In the first official comment on the matter by a senior Israeli official, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday that the Russian plane which crashed in Sinai on October 31, killing 224 passengers and crew members, was almost certainly brought down by a bomb planted aboard.
“There’s a very high probability that this was a terror attack,” he said in a conversation with military reporters. “We aren’t involved in the investigation, but from what we hear and understand I’d be surprised if this wasn’t a terror attack by a bomb hidden on the airplane.”
On Sunday, the American television network CNN reported that Israeli intelligence had intercepted conversations among Islamic State operatives about the downed plane and shared them with the United States and Britain. These intercepts strengthened the hypothesis that the plane was brought down by a bomb that had been planted on it, CNN said. Ya’alon declined to comment on this report.
Israel fears that what appears to have been a successful attack on a passenger plane will bolster Wilayat Sinai (“Sinai Province”), the Egyptian terrorist group that swore allegiance to Islamic State about a year ago and now acts as its local affiliate. If the crash is proved to have been caused by a bomb smuggled aboard by Wilayat Sinai operatives, the organization will find it easier to obtain additional funding, and perhaps also arms, from Libya and Yemen. There have been reports that the group seeks to acquire advanced weapons such as portable anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles.
Wilayat Sinai has perpetrated many terror attacks, some of them in its previous incarnation as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. It has even perpetrated multiple simultaneous attacks, as it did in January when it launched coordinated assaults on several Egyptian army and police posts in Sinai.
Though the target of the latest attack — a Russian civilian airliner headed for St. Petersburg — was clearly Russian, it’s not clear whether this will affect Moscow’s escalation of its military operations against Sunni Muslim rebel organizations in Syria. Russia has said its recent escalation, which includes the employment of fighter aircraft and military advisors, will end after three months.
Since entering the Syrian conflict, Russia has carried out 50 to 60 air strikes a day, but they are thought to be very imprecise and have killed many civilians. Fewer than 20 percent of the attacks to date targeted groups affiliated with Islamic State; the majority targeted the Sunni rebel organizations Jaish al-Fatah and the Free Syrian Army, both of which oppose Islamic State.
The Assad regime has also launched a new ground offensive with Syrian troops backed by some 2,000 soldiers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and additional Hezbollah forces. The offensive has not been very successful so far.
Since the Iranian and Lebanese troops joined the offensive about a month ago, the joint force has suffered dozens of fatalities. Around 50 Revolutionary Guards and 70 Hezbollah troops have been killed, bringing Hezbollah’s total fatalities since it began fighting alongside the Assad regime to more than 1,200.
Russian troops have also died in Syria, a fact that Moscow has tried to conceal.
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