Guardian

This article was originally published by the Guardian, authored by Charlie Winter

6 November 2015

There is a great deal of information floating around regarding Flight KGL9268. So much, in fact, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to ground the mainstream discourse in reality. In light of that, it might help to re-establish the facts.

So, first of all, what do we know? On the 31 October, a Russian plane operated by Metrojet crashed in the Sinai desert, shortly after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport. All 224 people on board were killed. On the day of the crash, Islamic State affiliates released two statements – one written and in multiple languages and one audio clip in Arabic. In both messages, the group claimed Isis was responsible for bringing down the plane but stopped well short of providing any details.

A few days later, on 4 November, the same Isis affiliate released another audio statement reiterating its claim and taunting the Egyptian and Russian authorities investigating the crash, challenging them to figure out what happened. Again, it provided no proof or evidence.
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Amid an almighty media frenzy, there has been a great deal of expert analysis. Manpads – shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles that we know Isis in Sinai has – were ruled out by the investigators, which leaves us with two potential causes: sabotage, or error (be it technical or human).

Increasingly, the signs seem to be pointing towards foul play. No evidence has been made public yet, but the British government has suspended all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh, leaving about 20,000 Britons stranded in the Red Sea resort town.

Until any concrete conclusions emerge, we are left with three working hypotheses: first, that Isis is freeloading on the publicity surrounding the crash; second, that Isis did it; and third, that someone else is responsible. The last option is the least likely, so let’s put it to one side.

Regarding the first hypothesis, the motivations for opportunism are replete – Isis’s claim of involvement has already thrust it to the forefront of the headlines, bolstered its perceived momentum, and ensured its sustained relevance. If this is the case, is has come at next to no cost. Even if it turns out that Isis was not involved the narrative is set, and so the boons of publicity far outweigh the drawbacks to being outed as duplicitous.

If it turns out that the flight was downed by Isis, the situation is markedly more complicated. It would make Isis – an organisation that has hitherto relied on high-profile self-starter terrorist attacks – responsible for the second deadliest terror attack since 9/11 (the first being Beslan). Furthermore, it would mean Isis had succeeded in blowing up an aircraft in mid-air – something that al-Qaida has tried and failed to do for years.

If it does emerge that Isis caused the crash we need to ask, first of all, how they came to this capability and secondly, why they have persistently withheld any real detail of how they did it.

In answering the first question, the ability to pull off an operation like this could be a boon of Isis’s “caliphate” model and the internationalised operational capabilities it presents. Hypothetically speaking, the attack could have been planned by Isis in Syria, the bomb could have been built by Isis in Egypt, and the operative who smuggled it on board could have been from Isis’s Russian affiliate.

Regarding the lack of evidence, there are a number of things that could be at play. First and foremost, obfuscation like this maximises attention. Just as it cultivated confusion surrounding the fate of the Jordanian pilot, Muadh al-Kasasbeh, earlier this year, Isis could just be drawing everything out with a view to milking the operation for all its worth. If – emphasis on if – this is the case, it’s not beyond reason that Isis might release a high-profile video from one of its central propaganda outlets in the near future.

If the rumours of Isis’s sabotage become reality, the consequence would be huge. Among other things, Egypt’s tourism industry would be hit immensely hard; air travel the world over would suffer; and security restrictions would likely be revamped and maximised. Regarding Isis, in particular, the implications would be great, too. After all, it would mean that Isis had resolutely trumped al-Qaida, and would likely lead Russia to step up its anti-Isis military campaign – both things that would boost its recruitment efforts dramatically.

In any case, it is critical that, until the final crash analysis emerges, we keep our speculation rational and our assumptions grounded in real, physical evidence. Taking Isis at its word and believing its claim on the basis of a few statements, as some have been guilty of already, is a potentially catastrophic error.

To read the original article posted in Comment is Free, please click here.