As new information emerges to bolster the case for a bomb on board bringing down the Russian airliner over the Sinai, UK media reported on Saturday (7 November) that a British airliner had a narrow miss with a surface-to-air missile as it approached Sharm El-Sheikh Airport in August 2015.
The event had gone unreported until late Friday. Although it’s not clear how the news was originally released, Daily Mail says the UK Department for Transport confirmed that the incident occurred on 23 August. The carrier in the event was Thomson.
A British plane carrying 189 passengers came ‘within 1,000ft’ of a rocket as it approached Sharm El Sheikh, it emerged last night.
The Thomson flight from London Stansted only took evasive action after the pilot spotted the missile speeding through the air.
The jet landed safely, and holidaymakers were not told they had been seconds from disaster.
That’s not all, however. The crew of another Thomson aircraft also saw the missile.
The missile that nearly struck the Thomson jet was also spotted by another of the carrier’s planes as it approached Sharm El Sheikh, the source said.
‘The crew were told the rocket was from an Egyptian military exercise, but with what has happened there is a lot of fear,’ they added. ‘The incident left staff petrified.’
Now, frankly, the business about the staff being told this was an Egyptian exercise – coupled with the fact that British and other air carriers continued to fly in and out of Sharm El-Sheikh in the ensuing weeks – sounds like a major screw-up to me. The Egyptians are a perfectly professional, modern military force, in the sense that they don’t go around launching SAMs into the approach pattern at a civilian airport. The “explanation” about an Egyptian exercise is a lot of hooey.
Although the British government and Thomson both signed off on closing out the incident and continuing to use Sharm El-Sheikh, this arguably sounds like a government-level agreement to overlook a serious transportation security threat in the southern Sinai.
Note this point, as an aside: an airliner on approach to an airport, like the Thomson jet, gets down to an altitude where a man-portable anti-air missile could be used to target it (i.e., below about 9,000 feet). The Russian airliner’s catastrophic descent began from an altitude of 31,000 feet. That’s too high for a MANPAD. The use of any sort of high-altitude missile against the Russian jet by jihadi cells in the Sinai is so unlikely that we can discount it. The bomb-on-board theory is the most likely.
One more point before moving on. The fact of the near-miss with a missile in August, and the continuation of commercial flights in spite of it, sheds a new light on the transportation security aspect of this sequence of events. It appears that at least some airlines, some foreign governments, and the Egyptian government were taking airline security in the area more lightly than, say, the American government would, if it knew about a near-miss missile event at one of our airports, probably connected to terrorists.
Numerous reports, including the ones linked above, have also cited passengers saying that “security was horrendous” at Sharm El-Sheikh, or words to that effect.
The U.S. DHS and TSA don’t need to overreact, for domestic purposes, to a security environment that doesn’t even exist in the United States. It’s quite possible that no one had to sneak anything aboard the Russian jet. It doesn’t sound like the “security” at Sharm El-Sheikh would necessarily have caught explosives being carried in someone’s luggage.
Terrorists – and ISIS – in the Sinai
In the bigger picture, meanwhile, jihadis of various stripes have been known to be in the Sinai for some time, and it’s no surprise that some of them have the capability to launch MANPADs. They have launched rockets at land targets (in Israel and Jordan) in recent years.
The August event may or may not be related to the downing of the Russian aircraft. A British analyst quoted by Daily Mail suggests that a group calling itself Sinai Province (i.e., the Sinai Province of a greater caliphate), which recently swore allegiance to Islamic State, may be responsible for the attack on the Russian Airbus. That’s quite possible, but the more general point would be that it’s not a stretch for the average transnational jihadi group to be capable of both suitcase bomb attacks and MANPAD attacks.
We still don’t know enough to be certain if we’re seeing a unified “campaign” develop in the Sinai. There are radical Islamist groups motivated to try to bring the Sisi government down, some of them with ties to the Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood faction. Others, like Sinai Province, have thrown in with ISIS. Given the serious impact these events will have on tourism and the Egyptian economy, it may be that anti-Sisi groups are making a move.
