Terror in the Sinai?
On Saturday, Kogalymavia Flight 9268 crashed shortly after takeoff over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. The flight departed from Sharm el-Sheikh airport, in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, and its intended destination was St. Petersburg, Russia.
Although Egyptian civil aviation authorities initially resisted connecting the crash to terrorists, today U.S. intelligence agencies apparently are now investigating the theory that a bomb was smuggled onto the plane by ISIS or an ISIS-affiliate.
For those unfamiliar with ISIS and its reach beyond the current warzone in Iraq and Syria, this might come as a surprise. How does attacking a bunch of Russian vacationers in Egypt advance the interests of a state trying to hold territory in the Levant?
The Sinai Peninsula has been wracked by insurgency ever since the other throw of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak, but it really kicked into high gear when General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi deposed the democratically-elected, Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammed Morsi in a 2013 coup.
Residents of the impoverished peninsula have long claimed that they have been neglected by the central government in Cairo and have suffered under counter insurgency tactics that critics say amount to ‘collective punishment’. Al-Sissi, for instance, made headlines last year when he decided to displace 10,000 people and demolish 800 homes in the town of Rafah on the Egypt-Gaza border in a bid to disrupt what his spokesman termed ‘terrorist hotbeds’.
Still, from 2011 until late 2014, the Sinai Insurgency had not reached the same level of virulence that has come to mark other insurgencies in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. The primary jihadist group operating in the region was Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, an al-Qaeda offshoot whose primary claim to fame were its periodic rocket barrages aimed at Israel and low-level shootings and bombings targeting Egyptian security forces.
In November 2014, this all changed when the group broke away from al-Qaeda and pledged bayat (allegiance) to the Islamic State. Now known as Wilayat Sinai (or Sinai province), the group has carried out a series of large-scale attacks against the Egyptian state over the past year. Just over the summer, it was likely responsible for assassinating Egypt’s attorney general, attacking an Egyptian patrol ship with a rocket, and even seizing the town of Sheikh Zuweid for a brief period of time.
Within this context, bombing a civilian airliner seems like the kind of attack Wilayat Sinai might orchestrate – not necessarily purely as payback for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supposed campaign against Islamic State in Syria – but rather as an attempt to weaken the Egyptian state by targeting its critical (and fragile) tourist industry.
If this truly was Wilayat Sinai’s intention, then all signs thus far are indicating that the attack is having its intended effect. Britain and France have suspended all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh airport, stranding an estimated 20,000 holiday-goers. According to Euromonitor data, Britain and Russia are the two largest markets for Egyptian tourism, so visitor numbers are likely to continue to decline.