Their Land, Their Blood: Blowback From Russia’s Syria Intervention


Russia's intervention in Syria has captured international headlines for months, but what kind of blowback has Moscow been facing? Leksika's Sean Crowley investigates, taking an in-depth look at the negative side-effects Russia has faced since launching its Syria campaign, both at home and abroad. 


Background

At 0350 hours on 31 October Kogalymavia/Metrojet Flight 9268, an Airbus A321-200, took off from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh Airport with over 220 Russian and Ukrainian tourists onboard. Sharm el-Sheikh is Egypt’s third busiest airport, handling charter and budget flights for tourists seeking to enjoy themselves in the southern Sinai. As the aircraft soared over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the tourists left behind the long, natural shores and crystal clear waters of the Red Sea resort city with the St. Petersburg autumn awaiting many of them upon their return home. Though the excursion to Sharm el-Sheikh could have been the first for many of the passengers, this was hardly a maiden voyage for the plane or its pilot. The pilot, Valeriy Nemov, had more than 12,000 hours of flying experience with 3,860 on the Airbus A321. The aircraft itself about 56,000 flight hours and had completed over 21,000 journeys. The aircraft was built in 1997, and has been operated by Metrojet since 2012.

As it left Sharm el-Sheikh behind, Flight 9268 flew over an area it had been warned against flying lower than 24,000 feet out of concern that jihadists toting anti-air (AA) weapons could target them. Weather conditions were also poor at the time. At 0413, the aircraft went missing, disappearing from air traffic controllers’ radar screens. The aircraft also failed to make contact, as expected, with air traffic controllers in Cyprus. Flight 9268 never made its expected 0912 arrival time at St. Petersburg. The pilot did not ask to change the plane’s route – at least according to Egypt’s civil aviation ministry – and the controllers reported no distress calls. (Other accounts reported that the pilot did send a distress call and that the plane attempted to land at El-Arish International Airport.) However, according to radar data, the aircraft was descending more than 6,000 feet per minute before it met its ultimate fate. An investigation later revealed an explosion ripped the plane in half in midair; the small part of the tail end burned and the larger part crashed into a rock.

All 220 passengers died; 213 were Russians and four were Ukrainians. Many of those dead were children under the age of 11. The victims ranged in age from 10 months to 77-years-old. Seven crew members died as well. The final crash site was in Hassana area south of Arish. Investigators recovered the body of a 3-year-old girl almost 8 kilometers from the crash site. The victims’ bodies were spread out over a 5-km radius. Many of the other bodies were missing limbs. Most were burned as the aircraft had a large load of fuel. Many died strapped in their seats. Passengers’ belongings, bits of metal, and parts of the aircraft were scattered across the region. 

At 0830 hours Egyptian authorities discovered the wreckage and dispatched an emergency response force. Over 45 ambulances sped to the crash site. As sirens blared on the ground, military planes soared overhead accompanied by the thunderous sound of dual rotor blades belonging to CH-47 Chinook helicopters. When they landed, they retrieved bodies from the scene and flew them to Kabrit airport in Suez. The first 15 bodies arrived at the Zeinhom morgue in Cairo and remained there until three Russian government planes finally flew over 100 bodies and 140 body parts to St. Petersburg. In addition to investigators and security service personnel, Egyptian Prime Minster Sharif Ismail visited the site.

The Islamic State (IS) was quick to issue a statement claiming responsibility for downing the aircraft, though it provided no definitive proof. However, this did not stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from accepting the caliphate’s claims as true, and using the incident to justify further Russian military action in Syria. The 13 November IS attacks in Paris only encouraged this.

Regardless of whether or not the caliphate brought down Flight 9268, Russia’s actions in Syria have made it a target for jihadists affiliated with both IS and non-IS groups. In addition to Russia’s apparent alignment with Shi’a factions in this sectarian strife, its use of unguided munitions in Syria that produce substantial civilian casualties (more than IS, according to some reports) has only increased the animosity toward it by Syrians and Sunni Muslims worldwide. This is likely to have disastrous effects for both the Russian general populace and government. Both will face an increased risk of terrorist attacks against Russia interests at home and abroad while the government will have to contend with a public disillusioned with Russia’s intervention in Syria.  

