Consensus Continues To Grow That Russian Airliner Was Taken Out By A Bomb

The investigation continues, but the consensus seems to be growing that Metrojet 9268 was taken out by a bomb.

Metrojet A321 Wreckage

There has yet to be an official determination from any government, but the growing consensus appears to be that the Russian passenger jet that came down over the Sinai Peninsula a week ago was brought down by a bomb:

WASHINGTON — Senior House members said Sunday that there was a mounting consensus among American intelligence officials that a bomb brought down the Russian charter jet that crashed last month in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing all 224 people on board.

“I think there’s a growing body of intelligence and evidence that this was a bomb — still not conclusive — but a growing body of evidence,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on the ABC program “This Week.”

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York and the chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on terrorism and intelligence, went further, saying on the same program that intelligence officials he had spoken to believed that the Islamic State or an affiliate was behind the crash.

“Right now all the evidence points in that direction,” Mr. King said.

It is not clear how much American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have learned about the crash, which occurred Oct. 31. American investigators have not been invited to visit the crash site, and while the Russian government has asked the F.B.I. for help, it is not known how much information Moscow has shared with the bureau.

In the days before the crash, electronic communications in which militants discussed an aviation attack were intercepted, but American officials said that type of “chatter” is often picked up.

Mr. Schiff, who was briefed by intelligence officials on Saturday, raised the possibility that someone working at the airport may have helped the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, place a bomb on the plane.

“ISIS may have concluded that the best way to defeat airport defenses is not to go through them but to go around them with the help of somebody on the inside,” Mr. Schiff said.

“And if that’s the case,” he added, “I think there are probably at least a dozen airports in the region and beyond that are vulnerable to the same kind of approach, which is exactly why we have to harden those defenses.

(…)

f the Islamic State was behind the crash, it was able to mount the kind of attack that Al Qaeda has found difficult to carry out in recent years. At least three times since 2009, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has come close but failed to bring down an airliner using bombs that were designed to be undetectable.

Western intelligence officials have feared that the Islamic State has larger ambitions for attacks outside Syria and Iraq — where it seized large stretches of land in 2014 — especially after the United States and Russia began separate military operations against the group. The Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai, which controls a significant amount of territory, is believed to have a large measure of autonomy from the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

Perhaps the best indication that investigators are focusing on an explosive device on board the plane as the cause of the airliner’s destruction have come in the past two days from Moscow. First, the Russians announced that all flights between Russia and Egypt have been suspended. This includes not just flights from the regional airport on the Red Sea where the Metrojet flight originated, but also the international airport in Cairo, arguably a sign that there are concerns about the integrity of Egyptian airport security in general not just security at one airport. Secondly, it was announced today that Russian investigators have requested assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has teams that specialize in investigating these types of matters. It’s not unusual for other nations to request FBI or FAA assistance in these types of case, but it is somewhat unusual for the Russians to do so and this is arguably an indication that they are focusing on the bomb theory as well and want the assistance of people experienced in the field.

The big question, of course, is what the implication and consequences might be from the confirmation that it was a bomb that brought the plane down, especially if it can be confirmed that an ISIS-linked organization was responsible for the attack. As I noted yesterday, the American coalition against ISIS has largely turned into an American-only effort as other nations have scaled back even the rather minor efforts they had undertaken in conjunction with the United States. The confirmation that ISIS has the ability to place bombs on international airliners, though, could potentially change the thinking of many nations in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, all of whom could see their airliners and their citizens become the direct or indirect targets of ISIS terrorism. It may not mean much more in terms of military commitments, but it would strike me that this kind of threat is something the world as a whole would be paying close attention to.

As for how Russia itself might respond to this attack, well, there’s some history in that regard:

MOSCOW—In 1999, a series of apartment bombings in the Russian cities of Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk killed around 300 people and set off a national panic. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin responded swiftly, overseeing the launch of an offensive in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and vowing to eliminate the Islamist fighters the Kremlin blamed for the attacks.

That take-no-prisoners response to terrorism propelled Mr. Putin, then a relatively little-known former intelligence officer, to the presidency. And it became a pattern: Under his leadership, Russia has dealt ruthlessly with terror attacks, including the siege of a Moscow theater in 2002 and a hellish school hostage-taking in 2004.

“With these [terrorists] one can only speak with severe methods,” Mr. Putin said in 2001, months before the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. “They do not understand any other language.”

While the Kremlin on Thursday dismissedBritish concerns that a bomb brought down a Russian passenger jet in Egypt, Russia has military options if a terrorist attack is confirmed. In late September, Mr. Putin’s government launched a campaign of airstrikes against targets in Syria, following a secretive buildup of combat aircraft at a coastal base there.

The ISIS affiliates in Sinai are responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on army and police posts in Egypt in recent years. They now claim to have downed a Russian passenger plane, though authorities are still investigating the crash.

The move was preceded by a speech by Mr. Putin at the United Nations, where the Russian leader cast his country as the only world power capable of stopping the militant group Islamic State. And he has made clear he considers the element of surprise to be an essential part of his counterterrorism strategy.

