By Daniel Byman
CNN and other media are reporting that U.S. and European intelligence suspect that ISIS or one of its affiliates used a bomb to bring down a Russian airplane over Sinai on Saturday, killing all 224 aboard. The reporting on this is early and it would be wise to withhold judgment until more information comes in, but this could be a very big deal. If confirmed, this attack would mark a major shift by the Islamic State and should force us to rethink the threat that the group poses to the world.
The caricature of ISIS is that its members are all wild-eyed fanatics bent on conquering the world, butchering, raping, and enslaving as they go. Unfortunately the caricature bears a strong resemblance to reality. But there is an important exception: While the Islamic State’s brutality is staggering, its operations have largely been limited in scope. The group seems new because Americans only really began to consider it a serious threat in 2014, after the beheading of journalist James Foley and the group’s sudden and massive incursion into Iraq. But it really began a decade before then in an earlier incarnation as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which emerged after the U.S. invasion in 2003. So while the group’s name has repeatedly changed and it is now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, we have a long track record by which to judge it.
Zarqawi and his followers likewise raped, beheaded, and killed Shi’a and Sunnis suspected of supporting the American-backed Iraqi government. They too declared an Islamic government in Iraq and otherwise acted in ways painfully familiar to those who have watched the rise of ISIS the past two years. But the scope of the group’s operations for more than a decade has suggested it has been primarily focused on its local enemies: the Shi’a government of Iraq, the Alawite government of Syria, and to a lesser degree neighbors that opposed it like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Lebanon. In this fight, it primarily has used a mix of conventional and guerrilla war, with terrorist attacks designed to demoralize enemy security forces, sow unrest among its people, and foster sectarian tension. Somewhat surprisingly, despitepredictions to the contrary and years of being devastated by U.S. forces in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor organizations focused on killing American soldiers in Iraq but did not prioritize international terrorism as a way of expanding the battlefield. Islamic State, meanwhile, has butchered Americans whom it captured in Syria. And it has also called for attacks in the West, but this has been done by so-called “lone wolves,” most of whom havelittle operational connection to the group’s core in Syria and Iraq.
Still, Baghdadi’s group has had affiliates in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and, notably, the Sinai that have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and have had that pledge recognized. Yet these affiliates have so far largely followed their own agendas, embracing some of the Islamic State’s brutality—like when Libyan followers beheaded Christians, and theYemeni branch attacked Shi’a mosques—but not really expanding their horizons beyond their home turf. You would not want to be an American who stumbled across their path, but they were not going to bring the war to America either. They seemed more like a local problem, with Baghdadi’s boasts that they were part of a unified caliphate sounding like grandiose rhetoric with little operational meaning.
So if ISIS or its Sinai affiliate did bomb the Russian airplane, it means the organization may be changing in several important ways. First, using terrorism to attack civil aviation would be a major strategic shift. Whether it was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Qaddafi regime’s bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, or the 9/11 attacks, terrorist groups have long targeted airplanes. In 2009 and 2010, al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen unsuccessfully tried to target U.S. passenger and cargo planes. The Islamic State now might be embracing this ugly practice. Civil aviation, fortunately, is already a well-guarded target. Knowing that yet another band of bloodthirsty thugs might attack it is not likely to worsen the misery of flying beyond its present levels, though it may mean you might want to cancel your spring break trip to eastern Libya.
Even more importantly, a new civil-airliner attack would mean the battlefield is expanding. It would mean that rather than striking Russian bases and personnel in Syria, the Islamic State is hitting them wherever they might be found—in this case leaving an Egyptian tourist resort. Here the Islamic State’s affiliates become important, for they greatly expand the range of where ISIS could conceivably launch an attack.
The attack on a Russian plane may seem intuitive given Putin’s recent intervention in Syria, but this too would be a shift. In the past the organization focused on local enemies and on Muslims it considered deviant, not Western or other foreign powers. Russia is particularly loathed among jihadists and now many ordinary Sunni Muslims, so there’s a chance the Islamic State is making an exception. The Muslim world has been outraged that Moscow has been slaughtering Sunni Muslims by essentially serving as Bashar al-Assad’s air force. (Although, ironically, the Russians have focused their firepower on the moderate Syrian opposition, not ISIS.) And Russia’s longstanding brutality in Chechnya and past intervention in Afghanistan make it a time-honored foe. So striking Russia improves the Islamic State’s credibility as the avenging angel of Sunnism.
But the United States is high on the most-hated list, too. America devastated al-Qaida in Iraq’s ranks in the last decade, and now the United States is bombing ISIS positions in Syria. So if Russia is being targeted internationally, it makes sense to assume Americans will soon be in the crosshairs, too. In fact, this suggests the more aggressive the United States is in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, the more likely the organization is to respond with international terrorism.
The Islamic State has attracted more than 100 Americans and several thousand Europeans to fight in its ranks, so it is well-poised to attack the West should it so choose. I’ve argued before that this threat is real but often exaggerated. Part of my logic was that Western security services are on alert and that many of the volunteers don’t want to do terrorism at home, but an important factor in my thinking was the local and regional focus of the Islamic State itself. For years now this has largely held true despite frequent doomsaying. But terrorist groups are dynamic, and if the Islamic State is now prioritizing foreign enemies, this is an important shift.
Reports of a bomb are still tentative, and even if they are true it’s still too soon to say that the group now is becoming more global in its targeting; one airplane attack may not make a pattern. But we might look back on the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 as the moment the threat of ISIS transformed itself from a regional menace to a global danger.