Shooting From the Hip

On 4 October Syrian opposition groups posted video footage of an unusual munition deploying from aircraft overhead followed by a series of detonations just above the ground. Another video, filmed in the southwest Aleppo town of Kafr Halab, shows a similar pattern of explosions. Yet another video showed similar weapons obliterating a Jabhat al-Nusra camp in the same area. Sukhoi Su-24 (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) strike fighters deployed most of these weapons

Observers on the ground found the remains of SPED-D munitions from an RBK-500-SPED-D, a type of cluster bomb only deployable by aircraft. The payload launches while above ground at targets below. Local groups claim that Russian aircraft deployed the munitions, but there is no evidence of Russian aircraft operating in the area. However, this was the first incident marked the first use of this type of cluster bomb in the Syrian Civil war.

According to General Bob Otto (USAF), the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), “[these munitions] aren’t precision weapons” but “dumb” bombs guided to their targets only by gravity and the plane’s position and the velocity upon release. Such weapons are highly inaccurate. 

However, the Russian Ministry of Defense claims that its airstrikes are extremely precise, using the most modern equipment only directed at vetted targets after careful examination of all available intelligence. Ironically, the Defense Ministry report that stated this also reported Russia’s use of the FAB-500, a 500-kilogram, high-explosive, unguided bomb. Observers also spotted an OFAB-250-270 bomb attached to a Su-25 (NATO reporting name: “Frogfoot”) close air support (CAS) jet at Russia’s Hmeymin Airbase in Syria. The bomb is a high-explosive fragmenting variant of the high-explosive FAB-250 which lacks the former’s flat nose. The OFAB-250 is a 3-meter, 266-kg, high-explosive, fragmentation device that delivers 97-kg payloads primarily against unprotected targets such as terrorist training camps and arms depots. Weapons such as these could explain why between 30 September and 1 October Russia had to make three bombing runs against Tajamu al-Aaza in Al-Lataminah. On 8 October Russia also employed thermobaric munitions against several targets in Hama province.  

Even videos and photographs from Russia’s own Defense Ministry show that Russia’s airstrikes are inaccurate and indiscriminate. In some cases, Russian aircraft strike with the same precision as their Syrian counterparts. President Assad’s forces also indiscriminately bomb cities under rebel control. The regime’s warplanes lack sensors guided munitions necessary for precision targeting. Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) jets drop inaccurate rockets, unguided bombs, and cluster munitions that can cover an area the size of a football field. In addition, the regime is dropping barrel bombs made from metal barrels with high explosives and shrapnel out of low-flying helicopters. Barrel bombs cost less than USD 200. These weapons actually kill more civilians than IS. According to Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch (HRW), “The apparent aim is to kill and terrorize civilians (and destroy civilian structures) so as to drive civilians from opposition-held areas and to send a warning of misery that attends anyone whose neighborhood is taken by opposition groups.”

Russia does not need to use barrel bombs as it already has a suitable quantity of air-to-ground missiles (AGMs). Even then, despite the fact that over 100 states signed an agreement banning the use of cluster munitions, Russia continues to produce and use them. (The United States also did not sign this agreement, but it began to phase out cluster munitions in 2003.) The Center for Analysis of Strategies and Tactics, a Moscow-based think tank, has criticized Russia for its failure to develop satellite-guided bombs, new long-range precision AGMs, and the targeting systems to direct them. Russia’s air-to-surface targeting systems are over 30 years old. Smart bomb technology first gained widespread recognition around the time of the Persian Gulf War and, therefore, when the Soviet Union was collapsing. Since then, the Russian military has invested few rubles in improving the accuracy of its air-delivered weapons. 