“The streets of Leningrad taught me one thing: If a fight can’t be avoided, it’s best to hit first,” he said in October. “Better to fight them there than wait for them here.”

Mr. Putin has said Russia’s military campaign in Syria will be limited to airstrikes, publicly ruling out ground troops. But observers say Moscow could escalate its campaign there or move quickly to round up alleged extremists at home.

“If you look at Vladimir Putin’s history with terrorists, he always responds with force and his strategy is almost without exception to kill them all, which could mean an intensification of the operation in Syria,” said Varvara Pakhomenko, an analyst with the think-tank International Crisis Group.

(…)

Russia’s air war in Syria has so far boosted Mr. Putin’s approval ratings. But an Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State made a fresh claim of responsibility Wednesday for downing the Russian jet, raising the prospect that Islamist militants have directly retaliated against Russia over its intervention in Syria.

Mr. Putin has cast Islamic State as enemy No. 1 in the current air campaign, but analysts say the Kremlin is eager to play down the possibility of retaliation by Islamic State, as it contradicts the narrative on Russian state television that Moscow’s strikes against terrorists in Syria have been carried out successfully without casualties.

Russia’s fight against Islamist extremists in the north Caucasus has simmered for more than a decade, occasionally spilling into the Russian heartland. The insurgency there is rooted in two wars with Chechen separatists, but Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict is steering it into direct confrontation with Islamic State, which has already made inroads in the North Caucasus.

The Caucuses, of course, are an easier area for the Russians to apply military force than Syria is even with its base on the Medeterranean and the other assets it has brought into the country in the past several months. However, it wouldn’t seem like it would take much effort for Putin to bring in more air power to direct against ISIS than is already in the country. Indeed, if a bomb is confirmed it would seem that he will be required to make some kind of aggressive response just for the sake of Russian public opinion, which is obviously still a concern for him not withstanding his iron grip on power. Finally, hitting ISIS in Syria, and possibly Iraq, would also likely be intended to send a message to those groups in the Caucuses and elsewhere on the Russian frontier that have expressed support for ISIS or are thinking of doing so. Tied up in all of this, of course, is how any Russian response would fit into what the United States is doing, because while it’s unlikely that we’d be formally working together in Syria the fact that we may now have parallel interests at stake is worth taking note of going forward.

 

FILED UNDER: Europe, Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    The three parties most likely to put a bomb on a Russian airliner are Muslims who don’t like foreign tourists, Israel and the U.S.

  2. Why would Israel or the U.S. put a bomb on a Russian airliner? What evidence is there of either nation doing such a thing?

    Also, if you’re going to go engage in conspiracy theories involving Israel and the U.S., why not consider the possibility that Putin did it himself to provide justification for a wider war against certain targets in Syria?

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I am really surprised they asked for help from the FBI. Admitting that the US has expertise they don’t? Not Putin’s style at all.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Also, if you’re going to go engage in conspiracy theories. . .

    I simply stated the three groups with greatest motivation to destroy the airliner. Involvement by the U.S. government or Israel doesn’t constitute a conspiracy.

    . . .why not consider the possibility that Putin did it himself to provide justification for a wider war against certain targets in Syria?

    A wider war has nothing in it for Putin. The Russian strategy is to stabilize an alawite/christian state not to invade the Middle East. Can you name something in Syria the Russians feel they need more justification to bomb?

    Why would Israel or the U.S. put a bomb on a Russian airliner?

    To punish Russia, obviously. The Israeli government hates them for intervening on behalf of the Syrian government and supporting Iran, while U.S. officials Ashton Carter, Samantha Power and John Kerry have publicly stated over and again “The Russians will pay a price”. When you threaten someone and then something untoward happens to them, the people making the threats are suspects.

  5. Tillman says:

    @Ben Wolf: So one of the likelier stories is we had a clandestine agency plant a bomb on an airliner in order to fulfill vague prognostications by some officials?

    Think even the CIA would balk at that one.

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tillman: That’s a radical-left take you’re expressing with some rogue agency controlling the government. There’s no reason to think the CIA or anyone else wouldn’t be acting on orders.

  7. Lounsbury says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    ‘The Muslims’ is a sheer piece of idiocy.

    Millions of Egyptians, Tunisians, Moroccans working in the tourism industry, and quite Muslim, like foreign tourists just fine.

    Some several hundreds of whacko Salafists hate tourists.

    More relevant, however, than empty-headed generalizations, and ridiculous conspiracy theories around Israeli or American intel services, is the long-standing resentment of the ethnically distinct Sinai Bedouin towards the Nile Valley Egyptians – a resentment and dislike that goes back decades – who also happen to dominate the Beach Tourism trade (as one can quickly discern in visiting Sharm or other locos and finding just about every employee speaks Arabic with a Cairo region accent).

    That this happens right now to be channeled through ad-hoc DAESH affiliates is a happenstance of immediate politics.

    One can reasonably not-exclude a Russian self-bombing since the Russians have done that before, but that seems vanishingly unlikely in this circumstance, being another country not under their control as to investigation and the like, OR corruption and laziness in the Egyptian airport security services (really almost a given).