If the statement by Russia’s security chief that a bomb brought down the Metrojet Airbus A321 over the Sinai is supported by forensic proof it doesn’t fit neatly with the other sequence of acts of terrorism carried out by ISIS.
To be sure, the Russian announcement, coming on the heels of the Paris massacre, reinforces an already accepted scenario: any remaining doubts that it was a bomb have been overridden in the coverage of the Paris massacre. Suddenly it seemed axiomatic that the 224 people killed in the airplane were victims of the same terror machine that killed 128 people in a suicide bombing at a Kurdish rally in Ankara, Turkey; killed more than 40 people by a bombing a Beirut suburb; and of course killing 129 people in Paris.
But in this timeline of terror there is a glaring anomaly: the Metrojet disaster.
Bringing off the successful bombing of an airliner requires a completely different set of skills than attacking a target on the ground—not only different but far more technically demanding than training and assigning teams of gunmen or bombers to a city.
If, therefore, it does turn out that ISIS was responsible for successfully infiltrating the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh and, moreover, were able to select a precise flight, get a bomb into the cargo and—and this would be at the core of their accomplishment—equip it with a timer to detonate the bomb at the optimum moment, they now have a more formidable and sophisticated capability than they have been able to demonstrate before.
And, if not, then they are only too happy to take the credit. Which raises the question: If not ISIS, who else had the capability?
For decades now, aviation has always been the principal target of choice by terrorists because the bomb-to-victim ratio is so high, because the media response is so alarming, and because of the infrastructure costs it inflicts on airports and national economies.
And there is no doubt that in the recent past the most ambitious attacks on aviation have come from one place: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, not ISIS.
Western intelligence services know that this is the base of somebody they acknowledge as the master bomb maker for attacks on aviation, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. He was the architect of the underpants bomb that failed to detonate over Detroit in 2009 and of a far more ingenious bomb, resembling a printer cartridge, which was intended to bring down a UPS airplane—a device discovered only a few hours before it was due to detonation.
And in the case of the Metrojet A321 the bombing scenario will have to focus on the issue of who designed the detonator and how it worked. Twenty-seven years after Pan Am Flight 103 was brought down over Lockerbie, Scotland, an argument still rages about whether the detonator of the bomb in the cargo hold of the Boeing 747 was triggered by a radio timer or by a barometric timer—a timer that triggers a bomb when it reaches a specific altitude.
Bombs carried aboard by passengers, as opposed to being planted in baggage, have involved more ingenious detonation technology designed to escape detection. The tiresome screening for liquids at airport security was initiated after the 2006 plot to blow up seven airliners traveling from the United Kingdom to Canada and the United States. This involved a new threat: the combination of explosives and liquids carried aboard separately and then combined in flight. In 2009 the so-called underpants bomber, Umar Abdul Mutallab failed to properly detonate a bomb that involved mixing two explosives with liquid acid while on a flight over Detroit.
And there is another challenging issue about the Metrojet scenario. How could such an attack, requiring careful preparation and skilled bomb building, be accomplished in only a few weeks?
Russia only decided to launch attacks in Syria, including token raids on ISIS, at the end of September. It follows that any ISIS decision to retaliate directly against a Russian target would have been provoked only after that, leaving a far tighter window between planning and executing the attack than is customary in aviation plots.
All this should serve as a warning against so readily conflating all the recent terrorism into one coherent campaign carried out by the same group. Of course, the end results are the same—appalling loss of life. But there is a lot more to be learned before so neat a picture makes any sense, or an intelligent response can be made.
The conduct so far of the investigation into the Metrojet catastrophe doesn’t make it any easier to achieve clarity. There has been an unhappy conflict of interests and motives—for example, the Egyptian anxiety to deflect blame away from airport security and, at first the Russian insistence that it was not a bomb, and now their total reversal of that, are just two elements, while Egypt is still insisting that it has no evidence of a “criminal act.”
The most basic and persistent problem may well be, however, the failure to reconcile two disciplines, that of the intelligence services looking at inferential data from intercepts and human intelligence and, in contrast, the careful and systematic work carried out by seasoned air crash investigators whose findings can never rest on assumptions but only on physical evidence—and that is a process requiring months, sometimes even years, to be complete. Not to mention the ability to carry out an investigation in a politically sterile context free of any external pressures, like an international war.