According to the Pentagon’s Gulf War Airpower Survey accuracy suffers and the risk to the pilots increases when using unguided munitions. Manual bombing works best at altitudes of below 10,000 feet. Between 10,000 and 15,000, accuracy still suffers but survivability increases. 

Nevertheless, Russia has deployed some precision-guided munitions in Syria. Most of these weapons use the GLONASS satellite navigation system to home in on targets. A weapons system operator onboard the aircraft usually guides the missile to its target but Russian media, almost in a throwaway manner, has admitted ground-based laser designators can also guide in these projectiles leading to the possibility that Russia has combat air controllers on the ground in Syria. One such bomb employed by Russia in Syria is the KAB-250, a 3.2-m, 250-kg, fragmentation munition that delivers a 129-kg payload of high explosive. In contrast, the KAB-500 is 3.02-m, 500-kg, and delivers a 380-kg high-explosive payload. It is a fragmentation device like the KAB-250.

Laser-guided missiles include the Kh-25L (NATO reporting name: AS-10 “Karen”) and Kh-29L (NATO reporting name: AS-14 “Kedge”). The Kh-25L is 3.75-m, 320-kg, and carries a 112-kg, high-explosive payload. The Kh-29L is much larger at 3.9-m, 660-kg, and 317-kg payload. The Kh-25L is a fragmentation device while the Kh-29L is a penetrating high-explosive.

Russia also appears to be employing bunker-buster bombers to eliminate the command centers of IS and other rebel groups that are often multilevel underground bunkers made of reinforced concrete. The BETAB-500, at 2.5-m and 380-kg, delivers a 77-kg payload on target. Though this may appear light, its built-in jet booster accelerates the bomb allowing it to break through reinforced structures before exploding.

Russia also appears to be using a self-aiming smart bomb called the SPBE. These were reportedly used to destroy 20 IS tanks on 8 October. The weapons system uses infrared guidance to strike targets with great precision. The SPBE was developed from the more advanced KAB-500Kr guided bomb which is effective against bridges and command posts but less effective against targets such as military equipment. The SPBE uses large charges to destroy its targets. A variant called the SPBE-D can destroy up to six tanks at once. The SPBE is deployable from an altitude of 400 to 5,000-m. As it descends, parachutes slow it down to around 17 meters per second. At an altitude of 150-m, the bomb aims at its target and deploys its payload which can penetrate up to 70-mm of armor at a 30-degree angle.

Russia has also deployed an anti-helicopter mine based on the SPBE. Installed on the ground, the mine scans the airspace around it after receiving a signal from a command post. If a helicopter enters its range, the mine detonates, sending an armed munition at the helicopter.

Russia Today (RT) broadcast images of a Su-34 (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) fighter-bomber carrying a KAB-500-SE satellite-guided bomb. Fencers and Frogfeet, in contrast, appear to carry most of the unguided bombs. This further indicates that unguided bombs make up most of Russia’s arsenal in Syria as there are more Fencers and Frogfeet in the country than Fullbacks. Russia also likely does not want to expend all of its precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in Syria. Munitions such as the KAB-500 and KAB-250 – which come in laser, electro-optical, and satellite-guided variants – are usually mounted on Fullback strike aircraft. Conversely, Fencers and Frogfeet mostly carry Kedges and Karens. Naturally, though, the Russian media prefers to focus its coverage on Russia’s precision arsenal. 

The Greatest Casualty

On the same day that a U.S. Ac-130 Spectre gunship bombed a Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières; MSF) facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan, fearing a Taliban presence in the hospital (there was none), Russian pilots in Syria reportedly struck a medical facility nowhere near IS territory. “Why are the Russians bombing my hospitals and ambulances?” asked Dr. Ammar Martini, the co-founder of Orient Humanitarian Relief, a nonprofit that provides medical and educational services in northern and central Syria.

