Crash of Russian Plane Highlights Islamic State Offshoot’s Ambition

European Airlines Suspend Flights to Sinai
  • Egypt-based affiliate says it caused Russian plane crash
  • Militants' roots trace back to earlier Red Sea resort attacks

A terrorist bomb is emerging as the most likely explanation for the Russian plane crash in Egypt on Saturday, according to U.S. and U.K. officials. If it turns out to have been the Islamic State affiliate which claimed responsibility, it would surprise few familiar with its rapid rise.

Known originally as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Supporters of the Holy House in Jerusalem, the group’s origins can be traced to a series of attacks by militants on Red Sea tourist resorts in the Sinai between 2004 and 2006. The violence left at least 145 people dead, and marked the beginning of a more aggressive Islamist militancy in Egypt that had previously been limited to the Nile Valley and Delta areas.

A brutal crackdown by government forces managed to quell the attacks, but the militants lay dormant only temporarily.

Their ranks swelled dramatically after 2009, when Hamas began a crackdown on jihadists in the neighboring Gaza Strip, according to Mokhtar Awad, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, and Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Cornered, the veteran Palestinian militants fled the only way they could -- into Egypt through tunnels linking Gaza to the Sinai.

Then came the 2011 uprising that ousted Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak.

‘Opportunity’

“The security collapse following the Egyptian revolution provided Sinai jihadists with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Awad and Tadros wrote in an August paper published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. Coupled with the easy flow of weapons from Libya, which was embroiled in its own revolution, the Sinai became a favored base for radical Islamists from across the region, they wrote.

The militants stepped up their attacks, bombing the natural gas pipeline linking Egypt to Israel more than two dozen times from 2011-2013, as well as sporadic forays into southern Israel.

It was during this period that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis gained notoriety as Egypt’s most dangerous militant group. Their “unique strength” was the group’s coalition between operatives loyal to al-Qaeda, jihadis with more local grievances and radical militants from Gaza who were still predominantly focused on Israel, Awad and Tadros wrote.

Bolder Attacks

The military-led ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi just one year into his term provided the militants with yet another call to arms. The group declared war on the Egyptian government, and their attacks became bolder -- including bombing the Italian consulate in Cairo and a failed assassination attempt on the minister of interior.

The group’s ambitions grew again in 2014, when it changed its named to Sinai Province and pledged allegiance to the rapidly expanding Islamic State. It acquired more powerful weaponry, and was able to attack an Egyptian frigate off the coast of northern Sinai using a targeted missile in July.

Whereas Ansar Beit al-Maqdis were known for hit-and-run attacks, Sinai Province violence increasingly resembles the territory-grabbing offensives of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to Michael Horowitz, senior analyst at Middle East risk consultancy Levantine Group.

Growing Similarities

In July, Sinai Province killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers in simultaneous attacks on a security checkpoint. It took airstrikes from F-16 fighters to beat the militants back -- after a fight that lasted at least 10 hours.

“There is an alignment in tactics, and in propaganda,” Horowitz said of the similarities between Sinai Province and Islamic State. “This is a group that is trying to capture land. A group that is very ambitious, and very dangerous.”

The most immediate question is whether the group now has the means to target a commercial airliner. Sinai Province’s claim to have brought down the Russian Metrojet plane were quickly dismissed by security experts on the grounds that the group isn’t thought to have surface-to-air missiles capable of reaching the plane’s cruising altitude.

With attention now focusing on an explosion, perhaps due to a device placed on board by a baggage handler or an airline official, its involvement is no longer ruled out. Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, has said al-Qaeda members in Syria have been developing non-metallic improvised explosive devices that can avoid screening technology. Other theories include getting a bomb onto the plane via a security guard or a baggage handler.

“The threat is not only for the region,” said Mustafa Alani, the Dubai-based director of national security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center. Islamic State “never recognized borders, it’s growing to be a global institution. It could be more active in the region but you should not rule out that they could hit other parts of the world,” he said.

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