Analysis: Downed Russian Plane Not Only an Egyptian Intelligence Failure

If assessments that ISIS did bring down the Airbus 321 last Saturday are accurate, the entire intellgence community has some big questions to answer.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Part of the wreckage of the Airbus 321 Russian airliner in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, November 1, 2015.
Part of the wreckage of the Airbus 321 Russian airliner in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, November 1, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Our military activities [against terror] have achieved 90 percent of their goals,” declared Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in an interview with the BBC during his visit to England this week. Egypt has yet to define its goals in the fight against terror. For example, does it intend to eliminate all terrorist organizations operating in the Sinai Peninsula and other Egyptian cities? Would that include eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is defined as a terrorist group in Egypt? Or are the Egyptian security forces willing to settle for reducing the number of near-daily attacks in Sinai and the less frequent ones in Cairo?

The strategy of Egypt’s war on terror is based on ground and air attacks in specific areas; sealing the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip; preventing the entry of weapons from the western border with Libya and the southern border with Sudan; and placing curfews and closures on towns in northern Sinai.

At the same time, the police and intelligence services are operating against the Muslim Brotherhood nationwide and, along the way, also against opposition to the regime, mostly on social networks. Tens of thousands of police, soldiers and intelligence officers are involved in this effort, which has already taken the lives of hundreds of security forces. But this strategy, which has also resulted in hundreds of dead and thousands of prisoners among the terrorist groups, is mostly aimed at their infrastructure and focuses on known locations where the organizations carry out their attacks. It’s doubtful whether the authorities are capable of acting against small cells or individual activists – or those who have snuck into the country.

More than half a dozen organizations are operating in Sinai, some embracing the ideology of Al-Qaida – even if they haven’t sworn allegiance to the organization. Other groups remain affiliated with outside groups and operate mostly against sites inside Egypt, as well as Israeli targets. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis – which affiliated itself with the Islamic State group last year and has since changed its name to Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) – has become the main group in the peninsula, carrying out regular terror attacks against Egyptian security forces and civilians, mostly Bedouin, who are suspected of collaborating with the government.

This is the organization that assumed credit for last Saturday’s downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai without providing details of how it carried out the attack, which killed all 224 people onboard.

For now, the possibility that the group used a missile to shoot down the Airbus 321 plane has been ruled out, as Wilayat Sinai does not have anti-aircraft missiles that can reach the 31,000-feet altitude the aircraft was flying at (although the group does possess Russian Igla shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that it received via Libya).

The common assumption for now is that a bomb was placed on the aircraft by ISIS, as British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond has said, basing his comments on “sensitive intelligence.” We must regard such statements with a degree of caution with the contents of the plane’s black boxes yet to be analyzed and published.

There are many conflicting interests in the diplomacy surrounding the cause of the crash. Both the Russians and Egyptians have contradictory versions of the incident, and there are major diplomatic and economic interests at stake – and both parties are trying to absolve themselves of any blame. But beyond such disputes, if this does turn out to be an ISIS attack, there’s no doubt a security failure occurred – and, no less serious, an intelligence failure.

This intelligence failure will not be Egypt’s alone. It belongs to intelligence organizations worldwide – including Britain, the United States, Russia, Israel, Denmark and France – alongside Arab intelligence bodies that constantly monitor ISIS communications, intercept their email, crack their codes and collect human intel.

If there was no warning about an attempt to attack the Russian plane, or if there was a warning that someone ignored or forgot to pass on to the Egyptians, then something seems to be seriously wrong in these intelligence organizations. The common assumption that ISIS is willing to make do with controlling a number of regions in Syria and Iraq, rather than looking for new platforms, will need a major rethink.

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