The ISIS connection is being described by analysts as a “game-changer,” which it would be if ISIS was involved in a “command” or operational role in the attack. ISIS’s exact role isn’t clear yet. ISIS certainly took credit for the attack, but that doesn’t mean ISIS ordered it, or has a strategic plan for following up on it.
If we view the attack on the Russian plane as the first salvo in a campaign against Sisi, the most obvious thing about it is how indirect the method is. Even added to the missile miss in August, it’s still a couple of one-offs, attacking foreign aircraft when the readier way to get at Sisi decisively, with force, is to attack the airport – or perhaps the hotels in the resort area of Sharm El-Sheikh. And that would just be a start. Bringing down Sisi requires instability on the ground, in Egypt.
This is one reason I continue to question the proposition that ISIS thinks it’s a good idea to wage a campaign with old-style attacks on commercial aircraft. It’s out of character for ISIS, which is not a random-terrorism organization. ISIS fights for territory, and against the internal cohesion of targeted states. In fact, as noted in this WSJ article, ISIS in the Sinai has already been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on Egyptian army and police facilities in the last couple of years. That’s ISIS’s signature. ISIS fights for a geostrategic purpose, not just to blow things up.
When it comes to classic terror attacks on commercial air transportation, I might characterize the ISIS posture more as being pleased to benefit, in a secondary theater, from the different methods of affiliated groups.
Don’t forget the Chechens
Besides the anti-Sisi forces, which arose independently and have affiliated with ISIS, there are the Chechens who have been a part of ISIS’s core from its earliest days (see here and here, for example). Chechens are especially motivated to attack Russian targets, and a lower-security venue like Sharm El-Sheikh is a good place to do it. The Chechens also have a history of planting bombs on Russian commercial aircraft. (I doubt Chechen involvement in the missile event in August, however. That was probably an Arab jihadi group.)
If ISIS has something big and strategically aggressive in view – if it’s not just benefiting as opportune from the initiative of its affiliates – there are a couple of considerations on the extended horizon: one to the west (in Egypt), and one to the east.
And it’s not impossible that ISIS is thinking big. Russia and Iran are rocking ISIS’s world in Syria right now. But ISIS is by no means on the ropes, and it is now more motivated than ever before to create problems for these outside interlopers, by reaching past the immediate theater (Syria and Iraq) to the extent it can.
Given the way ISIS fights, and what it considers a success to be – fomenting chaos and unrest, using guerrilla blitzkrieg tactics – ISIS can reach past the immediate theater. Even when it’s having to fight a more challenging ground war in Syria than it was a couple of months ago.
Outline of an aggressive vision
A campaign in Egypt is of less direct relevance to the Syria problem. But ISIS’s long-term vision certainly includes closing in on Egypt – which is why it has enthusiastically recruited affiliates in eastern Libya and the Sinai, and encouraged them to conduct robust operations there. Earlier this year, I noted the challenge it would be to Egypt to have to deal with pressure from ISIS exerted like a pincer, from both east and west:
But Egypt and Tripoli [Libya] will find Islamic State to be a challenge, in turn. They don’t have a way to dislodge IS [from Libya] solely by using air strikes. And even for a country the size of Egypt, trying to pacify eastern Libya while also maintaining order in the Sinai, and securing the nation’s heart around the Nile Delta against Muslim Brotherhood radicals, will be a very tall order.
That in itself is a strategic-level “core reality.” IS does have the capability to throw this region into a condition of instability from which it will have difficulty recovering.
As long as it’s the affiliates that are doing the work, it may well suit ISIS just fine for Egypt to be pushed to the brink. It would be a major blow to all of Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan for the current Sisi government to become preoccupied internally, and effectively unable to govern.
It’s a mistake, however, to focus solely on Egypt and the territory to the west of Syria and Iraq. The Atlantic West naturally has this focus – but the entry of Russia into the Syria/Iraq theater, alongside Iran, has to change ISIS’s vision of how this great conflict will unfold. That’s where the Chechen connection comes in.
