What’s Going On in the Sinai?

6 November 2015, 1333 EST

The mysterious crash of a Russian charter plane in Sinai over the past weekend is causing all kinds of turmoil in the international arena. As you probably know, there is lots of confusion about exactly what happened to bring the plane down. Shortly after the crash, the ISIS wilayat (province) in the Sinai claimed responsibility, releasing a video purporting to show them shooting the plane down with a surface-to-air missile, a claim that was quickly debunked as ISIS does not have the kind of missiles capable of reaching 31,000 feet, the cruising altitude of the plane. Furthermore, the plane shown in the video is the wrong type. Russian authorities have been arguing among themselves whether internal failure could or could not be involved. English Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed “it’s more likely than not” that a bomb caused the crash, but President Obama backed that claim down, only saying that “there’s a possibility” that a bomb was on board. Meanwhile, the Sinai affiliate of ISIS continues to claim responsibility, but now without any kind of supporting evidence. And, now Egyptian officials are admitting that not only is a bomb possible but that it is the most likely scenario and Russia has suspended all flights into the Sinai.

So what the hell is going on the Sinai?

And, more importantly, what the hell is ISIS doing?

As many analysts have pointed out, if indeed the crash was the result of an attack of some kind by ISIS, it would represent “a new, scarier phase” in ISIS’s operations. ISIS has, to date, mostly focused on its operations in Syria and Iraq, on seizing and holding territory, and on trying to implement their vision of the caliphate on the ground. While they have beheaded Americans and other foreigners and inspired so-called “lone wolf” attacks in the west, these attacks have largely been carried out without connection to or support from the group’s operational core. Attacking the “far enemy” has been the M.O. of al Qaeda; focusing on the immediate establishment of the caliphate has been what distinguishes ISIS and its success in doing so is what has brought ISIS so much popularity in the jihadi communities. As Daniel Byman writes, “we might look back on the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 as the moment the threat of ISIS transformed itself from a regional menace to a global danger.”

But let’s stop and think for a moment…why would ISIS want to transform itself from a regional menace to a global danger?

ISIS has made itself into the richest, largest, best armed, and, in some ways, most successful terroristic organization of all time, and it has done it focusing its attention regionally rather than globally. It holds fairly large amounts of territory and is crushing al Qaeda–its primary rival–in recruiting and publicity. And it has done this, with the exception of recent Russian involvement, largely free from attack by the major western powers (both Russia and Turkey are more focused on non-ISIS rebel groups and the Kurds, and US airstrikes haven’t seem to have much impact on ISIS’s operational strength).

The fastest way for ISIS to screw up this success is to drag western powers deeper into Syria. As ISIS has undoubtedly learned from watching what happened to al Qaeda after losing its base in Afghanistan, bombing a Russian plane as some kind of provocation strategy is a very dangerous proposition; furthermore, losing their base in Syria and Iraq would be, given their strategy, even worse for ISIS than losing Afghanistan was for al Qaeda. Don’t get me wrong here…I’m not suggesting that a US or Russian ground operation in Syria would successfully end the Syrian civil war, but it could easily destroy ISIS’s territorial control and bases of operation (think the success the US had in destroying the governmental forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as opposed to the difficulties it had in occupying and rebuilding the country).

Does ISIS have an interest in drawing Russia or the west deeper into Syria? Possibly, but it’s hard for me see how or why. So,how do we reconcile our assumptions that ISIS would prefer to be left alone to continue to build its caliphate, and that ISIS did indeed carry out a bombing of the Russian plane?

One possibility is that the Sinai affiliate is operating without the authority of the central core in Iraq and Syria. One obvious problem of having affiliates that are only loosely connected to the main body is the principal-agent problem: it was this very problem that caused a rift between al Qaeda central and the Zarqawi-led al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate that led to the creation of ISIS.  The Sinai affiliate of ISIS has long targeted tourism in Sinai, as well as Egyptian security forces. It’s not implausible that an attack against a target like a Russian plane would be tempting as a way to bolster credibility, increase recruiting appeal, and try to further damage an important source of revenue for Egypt. Another possibility is that the attack was indeed coordinated and/or approved by the ISIS leadership in Syria in hope that, since Russia is already in Syria, killing Russian civilians will put pressure on Putin to pull out.

But why then, in either case, issue the absurd and easily debunked claim of a missile attack? Why wouldn’t they have said from the start that they planted a bomb on the plane? I don’t understand the logic if indeed the attack was carried out by ISIS. It doesn’t seem that in either case the group would benefit from not claiming responsibility.

This leads me to other possibilities, like the plane was bombed but by some other non-ISIS group (which doesn’t solve the question of why no claim of responsibility) or, in the end, it will indeed turn out to be some kind of mechanical or structural failure or accident. While I can’t claim to have any knowledge of how forensic investigation works, it can’t be too much longer before we should know whether there is explosive residue on the wreckage. But, unless something changes, knowing that it was indeed a bomb won’t answer the questions of who is responsible and why.

I’m truly baffled here…any ideas?