardian on Thursday.
“The prime suspects behind the tragedy, if it does prove to be a terrorist attack, are local ISIS supporters in the Sinai. … The location of the strike is within the core zone of territory of most interest to ISIS.”
ISIS’ mastery of social media and online propaganda has already given it the ability to recruit tens of thousands of young jihadists in a way that Al Qaeda never could — with its written statements and bland, made-for-TV proselytizing. It was this success in shaping its media message that made larger-scale attacks unnecessary — ISIS already achieved widespread publicity without having to target other elements, like civilian aviation.
But this opportunity of a propaganda “coup” — with a major foreign power currently bombing ISIS positions in Syria — may have been too good for the group to pass up.
“Putin is not interested in war with ISIS,” Bremmer tweeted on Wednesday. “But war with ISIS is interested in him.”
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