At the beginning of the Syrian Civil War Dr. Martini refused to follow the orders of President Assad’s military police and let opposition fighters die at the Red Crescent hospital he worked at then. Regime authorities subsequently arrested and tortured him. Afterward, Dr. Martini established Orient with Dubai-based entrepreneur Ghassan Aboud. The organization also operates an anti-Assad television station in Dubai. Orient prides itself on treating both regime soldiers and opposition fighters though it does not treat IS jihadists who have attacked Orient before. Dr. Martini is based in Turkey, traveling between there and Syria. 

Russia hit an Orient emergency ambulance center in Idlib destroying around four or five vehicles. Dr. Martini insists that the Russians were “specifically targeting Orient.” Russia also nearly hit an MSF hospital in a refugee camp in Al Yamdiyyah, Latakia. The Russian bombs missed the hospital but wounded several townspeople in a nearby village. Dr. Jawad Abu Hatab, a heart surgeon working at the facility, believed that Russia was intentionally targeting the hospital and missed.

Russia also missed a hospital in Yameda and hit a field hospital on the outskirts of Hama. Another sortie struck an Orient ambulance carrying casualties from Ishem, a village in the Jabal al-Zawiyah area which is 30-km southwest of the provincial capital, Idlib City.

On 3 October Russian aircraft bombed a medical facility maintained by the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer civil defense corps opposed to IS and the regime. The Russian aircraft killed one White Helmet in a so-called “double-tap” bombing. One bombed exploded and when the White Helmets arrived to assist the survivors, a second munition exploded. The dead White Helmet was Issam Al Saleh, a father of two. Nine members of one family also died in this airstrike, and rescue workers on the scene claim that there were no fighters in the area. This also occurred in the Jabal al-Zawiyah area. Two Orient paramedics survived ferrying injured from the village. Once the Russians finished their airstrikes, the Syrian regime moved in to drop barrel bombs. Dr. Martini maintains that “the regime is giving the targets and locations” to the Russians. Russia’s decision to attack hospitals likely indicates that its strategy is simply to target any infrastructure providing support to anti-Assad forces in any capacity.

Orient maintains 10 hospitals in Syria, all of which have outpatient clinics and perform up to 500 operations per day. The hospitals have oxygen tanks pumps and highly flammable equipment making them dangerous to bomb. Dr. Martini even admitted, “We cannot open the hospital or accept any patients because we were very afraid the Russians will attack us again.” The staff at Orient hospitals are now working in basements, closing outpatient clinics, and only operating at night.

Russia’s employment of an arsenal composed mostly of unguided munitions is already having grievous consequences for the Syrian population. According to the Syrian National Council, a political group allied with anti-Assad rebels, Russian airstrikes killed 36 civilians within the first few days of its operations in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims 28 people during this time period including women and children. Naturally, Moscow denied these allegations. Around the same time Russia reportedly destroyed a mosque in Jisr al-Shughour. Two civilians died in this strike. Airstrikes in Idlib on 1 October killed seven civilians including two children. Another airstrike in the Hama suburb of Habeet killed three civilians including a 5-year old girl. It injured twelve others. In a strike on Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawya region, two children were among seven civilians killed. By 3 October, the strikes, according to the SOHR, reported that Russian airstrikes had killed only 14 fighters. Twelve were from IS and two were from al-Nusra. To date, Russia airstrikes have killed around 403 civilians in addition to 381 fighters.

President Putin insists that any allegations of Russia killing civilians are “information warfare.” The Kremlin also insists that it does not bomb residential areas despite evidence to the contrary. On 30 September, the first day of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, Fencers bombed a residential area in Talbiseh. (The Kremlin even confirmed that it launched airstrikes against this area.) There were civilian casualties in Talbiseh which is controlled by Jaish al-Tawhid, brigade in the FSA. The area also has no IS or al-Nusra presence despite Moscow’s claim. 

“We believe if you inadvertently kill innocent men, women, and children, then there’s backlash from that,” said General Otto. “We might kill three and create 10 terrorists. It really goes back to the question of are we killing more than were [sic] making?” 

