What had become increasingly clear for days was almost official by the end of the week, despite the policy of methodical evasion by Russia and Egypt. The Russian plane that exploded above Sinai wasn’t the victim of an accident (as Moscow and Cairo preferred to hint at first). Nor was it the victim of a missile fired by the local branch of the Islamic State, as that organization claimed.
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But the tragedy was still the result of terror: A bomb apparently smuggled onto the plane went off at 31,000 feet.
Since 9/11, aviation security authorities, especially in the West, have had a long string of successes in thwarting attempts to blow up planes in midair (sometimes they were simply lucky). This time, apparently using modest means, perhaps with the help of an airport worker at Sharm el-Sheikh, terror won. And it has created a complication for two dictator-presidents, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.
If the two hoped they could cobble together an alternative version of what happened, leaks, apparently from American and British intelligence, ended the chance anyone would buy their explanations.
For the Islamic State this appears a major achievement. On Friday, U.S. terror experts joined the opinion voiced in Israel for a few months now. The group’s Sinai affiliate, Wilayat Sinai, is its most effective branch in the region. That’s clear if you compare Wilayat Sinai’s modest numbers (apparently a few hundred men) to the losses inflicted on its foes, the Egyptian security services.
By blowing up the plane, the group has extracted a high price from Putin in revenge for his airstrikes in Syria. And it has struck a harsh blow against Sissi’s regime, which has claimed huge victories over the past two years in its fight against terror in Sinai.
Thousands of tourists from Russia and Britain have been stuck in Sinai in recent days after their governments reexamined the security of air travel from there. This reflects the enormous expected damage to tourism on the peninsula. Despite the terror raging in northern and central Sinai, Egypt has managed to preserve the semblance of quiet along the coastal strip at Sharm el-Sheikh.
There is no doubt the anxiety will have an effect on tourism to Egypt in general. For Russia, which has already buried more than 20 soldiers in the Syrian war, this illustrates the price of its involvement there.
It’s another disappointment for Putin, who has yet to chalk up real achievements in Syria and is watching the slow progress of his allies on the ground as Russian planes drop their bombs. In Moscow the initial talk was of a three-month military effort in Syria. About half that time has already gone by with little change on the ground save for the stabilization of the Assad regime’s lines against the rebel onslaughts.
The explosion in Sinai has big implications for international air travel. Airports in the West will reexamine possible weak points in security, but the main question, according to Israeli security experts, is whether security can be beefed up at airports in the developing world. There security is usually laxer, even though those airports are often closer to the terror groups themselves.
As for Israel, the main concern remains the risk to takeoffs and landings at the Eilat airport due to its proximity to Sinai and the possibility that anti-aircraft missiles would be fired there. The British government says a missile was launched a few months ago at a Thomson Airways airliner at Sharm; somehow the Egyptian denials about that incident sound less persuasive.
Of course, Israel still has concerns closer to home. Friday saw four more incidents in the West Bank: two shootings in the Hebron area in which a soldier and two young Israeli civilians were wounded, a stabbing east of Ramallah in which an Israeli civilian was seriously wounded, and soldiers’ shooting to death of an elderly Palestinian woman in Hebron after she tried to run them over, the IDF said.
There are doubts about the details of the latter incident, even if the woman’s husband was killed in the first intifada and even if a commando knife was found in the car, as the IDF said. It’s hard to remember an incident involving a 72-year-old female terrorist, so the army should thoroughly investigate whether this was indeed a car-ramming or a tragic misunderstanding between the woman driver and the soldiers.