I recommend adjusting your view to the new reality that all of Southwest Asia is now in play. Russia has made quite a political point of the fact that she is exerting military force across the whole “grand” theater. As a refresher, I include the video put out by Russia after the cruise missile strikes launched from the Caspian Sea a month ago, which emphasized the Russian military threat being mounted from Russia’s own southern flank. Moscow’s purpose was to impress the world with the geostrategic change depicted in Map 1.
Americans can afford to think it’s all about the land west of Baghdad, but ISIS can’t. To fight the war it’s in, ISIS is compelled to consider the threat coming from the east now.
And – bonus – there’s an Islamist apocalyptic concept to back up a geostrategic vision for the territory running from Afghanistan into northeastern Iran, across the “Stans” and southern Russia and into the Caucasus.
The view to the east
Although this history is very little known in the West, Bill Roggio noted back in 2011 the emergence of mujahedeen from Afghanistan and Pakistan who claimed loyalty to the “Caucasus Emirate” of Doku Umarov, the hard-core leader followed by many Chechen jihadis, who was Russia’s most wanted terrorist for years, and finally died, quite possibly at Russian hands, in late 2013.
The Af-Pak jihadis referred to themselves as the Caucasus Mujahedeen in Khorasan (also spelled Khorazan).
Khorasan refers to an area encompassing parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. Its history is especially freighted for Iran and the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia, who dueled over it in a storied past.*
It also has special significance for at least some apocalyptic Islamists:
The Khorasan is considered by jihadis to be the place where they will inflict the first defeat against their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon. The final battle is to take place in the Levant – Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Mentions of the Khorasan have begun to increase in al Qaeda’s propaganda. After al Qaeda’s defeat in Iraq, the group began shifting its rhetoric from promoting Iraq as the central front in their jihad and have placed the focus on the Khorasan.
(For more on the location of the “final battle,” see footnote 2** and map.)
This period was just before ISIS split off from Al Qaeda to pursue its unique vision. But interestingly, in March 2014, at a time when the Chechen presence in ISIS and Syria was coming to greater notice in the West, the Caucasus leaders who were establishing control after the death of Doku Umarov publicly invoked, in quick succession, the ties of Caucasus jihadis to the fighters in Syria, and the fighters of the “Khorasan” group. Observers thought this was noteworthy at the time, speculating that the Caucasus Emirate’s fight was being “internationalized.”
Alert readers may remember the brief, somewhat mysterious references made by U.S. officials to attacking the “Khorasan group” in the early months of the U.S. air campaign in Syria (starting in September 2014). Although background on the Khorasan mujahedeen has remained shadowy for the public, the group is very real, and U.S. officials weren’t just blowing smoke in referring to them.
(Disclosures to the Western media were, however, somewhat misleading, as they focused almost exclusively on the presence of Khorasan fighters in Syria, and the suspicion that the Khorasan group may have been plotting terror attacks against Western targets. The group’s resume is not really Western-oriented, and isn’t as thin as it looks through that lens. I include a couple of links here so you can get a flavor of the reporting in late 2014, even though its focus is off. Some of it is still good, such as Vox’s discussion of the apocalyptic connection of Khorasan territory.)
In fact, a leading Khorasan muj (of Kuwaiti extraction) is suspected by some analysts, including U.S. intelligence, of having brokered the ISIS-Al Qaeda split – indicating how longstanding is the link between the Khorasan group and the leadership of ISIS.
A strategic view of the entire geography of Southwest Asia, encompassing everything from Khorasan across Mesopotamia and into the Levant, is thus perfectly consistent – in fact, it’s to be expected – with the links between ISIS, the Chechens and other Caucasus jihadis, and the Khorasan group. (See Map 4.)
That ISIS has an interest in Khorasan territory was definitively established early in 2015, when ISIS announced that it was setting up a “Khorasan Province,” with a location in Afghanistan (in Helmand Province in the south; see follow-up analysis from April 2015 here). Many news outlets have reported on “ISIS in Afghanistan,” but it’s more informative to listen to what ISIS actually said, and recognize the importance it places on the “Khorasan” concept.
Listen to ISIS, and you can understand its geographic vision – which is the key to seeing what ISIS thinks it sees down the road ahead. ISIS wasn’t just being poetic when it referred to its state of “Iraq and al-Sham,” and it isn’t being poetic in referring to “Khorasan.” It’s defining and claiming territory.