The Caliphate Strikes Back

Following Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, at least 40 rebel groups pledged to attack the Russian “occupiers.” These groups include Ahrar al-Sham, the Islam Army, and the Levant Front. The U.S.-backed Division 101 and Tajammu Alezza groups also pledged to attack Russian forces. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood declared war on Russia. Many rebels already appear to be acting on such declarations. Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of the al-Nusra Front, called for retaliatory attacks on Russian targets. He even urged his followers to “distract” Russia from its operations in Syria by targeting civilians and military targets in Russia itself. Hours after al-Julani’s call, two mortar shells struck the perimeter of the Russian embassy in Damascus though there were no casualties.

Al-Qa’ida is not the only group stepping up its efforts to target the Russians. The Homs Liberation Movement, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade affiliated with al-Qa’ida, has plans to infiltrate the Syrian military in order to gain access to their Russian counterparts and then kill them. It plans to employ both double agents and suicide bombers. Captain Rashid al-Hourani, one of the group’s field commanders, plans to recruit agents within the ranks of the regime to provide his brigade with the movements of regime forces and the Russians.

The Islamist Homs Liberation Movement, despite being associated with al-Qa’ida, actually uses tactics similar to IS. Its relationship with al-Qa’ida’s al-Nusra franchise was uneasy at first, but now it is reportedly participating in joint rebel governance structures. It should be noted that such structures include al-Nusra’s harsh interpretation of sharia law. The Movement’s primary operating areas are in al-Rastan, Talbiseh, and other cities that form part of a rebel enclave between Hama and Homs. The Movement’s territory also bisects a highway linking Damascus to Latakia. If the Assad regime’s ground forces are to link up with the Russians and secure the state’s most important supply route, they must first clear the rebels out of these areas, which have been priority targets for the Russians.

Captain al-Hourani maintains that the Movement wants to develop its own propaganda to counter Russian, Syrian, and Iranian messages that all Syrian rebels are “terrorists.” He also mentioned that the Russian airstrikes have unified Syria’s squabbling rebel groups. Captain al-Hourani is also begging for American support even though most “secular” rebels have actually in the past surrendered to jihadist groups such as al-Nusra, refused to fight against them, and have given American weapons to them.

However, perhaps the greatest retaliatory strike – if it was that – against Russian interests was the apparent downing of Flight 9268 by IS. Nevertheless, there is still debate as to whether the caliphate brought down the Airbus. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called claims that IS brought down the aircraft nothing but “propaganda.” President Sisi also tried to make it seem as though Egyptian military and security forces had the situation in the Sinai under “full control.” He also insisted that people should not speculate on the cause of the crash as the results may not be known for months.

The Russian news agency Interfax obtained the transcript of the pre-crash cockpit recordings. The media agency noted that there were “sounds uncharacteristic of routine flight,” though it did not detail what these were. Investigators who recovered the black box also noted such sounds. The crew reportedly exchanged routine communications with air traffic controllers four minutes before the plane disappeared from radar. Still, there was no mention of anything unusual, and the crew failed to send a distress signal.  

The initial theory shared by many was that IS shot down the aircraft with a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS). However, U.S. intelligence soon reached the conclusion that an IS missile did not shoot down the plane. It based this theory on a heat flash detected by a U.S. infrared satellite over the peninsula The U.S. now believes that the explosion came from inside the plane either from an onboard bomb or a fuel tank explosion. However, U.S. officials have also ruled out technical problems and human error. On whether terrorism was responsible for bringing down the aircraft, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper stated, “It’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out.” At the same time, the U.S. Embassy on 3 November instructed its staff members to avoid travelling to the Sinai. The embassy insisted this action was merely a precaution pending the outcome of the investigation into the crash.

