The investigation into who or what brought down a Russian chartered plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last weekend escalated into a high-stakes geopolitical dispute on Thursday, when British Prime Minister David Cameron, during a joint press conference in London with his Egyptian counterpart, said that the cause was “more likely than not a terrorist bomb” — only to be promptly challenged by Russian and Egyptian officials.
If true, Cameron’s claim would confirm fears that a Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has claimed responsibility for the incident, has managed to carry out the worst attack on a commercial airliner since 9/11. The stakes of the Egyptian investigation are astronomical for all parties involved: Egypt, whose security screening at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport failed to detect the alleged bomb; Russia, whose citizens accounted for most of the 224 people killed on the plane; and even the U.K., which on Friday began the task of flying some 20,000 citizens trapped in the Sinai back to Britain. And the outcome, particularly if it points to ISIL, will have far-reaching implications for the U.S.-led regional war against the group, which does not appear to have diminished its threat.
Armed groups such as ISIL sometimes claim responsibility for attacks in which they played no part, but security experts say Cameron is most likely taking his cue from British intelligence about ISIL threats made before the attack. U.S. officials, meanwhile, have bolstered his claims, suggesting to reporters that a heat flash was detected as the plane went down, possibly indicating a bomb, something President Barack Obama acknowledged was a "possibility" Thursday afternoon.
For Egypt, proof of a mass-casualty ISIL attack on foreign citizens would be devastating. In the short term, it would further cripple the country’s economy, especially its tourist sector, which has taken a dive amid the turmoil caused by ISIL’s Sinai Province affiliate. The U.K., which has suspended commercial flights to the region, is working to evacuate its remaining citizens in the Sinai.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi initially called ISIL’s claim of responsibility “propaganda.” But during his Thursday visit to London to meet with Cameron, Sisi did not openly dispute Cameron’s claim about a “terrorist bomb,” instead trying to reassure Britons that he plans to implement “the highest possible security arrangements” at Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort city on the Red Sea. Earlier this year British officials voiced concerns about its notoriously lax airport security. For Sisi, a U.S.-backed strongman, a mass-casualty attack would also call into question the effectiveness of his authoritarian crackdown on Egyptian Islamic groups, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which he has conflated with ISIL as one “terrorist” entity.
Russia similarly rebuffed the British claim as premature. In a phone call with Cameron on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that any “assessment of the causes of the crash should be based on the data,” according to a Kremlin statement describing the call.
The consequences of a confirmed ISIL attack on Russian civilians would be severe for Putin, analysts say. He recently launched an air campaign against what he called “terrorists” in Syria, ostensibly aligning himself with the U.S. and Western allies against ISIL, though the strikes have mainly targeted groups rebelling against the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, ISIL propaganda has taken aim at what it called Russian imperialism in the Middle East, heightening concern that the group's affiliate in the Caucasus might retaliate on Russian soil.
According to an analysis of the Sinai incident by the Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence consultancy, Putin may now need to reconsider whether the Syria intervention was “an opportunity to promote Russia’s world standing at relatively low cost and risk.” Before it began, his approval ratings hovered close to 90 percent. “But if the Russian people now believe that, as a result of Russian intervention, they are unsafe in their favorite holiday spots in Turkey, the Gulf states and North Africa — let alone at home — the mood may swing against him.”
More broadly, Soufan said, the U.S. and its partners in the regional military effort against ISIL may also have cause to reconsider their calculations. ISIL has long been viewed as a departure from its predecessor Al-Qaeda in that ISIL focused its attacks and propaganda on capturing territory. Striking the far enemy, as Al-Qaeda did on 9/11 but has not been able to replicate on such a large scale, did not figure high on ISIL’s list of priorities. ISIL messaging encourages recruits in other parts of the world to carry out lone wolf attacks, but such displays were “presented only as an inferior alternative to traveling to Syria and joining the effort to build the self-declared caliphate and fend off its immediate enemies.”
Soufan adds, “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.”