Saturday 17 August 2019

If this was Isil’s work, it is a new and worrying departure

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag

David Blair

If all the recent indications are proven correct and Isil did smuggle a bomb on board the Russian airliner leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, it would mark a significant departure from its usual modus operandi.

Whereas al-Qa’ida’s overriding priority was to strike Western targets – and its operatives seemed to nurse an obsession with blowing up or otherwise destroying aircraft – Isil’s main goal has been to capture and hold territory in the Middle East.

As its name implies, the driving purpose of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) is to build a new country modelled on Medina under the Prophet’s rule in the 7th century. Conquering more land and governing its new domain in accordance with the strictest interpretation of Islam – complete with slavery and beheadings – is its consuming project.

Isil terrorists will, of course, capture and murder any Westerners who come within reach of the territory they hold, hence the savage killings of hostages. But Isil has not previously demonstrated an interest in plotting the complex terrorist ‘spectaculars’ that were al-Qa’ida’s hallmark.

However, there are two important qualifications to this. The first is that Isil is continually urging its followers among Muslims in Europe and the US to attack their fellow citizens, especially those who happen to be Jewish. It clearly shares al-Qa’ida’s aim of killing Westerners in Western countries.

This reflects an important change from the era of

al-Qa’ida’s heyday. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when al-Qa’ida was at its most dangerous, terrorists needed to carry out spectacular attacks in order to achieve global impact.

But in the new world of social media, the bar is set much lower: incidents which inflict a relative handful of casualties can still draw huge attention.

The second qualification is that, for all we know, Isil might indeed have been plotting complex terrorist attacks for some time.

Last month, Andrew Parker, the director of MI5, said that his service had foiled “six attempts at terrorist attacks in the UK in the last year”.

We cannot tell if they were Isil plots or not. Outside observers will only ever know about the incidents that have happened – not those that would have taken place without the intervention of the security agencies. Consequently, the sample of evidence on which we base our conclusions is always skewed.

If Isil did plant a device on the Metrojet airliner, then it would have an obvious reason for targeting Russia.

Since September 30, the Russian air force has been in action over Syria, bombing the enemies of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. From that moment onwards, Russia became a direct combatant in Syria’s civil war.

But there are still elements of mystery. First of all, Russia has largely avoided bombing Isil: about 85pc of its air strikes in Syria are known to have targeted other rebel groups. Would Isil act in a way that might seem designed to draw Russian firepower?

Moreover, the business of assembling a bomb that is small enough to pass through airport security – but sufficiently powerful to destroy a plane – is complicated and time-consuming.

The same applies to the tasks of training a courier and organising the infiltration of Sharm el-Sheikh airport, supposing that that is indeed what happened. Would there have been enough time for Isil to mastermind all of the above in the 32 days between the onset of Russia’s intervention in Syria and the destruction of flight 9268?

Even if the plane was destroyed by explosives, is it right to assume that Isil must have been the culprit? Might not al-Qa’ida, or some other terrorist group, have been responsible? Isil will doubtless regard the fact that it is once again in the limelight as a victory in itself. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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