If the Islamic State really was behind the attack, it would be the first clear sign of our worst fears realized: the group’s unprecedented levels of wealth, power and territory are turning it into a base for global terrorist operations. A rogue self-declared state in “foreign policy” as well as in its attempts to create a domestic government. It would also show how the Islamic State seems to have succeeded in subsuming at least one of its affiliates, turning it into a proxy that can effectively project the group’s strength with great consequences for countries such as Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Sure, Islamist terrorists have long hijacked, bombed or fired rockets at planes. But a common ideology doesn’t mean a common strategy. What has set the Islamic State apart so far is its dedicated focus to attack and terrorize domestic adversaries to seize their territory. In Iraq and Syria, it attacks other governments or other rebel groups. (Yes, it also slaughters foreigners it captures, but so far, it hasn’t strayed from its geographic area to find them.) This focus on expansion and survival has been so narrow that the group has prioritized fighting rebels and fellow jihadis in Syria over attacking the Assad regime, in order to steal the rebels’ hard-won liberated territory. This has even led to accusations that Islamic State and Assad’s forces enjoy a tactical alliance of convenience.
International terrorism has not featured as a central strategy in this state-building exercise. Successful attacks against the West up to this point have largely been perpetuated by ISIS-inspired lone wolves, and they only began after foreign intervention against the group.
But blowing up a Russian jet would mark a shift in strategy. Such an attack means that the Islamic state may be adopting something almost akin to the state-sponsored terrorism that was long a hallmark of rogue regimes such as Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The group isn’t just carrying out more masochist stunts in search of recruits, but striking out against distant adversaries in what it sees as a war to secure its fledgling “state.” The group is signaling its intent to retaliate against enemies and in their view raise the cost of military intervention.
Russia may have just been the first and easiest target. The risk of blowback is not that acute for Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his lieutenants, since Russia has fewer assets on the ground than the United States or Britain and less capability to reach the group’s top leadership. When it retaliates, it’ll probably stay true to form and indiscriminately bomb civilians, possibly in areas not held by the group at all. Besides, Russia is arguably the most hated foreign power among anti-regime Syrians after Iran. Attacking one of Assad’s primary backers helps improve the group’s domestic image and defends it from accusations that it is in tacit alliance with the regime.
An attack led by an Egypt-based group would also show how the Islamic State may be subsuming its affiliates, making them into proxies for effective force projection. With the Egyptian group, formerly called Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM) or “Champions of Jerusalem,” the Islamic State seems to have succeeded in proving that the declared alliance was more than just rhetorical.
ABM was a native jihadi group born out of its local context with its own distinct character and goals. The group has heretofore largely focused on attacking Egyptian security forces and, to a lesser extent, Israel. It hasn’t dedicated many resources to go after the numerous soft tourist and Western targets in Egypt. Before now, the number of times it has attacked foreigners could have been counted on one’s hands. In the group’s own record of terrorist attacks even against hardened security targets, it had painstakingly avoided causing mass civilian casualties by waiting for the early hours of the morning or a holiday.
The recent history of attacks on tourists in Egypt had also been instructive for them. A senseless massacre of foreigners in Luxor in 1997 dried up what little popular support the jihadists had at the time. ABM’s own predecessor, Al Tawhid wal Jihad, had also carried out mass-casualty attacks in tourist resorts in south Sinai in the mid-2000s. But the government cracked down on them, tourism rebounded, and the major lasting consequence was the earlier group’s defeat.
Now the Islamic State’s interest in attacking Russia trumps the local affiliate’s need to cultivate a base of popular support to wage a “successful jihad.” The Egyptian group has now declared that it’s part of an international caliphate, and the Islamic State’s influence is more visible as the affiliate increasingly has more disregard for civilian fatalities. Since the group’s pledge of fealty to the Islamic State in November 2014, it has boasted in a video of killing more than 130 “spies,” who are in fact primarily locals accused of helping the Army. It may now focus its energy on softer targets to maximize fatalities. As I argued recently with my co-author Samuel Tadros in the CTC Sentinel, ABM’s pledge to the Islamic State may thus prove to be a poisoned chalice, if it brings it a fate similar to that of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which forsook its local base and could not sustain it after merging with al-Qaeda in the early 2000s.
But it may take years for any meaningful backlash against Wilayat Sinai to build and the strategy to backfire. In the meantime, the Islamic State will be less and less averse to using its territory as a base for international terrorism aimed at retaliation and defending the “state” it’s fought so hard to declare.