It could have been a coincidence. A Russian airbus with 224 people – mainly tourists – flying from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to St. Petersburg, Russia could simply have come apart in midair, killing all aboard. It would have been one heck of a coincidence, though, considering the players who would have wanted it to disintegrate and the constellation of agendas that would be advanced by a well-placed bomb.
It is almost impossible that the plane was hit from the ground. It was flying too high for a shoulder-fired missile. Although it isn’t clear whether there are mobile missile launchers in Sinai, assume for a moment that one or more exist. The missile would have to have been programmed – it needs radar and target designation – and therefore it needs a) to know the flight path of a particular plane if it plans to hit a particular plane and b) an operator with the right skills. (The list of requirements for a successful takedown of an airliner is what leads some to believe that it was a Russian operator in Ukraine who fired on Malaysian Air Flight 17 a year ago.)
A bomb inside the plane, however, would account for the widespread wreckage.
ISIS? ISIS claimed first to have shot the plane down and later (after it became clear that it probably hadn’t actually been shot down) claimed responsibility instead for “destroying” it without specifying how. ISIS by itself is a fairly long shot; it is known to be operating in Sinai, but not in the southern part near Sharm el-Sheikh.
Posit, then, cooperation between ISIS and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, two Sunni jihadist organizations operating both in Egypt and in Syria. While ISIS’s prime target would be Russia, the Brotherhood’s would be Egypt.
The Brotherhood was born in Egypt and is entrenched among the population. President al-Sisi has been waging a brutal war against it, believing that the Brotherhood is to Egypt as the Taliban is to Afghanistan – an indigenous jihadist organization that perhaps cannot be weeded out but must be shackled, stomped, imprisoned, and otherwise prevented from wreaking havoc on the state. President Mubarak was horrified when the Obama administration insisted that MB figures attend the president’s Cairo University speech in 2009 and later met Brotherhood figures in the White House.
Downing a plane filled with civilians could decimate Egypt’s tourist industry – one of the mainstays of the economy. Already suffering from the perception that Egypt is unsafe for tourism (although the government has claimed otherwise), Egypt may find that this disaster presents an unfixable economic reality.
Considering ISIS’s position, Vladimir Putin declared war on the organization in Syria, and a declaration of war by Russia is qualitatively different from an American “red line.” True, Putin is expending effort clearing non-ISIS rebels from territory around Aleppo to ensure that the Assad government can control it, but Russian planes have struck ISIS training camps and other installations as well.
Russia has two goals in Syria:
- To protect a government in Damascus that ensures Russian control of naval base at Latakia.
- To strike a blow at Sunni jihadists who threaten Russian interests.
Putin has no particular love for Shiite Iran, Assad, Alawites, or Hezb’allah – his primary allies in Syria. But he has a passionate hatred for Sunni jihadists, particularly Chechens, some of whom are fighting with ISIS and who he believes will return to Russia and restart the wars that he so brutally extinguished. The secular Assad regime is essential in his view to keeping the lid on Sunni jihad.
One of the problems with the Russian approach to Sunni jihadists is that carpet-bombing tends to make more, rather than fewer, of them.
Russia, long a target of Chechen irredentists, is now also a target of ISIS.
A Muslim Brotherhood-ISIS joint operation would serve the primary interests of both.
- A boost to the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt.
- A boost to ISIS, which proves it can operate outside the Syria/Iraq border area and that it can operate against a major power.
- A blow to the authority of the al-Sisi government, as it fails to protect international interests in Egypt.
- A financial blow to Egypt’s economy that may not be covered by support payments from the Saudis and the Gulf Arab States.
- A blow to Putin’s standing at home as he fails to protect Russian civilians.
- A blow to Putin’s desire to deliver a crushing blow to ISIS and other Sunni jihadists, as they, instead, deliver one to Russia.
The details of the demise of Kogalymavia Flight 9268 will become clearer as more of the wreckage is reclaimed. But the winners and losers of the fight for the narrative are clear: jihadi terrorists scored one over Russia and Egypt.