Egyptian and Russian officials mostly concur with these estimates, claiming that the IS does not have the missile capabilities to down an aircraft at that altitude. The jet was flying at 31,000 feet when it broke apart mid-air, 23 minutes after leaving Sharm el-Sheikh airport. British officials also agree with U.S. intelligence that caliphate operatives planted a bomb on the flight.

However, there was no evidence of an explosive impact on the crash victims’ bodies. Investigators have also not found any traces of explosive devices in the debris.  Though there was no blast-related trauma, the blast would not have to have been very large to rupture the aircraft. Theories for the blast, in addition to a bomb, include a malfunctioning engine exploding and a structural problem which caused a fire on the plane. TASS, another Russian news agency, claimed that “elements that were not part of the plane” were found at the crash site.

There is still some evidence that a mechanical error may have been the cause of the crash or at least exacerbated a possible bomb blast. In November 2001 the plane experienced a “tail strike” when its tail hit a runway while landing in Cairo International Airport from Beirut and required repairs. At the time, the plane was registered to Middle East Airlines, a Lebanese carrier. As recently as 2013 the plane was thoroughly checked for cracks. The tail was found multiple kilometers away from the rest of the plane’s wreckage. It is possible that the repair work went wrong following the 2001 tail strike. The tail could have detached itself from the plane before the explosive event and before the fire engulfed the plane.

Additionally, officials claim that the pilot warned of a technical problem before the disaster and asked to land at the nearest available airport. This is contradictory to initial statements made by Egyptian officials. Russian investigation agency, Rostransnadzor also found violations when it conducted a routine flight safety inspection of Kogalymavia. The inspection occurred in March 2014, but the airline supposedly addressed the safety concerns. However, before takeoff, the crew reportedly requested help from technical services multiple times because the engine would not start up several times. Metrojet officials have already denied that technical problems and human error played a role. They insist that protection systems on the plane would have prevented it from crashing even if there were major errors in the pilot’s equipment. 

Uncertainty regarding the cause of the crash did not stop states from taking security precautions. The German airline Lufthansa said that it will no longer fly over the Sinai “as long as the cause for the crash has not been clarified.” Air France issued a similar statement. British Airways ordered its flights to avoid flying low over the Sinai. Turkey and Belgium suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh following the incident. Britain resumed flights from Sharm el-Sheikh to the United Kingdom on 6 November after initially cancelling them. Passengers are still only allowed to carry hand baggage. Flights from the U.K. to the Red Sea resort city remain suspended.  Ireland also suspended flights to the resort city airport. The canceled flights left thousands stranded at Sharm el-Sheikh. Ironically, one of the few countries to still allow flights to the resort was Russia. Emergency actions to rescue the tourists were finally enacted on 5 November, and Russia suspended all flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. A Russian airlift evacuated 11,000 citizens from the resort city to Russia on 8 November. One-third of the tourists in Egypt are Russian, and 80,000 still require evacuation.

A joint committee has been established to examine the black box. It will include representatives from Egypt, Russia, Airbus, and Ireland. The jet was an Irish-owned aircraft (specifically owned by a company in Dublin) leased by Russia. President Putin also sent a team of Russian investigators to determine the crash’s cause. The Russian Investigative Committee launched its own investigation primarily to look for safety issues. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) also assisted with aerial surveillance in an effort to locate the downed Russian aircraft. It had intelligence assets in the area.

Grievers in St. Petersburg have left flowers, candles and paper airplanes at the Pulkovo airport. President Putin also declared 1 November a day of mourning. He stated, “Without any doubt everything should be done so that an objective picture of what happened is created, so that we know what happened.” On 8 November the bell in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg tolled 224 times; one ring for each of the crash victims.

Around the time of the 13 November Paris attacks, however, the Kremlin found itself onboard with the idea that a bomb took down the aircraft. On 17 November the Federal Security Service (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; FSB) announced that it was certain that a bomb had brought down the aircraft. FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov stated that the plane’s downing was a terrorist attack and that the bomb was likely homemade containing around 1-kg of TNT. Four days after IS terrorist attacks left hundreds dead in Paris, Bortnikov claimed that traces of foreign-made explosives had been found on fragments of the downed plane and on some passengers’ personal belongings. At the same time, Egypt refused to confirm that a bomb had brought down the plane. 

