U.S. Spies Root for an ISIS-Russia War
In the days following the crash of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268, which mounting evidence suggests was felled by an ISIS bomb, many U.S. intelligence and security officials weren’t panicking about the so-called Islamic State unleashing a new campaign of attacks on civilian airliners. Instead, they were wondering how the bombing might hurt Vladimir Putin, and potentially help the United States.
Ever since Putin started dropping bombs on militants in Syria, officials have privately been arguing that the Russian leader committed a major strategic blunder, and that his intervention in Syria would weaken both his military and his reputation and likely ignite a backlash from Islamist militants, who have attacked inside Russia in the past.
One U.S. intelligence official, speaking prior to the airliner crash, called the Russian campaign in Syria “Putin’s folly.”
Now, six U.S. intelligence and military officials told The Daily Beast that they hoped an ISIS attack on Russian civilians would force Putin to finally take the gloves off and attack the group, which the U.S. has been trying to dislodge from Iraq and Syria for more than a year, without success.
“Now maybe they will start attacking [ISIS],” one senior defense official smugly wondered last week. “And stop helping them,” referring to ISIS gains in Aleppo that came, in part, because the group took advantage of Russian strikes on other rebels and militant outfits.
Since the plane crashed, Russia has struck two ISIS-controlled areas in Syria: Raqqa and Palmyra.
“I suppose now he’ll really let ISIS have it. This should be fun,” one senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast.
Some in the U.S. government are also wondering, in undeniably hopeful tones, if a terrorist attack will compel Putin to commit more military forces to Syria and thus draw him deeper into what the Obama administration calls a “quagmire.” Indeed, some privately delighted in the news that Russia was made to pay for its intervention in Syria. (ISIS had vowed to attack Russia after it began its airstrike campaign on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.)
While the American officials weren’t blithe about the loss of life—224 people died in the crash, most of them Russian vacationers—they said it could change the calculus in Syria in ways that ultimately benefit the United States. All the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to comment publicly on the possible bombing.
President Obama has ordered 50 additional Special Forces personnel to Syria, to act in an advisory capacity. But Putin already has troops on the ground serving in combat positions. And Russia began a new round of airstrikes on ISIS positions in Raqqa on Friday, as officials in Moscow concluded that a bomb may have caused the Metrojet crash.
The U.S. officials’ focus on the geopolitics of the possible bombing, and less so the immediate threat to U.S. security, underscored the degree to which ISIS is still seen as a different kind of terrorist threat from al Qaeda.
For several years now, intelligence and security officials have been frantically trying to stop al Qaeda from bringing bombs onto airplanes. Now ISIS had apparently succeeded where America’s longtime terrorist enemy had failed. But alarms weren’t sounding across Washington—even as leaked intelligence suggested a bomb had taken down the doomed jet.
“This wasn’t an American airliner. If it were, we’d be having a different conversation,” one intelligence official said.
Another U.S. official echoed that sentiment.
“It is not the United States’ responsibility to secure Sharm el-Sheikh airport and the facilities there,” he said. “Why the muted response? Because that is the best one to have.”
Several officials noted that the security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport was notoriously weak—that’s one reason the U.S. government does not allow direct flights from there to any American airports.
The U.S. shares intelligence pertaining to airport security with its European and Israeli allies, one official noted. And while Egypt is the strongest Arab ally in the region and Sharm el-Sheikh airport repeatedly welcomed U.S. cabinet secretaries during the final years of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s tenure, the intelligence sharing on airport security is not as broad as with other allies.
Officials and counterterrorism experts also questioned whether ISIS could easily replicate the attack, which seems to have relied on an insider at the airport who either placed the bomb aboard or gave access to the person who did.
“If this was ISIS, I don’t know if they can scale or replicate this. Sharm el-Sheikh is notorious for being in a high-risk area with a low-quality security operation,” Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast.
One former U.S. security official pointed out that airline bombs were nothing new for Russia. On Aug. 24, 2004, two Chechen suicide bombers blew themselves up on separate airplanes departing from Moscow, killing 89 people. U.S. and Western security procedures, the former official said, were more likely to catch these kinds of attacks, though they’re certainly not foolproof. In 2009, an al Qaeda operative smuggled a bomb in his underwear aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, but it failed to go off.
Another reason not to fear immediate attacks against U.S. carriers was that the Metrojet crash was not the result of failed U.S. intelligence or prevention measures, several officials argued. While U.S. intelligence did pick up communications among ISIS fighters warning about “something big” in the days before the crash, it was vague and inconclusive.
For weeks now, Obama administration officials have been hoping that Putin’s intervention might produce unintended consequences and weaken him at home. Last month, when 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft said that Putin was challenging Obama’s leadership, the American president replied, “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”
But the Obama administration is in a difficult position if it wants to use the crash for political advantage. Officials cannot celebrate the killing of innocent people—nor did they in interviews.
And yet the U.S. strategy for dealing with Putin’s aggression is clearly predicated on the bet that his Syrian adventure will end badly.
“Putin’s actions create great risks for him and his country,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast last month, prior to the airliner crash. “It is not just a Russian-backed failed regime at risk, it is now Russian prestige on the international stage. There is a risk of extremist backlash from the hundreds, maybe thousands, of foreign fighters from Russia and its near-abroad who may return to strike Russia at home.”
But there may be an upside for Putin, too. If he can portray the bombing as an attack on Russia and then step up airstrikes against ISIS fighters—whom he has generally been avoiding—then Putin could turn Syria into a magnet for other jihadis, including those in Russia.
“He may look at Syria as a honey pot,” said Harmer. “A jihadi who wants to get his swerve on will go to Syria, which means they won’t be blowing up subways in Moscow.”
“This is exactly what the U.S. did in the surge,” Harmer continued. In 2007 and 2008, President George W. Bush sent tens of thousands of additional combat forces to Iraq, arguing in part that it was better to fight terrorists there than on U.S. streets. The war in Iraq drew thousands of foreign fighters, and U.S. intelligence agencies and special forces worked together to capture or kill many of them.
The surge strategy provided a temporary victory, as it turned out, but it succeeded in devastating al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.
The Metrojet crash, if it turns out to be caused by a bomb, “will probably have a rally around the flag effect” for Putin, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert and fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Beast. If that’s true, the public reaction to the bombing will run counter to U.S. hopes.
The threat of more ISIS attacks can’t be discounted until this one is fully understood. And not everyone was skeptical of ISIS abilities to mount a repeat.
“If this is a bomb by the affiliate of ISIS in the Sinai, ISIS has now fully eclipsed al Qaeda as the gravest terror threat in the world,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC News’ This Week on Sunday.
“I think there’s a growing body of intelligence and evidence that this was a bomb, still not conclusive, but a growing body of evidence,” Schiff noted. “ISIS may have concluded that the best way to defeat the airport is not to go through them, but to go around them with the help of somebody on the inside. If that’s the case then I think there are at least a dozen airports in the region and beyond that are vulnerable to the same kind of approach, which is exactly why we have to harden those defenses.”