The crash of Russian Kogalymavia (MetroJet) flight 9268 in the Sinai Peninsula came as shocking news over the weekend. The circumstances relating to this terrible disaster are being investigated, and no doubt there will be many conflicting assessments of what happened before a proper expert investigation is conducted.
Keeping in mind that any version put forward right now is pure speculation, there are already attempts being made to interpret the tragedy as politically motivated. Given Russia’s stepped-up military campaign in Syria, it was only a matter of time before speculation turned to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
And, in fact, ISIS issued a statement through Aamaq News Agency claiming responsibility for “downing” the Russian aircraft in the skies above Egypt. The jihadists’ statement was even reproduced by some respectable international news agencies. Despite the lack of official confirmation about the origins of the tragedy and the Russian Transport Ministry’s assertion that the terrorist group was not involved, questions remain over the potential for such attacks against Russia, as well as the capabilities and ideological aims of the terrorists.
A year ago Egyptian jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (also known as Wilayat Sinai), a subdivision of ISIS in Egypt, threatened to carry out attacks on foreigners if they did not leave the country. And, in recent years, the Sinai Peninsula has become a battleground between the Egyptian military and armed jihadists.
The search for a possible precedent
Addressing this question, it is worth bearing in mind that vociferous (albeit unconfirmed) statements claiming responsibility for terror attacks against Russian citizens have been made before. In the context of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, it would be useful to analyze them. Notorious terrorist Doku Umarov made the most provocative statement in August 2009, when the then leader of the subversive terrorist group Caucasus Emirate said that he had been involved in that year’s catastrophic accident at the Sayano-Shushensk hydroelectric power station, which killed people 75 people.
Thus, six years ago Umarov tried to demonstrate that his reach extended far beyond the North Caucasus (the dam, which houses Russia’s largest hydropower plant, is located in Siberia on the border between Krasnoyarsk Territory and the Republic of Khakassia).
The rhetoric of the “emir” and his associates changed with the circumstances. In February 2012 Umarov stated that civilian facilities should not be targeted, but canceled his “moratorium” in July 2013 ahead of the Sochi Olympics, calling for their disruption. A year later his successor, Ali Abu-Muhammad (Aliaskhab) Kebekov, announced that non-military attacks were unacceptable for followers of Caucasus Emirate.
Why would ISIS claim responsibility for the aircraft crash?
In trying to understand the strategy behind radical Islamist terrorism, two crucial points should be kept in mind. First, the terrorists’ strategy is not based on formal logic. Their main objective is to sow fear, and fear is multiplied by misunderstanding. Through this approach they seek to impose their own vision and interpretation by showing that they are the ones in charge.
Given that the outcome of the Syrian conflict is anyone’s guess, and the internal situation in other Middle Eastern countries (including Egypt, not to mention Libya) is serious cause for concern, ISIS feels compelled to demonstrate its capabilities. It is not ruled out that various “peacemaking initiatives” will sound from the lips of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s supporters, like those voiced by Umarov a few years back. No one should be surprised by that. As part of the information war, the radicals must display harmony and allegiance to a single command center.
In reality that is not the case. The terrorist organizations leading the fight against state institutions are generally built on the network principle, even if they proclaim themselves to be states or emirates. In this regard, we should not expect followers of such structure to obey the orders of a “caliph” or “emir.” Any cell in the network can show independence and arrange an independent attack without central coordination.
After the announcement of Umarov’s “moratorium,” for instance, in the last three months of 2012 alone terrorism killed 22 people who were not military, police or internal troops, but rather, civilians. Among them were the rector of the Institute of Agriculture Boris Zherukov and journalist Kazbek Gekkiev (both from Kabardino-Balkaria). That is why the words of terrorists (both “war-mongering” and “peace-loving”) should be considered as just part of their communication strategy.
In 2012 Umarov’s disciples hoped to take advantage of the rapid cooling between Russia and the United States (in the context of the “third Putin term”) and play the role of “freedom fighters” against the “imperial yoke.” But back then the West did not dare antagonize Moscow. The divisions appeared later, during the Ukraine crisis. But whereas during the Maidan protests in Kiev, U.S. and EU leaders wanted to see “champions of European values” (what they actually got is another matter), terrorists in the North Caucasus were not recognized as “freedom campaigners.”
The upshot is support for Russian aspirations in the struggle against Caucasus Emirate and Umarov supporters’ abandonment of their “moratorium” on attacks on civilian targets, together with a return to militant rhetoric (including strong anti-Western rhetoric). Hence the second reason why ISIS claimed responsibility for the plane crash: Modern terrorist networks are not only about attacks and explosions, but also about seizing control (or at least gaining influence) over the information space. The latter is a no less powerful or important element.
Without knowing one’s enemy it is hard to defeat it. The “shadow boxing” metaphor is only good for the movies. In today’s fight against the terror threat, knowledge of the enemy is more valuable than in conventional standoffs between countries. That is why the counterstrategy must amount to more than simply striking terrorist infrastructure.
Russia has to understand that ISIS will try to exert influence on the North Caucasian audience, exploiting the very real problems that the region faces. Despite the significant progress made in integrating the North Caucasus (fewer terror acts; more recruits from the region in the Russian armed forces), there is still high unemployment, unresolved territorial issues and weak secular institutions of government (particularly the courts). Religious leaders’ lack of proper Islamic education is also a factor.
Without solving these issues it is extremely difficult to withstand the ideas of radicals who appeal to social justice and the problems of “ordinary Muslims.” Therefore, Russia’s tough response to terrorism, both home and abroad, must go hand in hand with lowering the internal political and socio-economic risks and learning to spot the correlations between terrorist rhetoric and the changing situation in Russia and the world.