The “Khorasan” dimension matters to ISIS’s vision and strategy, as does the jihadi link with Chechens and fighters from Af-Pak.
Now, with that understood, consider where Russia is making a point of displaying her military reach: right through the middle of ISIS’s arc of apocalypse and caliphate.
Refer to the first footnote for the historical bad blood between Iran and modern keepers of the “Khorasan” flame, and the geopolitical reality is amplified. Russia and Iran together cut a swath down the middle of the geographic path of ISIS’s apocalyptic panorama. And both bring a legacy of reasons for enmity and suspicion.
Moreover, referring to “ISIS” in this context is a rhetorical convenience that doesn’t fully convey the connection with the other jihadi groups across this region. Not all of them are interested in hooking up with ISIS. But jihadi links that unify this geography from a strategic perspective already exist, and they make for an emerging nexus that could, in fact, enable ISIS to effectively reach beyond Iraq to the east.
“ISIS in Syria” doesn’t have much of a reason to bomb a Russian airliner in Egypt. But that’s a misleading focal point for ISIS’s real geostrategic beef with Russia. ISIS does have reason to want to disrupt Russia’s equilibrium and strategic center of gravity any way it can: because Russia is the premier military influence moving in from the east, with the real potential to stand athwart ISIS’s strategic vision there.
Strategic turning point?
We may or may not get a clear picture in the coming days of whether the Russian plane was a mere target of opportunity, or was stalked because it was Russian. That remains to be seen. But in any case, I don’t think we’re seeing something as one-dimensional as an ISIS expansion into random airline bombings against Western targets. ISIS has no good reason to get into that business.
The Islamic State affiliates may mount such attacks for their purposes, and ISIS may reap collateral benefit from them. But ISIS’s vision and purposes aren’t that small. Russia is on a collision course with them in a big way, especially to the east of the Syria/Iraq theater. Don’t discount how that matters to ISIS; we’re only just starting to see the outlines of it, because Russia has only just started to make major muscle movements there.
* The modern nation with the most recent claim to a historical, cultural stamp on “Greater Khorasan” is Iran, which ruled over much of it between 1520 and 1736. It was broken up among many rulers in the 18th century. Fittingly, there is a Khorasan Province in northeastern Iran today.
But Iran’s Safavid shahs had to win Khorasan back in the early 16th century from Central Asian rulers, who controlled it after the conquest of the area in the 1380s by the Turko-Mongol warrior Tamerlane (whose actual name was Timur). Tamerlane styled himself the “Sword of Islam,” and his empire imposed Islam by the sword on the Caucasus – which is why he is remembered by many Caucasus Muslims today as a hero (but by Christian Russians as a marauder and scourge). Modern-day Chechnya lies at the extreme northern reach of the Timurid Empire in the Caucasus, northwest of Derbent, in Dagestan (where the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokar and Tamerlan – yes – came from).
The Khorasan area, per se, was given its name by the Sassanid dynasty of ancient Persia, which ruled it from the 3rd century A.D. until the dynasty was destroyed by Islamic invaders from the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-7th century.
I wrote briefly about that 7th-century conquest back in March; its key battles took place in eastern Iraq, from Baghdad northeast to the modern border of Iran (see the section on the “Ghosts of Diyala and Tikrit”).
But of particular significance to the present issue is that Chechens, and non-Persians (like Afghans) living in the “Khorasan” territory of today, have a legacy idea of the Islamic empire of Tamerlane to unite them against the Persian shahs who decimated that empire in reconquering Khorasan in the early 1500s. It is no accident that, as I wrote in March, ISIS now refers to the Iranians, with disdain, as “Safavids.” In doing this, ISIS is taking the view of Caucasus Muslims, and the radicals of the Khorasan group, about the rights and wrongs of history.
ISIS doesn’t speak gibberish. But the language it does speak takes decoding, with pages of history seldom turned, in recent centuries, by the publics of the West.
** The “final battle” is supposed to be at Dabiq in northern Syria, or at a minimum to begin there. See here for previous coverage of ISIS’s expectations in this regard.