President Putin was also quick to clear up an ambiguity regarding the cause of the crash when he declared Russia would hunt down  those responsible for the incident. Clad in a dark suit as he made his announcement, the Russian president promised to intensify airstrikes in Syria, and stated, “We’ll find [those responsible] anywhere on the planet and punish them.” (This was eerily similar to statements made by then-Prime Minister Putin following 1999 apartment bombings allegedly committed by Chechen jihadists where he promised to wipe out the terrorists wherever they hid including “the shit-house.”) The FSB is offering a USD 50 million bounty for the bombers. President Putin also visited the Russian Defense Ministry to hear proposals from his military chiefs on how to better combat the caliphate. Those he met with included Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, Chief of the General Staff General Valeriy Gerasimov, Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov, and Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki; SVR) Director Mikhail Fradkov.   

Jihadist groups in Northern Sinai have not shot down commercial jetliners or even fighter aircraft before. Still, hundreds of military and security force personnel have already died fighting IS jihadists in the Sinai. Even then, the Egyptian interior ministry is not stepping up security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

The Sinai peninsula is home to one of the most dangerous IS affiliates: Wilayat Sinai. The group has already twice claimed responsibility for downing the Russian passenger jet yet it has produced no martyr videos. The group has waged a long insurgency against Egyptian forces. It has expanded to attacking international targets since pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, though much of its focus still remains close to home. If it was responsible for the plane downing, it was likely out of their duty to target enemies of the caliphate rather than work out local grievances.

Wilayat Sinai’s activities are limited to the northern Sinai while Sharm el-Sheikh is in the south. If they were responsible for shooting down the Russian jetliner, it would show a significant increase in the group’s reach. Wilayat Sinai has failed to carry out attacks outside of this area. However, its pledge of allegiance to IS could provide it additional resources and expertise.

Wilayat Sinai was born out of a domestic terrorist group following the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak. This group was originally dedicated to attacking Israel. In 2012 a new group, Ansar bit al Maqdis, formed, and focused itself on attacking Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai. During the rule of Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi, the group remained relatively quiet. When the Egyptian military overthrew President Morsi on 30 June 2013, the group resumed its activities. It became exclusively dedicated to raids on military and police targets in the Sinai. It claimed responsibility for killing top Egyptian security officer and beheading multiple soldiers.

However, experts believe the group was losing its ability to attack soldiers in November 2014 when it pledged allegiance to IS, becoming Wilayat Sinai. Afterward, the group’s focus became more international. It even sent jihadists to Syria who could have brought back skills obtained from fighting there. Though it has made no significant land grabs, it has acquired better weapons and claimed responsibility for more sophisticated attacks. For example, it claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on an Egyptian warship this July. In August it released video of a Croatian aid worker captured in Cairo. Then in September four U.S. troops and two Fijian peacekeepers working as part of a Multinational Force and Observers mission were injured in a bomb blast.

Northern Sinai has become a virtual no-go zone even for residents. They have since moved to the city of Arish about an hour from the Israeli border. Egyptian efforts to contain Wilayat Sinai remain ineffective.  

IS provided no evidence that they were responsible for bringing down the Airbus, but it did say the attack was retribution for Russian airstrikes in support of the Assad regime. It posted a video allegedly showing the flaming aircraft falling from the sky and surrounded by smoke. (Local tribesmen also reported the plane was “burning” as it fell out of the sky.) IS did not even provide exact details on how they took down the plane or who the martyrs were that carried the operations. In fact, in an audio recording, the caliphate declared, “And God willing, one day we will reveal how [the plane was brought down], at the time we desire.” The closest IS came to revealing its operational methods was by posting a picture online that allegedly showed the bomb that brought down the plane. The picture of the contraption showed that it was composed of a soft drink can and two other components that appeared to be a switch and a detonator.

Nevertheless, there remains no definitive evidence that the caliphate took down the plane. Some experts have noted that attacking aerial targets requires a different set of skills than taking down ground targets. IS jihadists have previously targeted a Kurdish rally in Ankara, Turkey, killing 128; killed 40 in a Beirut suburb; and, most recently, killed over 130 in Paris. If IS took down this plane, their capabilities are more sophisticated than previously imagined.

Al-Nusra leader al-Julani’s calls for attacks on Russian targets serve as a reminder that the most brazen terrorist attacks on aircraft have been carried out by al-Qa’ida, specifically its Yemeni affiliate, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP was behind the so-called “Underwear Bomber” as well as a plot to detonate bombs in UPS planes hidden inside printer cartridges. These devices were developed by Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, AQAP’s master bomb maker. However, no al-Qa’ida affiliate ever claimed responsibility for the plane’s downing, and Egypt falls outside of AQAP’s jihadist jurisdiction. In addition, since Russia’s airstrikes began on 30 September, it would mean that this attack took place too quick for there to have been any substantial planning. An attack of this magnitude and apparent sophistication would have required such planning.

At the same time, airport security at Sharm el-Sheikh is reportedly not very efficient. Workers have previously complained about poor pay, and some have reportedly played video games on duty. In addition, three top airport officials, including the security chief, have already been fired.  Egypt has also detained two employees for questioning at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, though no arrests have been made according to Egyptian Interior Minister Magdi Abdel Ghaffar. There are a total of 17 people being held by Egyptian authorities with two suspected of helping the bombers. CCTV footage from the airport shows a baggage handler carrying a suitcase from an airport building to another man, who was loading luggage onto the Russian plane from underneath. Security forces also announced that they are looking for two employees suspected of leaving a baggage-scanning machine unattended as passengers boarded the Russian plane. Authorities claim they have already questioned all airport staff involved in handling the Russian plane, its passengers, and their bags. This breach in security and subsequent incident with the aircraft could damage Egypt’s USD 7 billion tourism industry which was already in decline before this. Egypt also wants the world to believe that its post-Arab Spring instability under control. Sharm el-Sheikh was supposed to be isolated from the violence.

The caliphate’s claims of downing the aircraft – whether true or not – will only exacerbate Russia’s intervention in Syria. Russians remain concerned that IS could target Russian interests at home and abroad. The plane’s downing has only confirmed the fears of some. Cooperation on the plan crash investigation could also strengthen Russo-Egyptian relations, something President Putin has long wished to do.

Most Russians remain opposed to a ground intervention, but the Russian armed forces’ current strategy for defeating IS is not working. In fact, the strategy is more focused on bolstering the Assad regime than eliminating the caliphate; it needs to shift its strategy. Therefore, if it does want to defeat IS, Russia can only intensify its Syria campaign. This will mean ground troops and “volunteer” fighters which will increase tensions with the West.

Russians remain fearful of a terrorist attack on their own soil. A 13 November Levada poll reveals that 48 percent of Russians expect an “imminent” attack on Russian soil. Russia even instituted new anti-terrorism laws on 14 November. They may have reason to fear. Attacking Russian targets would be an excellent way to decrease popular support for Russia’s intervention in Syria. IS has threatened a mass wave of terrorism in Russia and promised to take control of the Caucasus and seize the Kremlin.  

Many Russians have become disillusioned with the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria, hence why Moscow was likely unwilling at first to link the IS and the Syria campaign to the plane downing. In fact, 63 percent of Russians, according to a poll by the radio station Echo Moscow, oppose continued Russian intervention in Syria. An unknown individual floated two wooden coffins in the St. Petersburg canals. One was spray-painted in red with the question “For what?” The other read “For whom?” Indeed, the Kremlin struggled with answers to these questions until –by luck – the Paris attacks proved politically expedient.

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