The Islamic State's New Sinai Offshoot - Were There Signs the Metrojet Attack Was Coming?
- A jihadist group in Egypt, Wilayat Sinai, claimed responsibility for the Russain airliner attack in November 2015
- Interestingly, the group have not released any major anti-Western or anti-Russian statements in the past year.
- WS propaganda to date has focused on the near enemy, specifically Egypt and Israel.
- The group’s strategy is to damage the Egyptian economy, targeting tourist buses, gas pipelines and ships in recent years.
- Destroying a civilian airliner carrying tourists fits neatly into this strategy; the group should be considered a grave threat to tourists and Western businesses in Egypt.
While the exact cause of the crash of Russian Metrojet Airbus 321 remains unknown, unverified statements from the terrorist group Wilayah Sinai* have claimed responsibility. The attack took the security world by surprise for a number of reasons; the target (Russian, rather than European/American), the device (likely a bomb on board rather than a suicide attack), and the group responsible (not Al-Qa’ida or Islamic State in Syria but a little known group in Sinai who have pledged allegiance to IS).
Following such a tragedy, many often ask “Were there any signs this was coming?”. At Neon Century, we decided to investigate this question using open source intelligence techniques, collecting and analysing videos and statements from Wilayat Sinai over the past year. If they were behind the attack, was it part of WS’ stated media strategy? Did they threaten the Western powers, including Russia, before the attack?
The answer is surprisingly not. Previous WS propaganda reveals sporadic anti-Western rhetoric, instead WS focus on ‘the near enemy’; the Egyptian security forces and Israel. Even the group’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State vowed the continuation of fighting against ‘the apostate forces** and the Jews’ claiming that they will only stop when ‘Allah grants us victory, revenges our martyrs and restores the country to its owners’. One of Wilayat Sinai’s most recent media releases also follows this trend: threats are made against both Egyptian forces, referred to as ‘the lackeys of Jews ’, and Israel, which is threatened with the resumption of rocket attacks.
Contrary to some expectations, this latest media release completely ignores the subject of the Russian plane crash. Though reported by Arabic media to have been released following the crash, the tape could have been filmed before the attack; especially since the fighter pictured in the video talks about Egypt’s ‘Martyr’s Right’ military offensive which began in early September 2015.
Some degree of ideological convergence with Al-Qaeda was also previously reported though it did not translate into explicit threats towards the West.
Some Arabic media reports indicated that members of the group previously admitted to adopting the same “approach, beliefs, ideas and principles” while denying any organisational ties between the two. This ideological sympathy is highlighted in one of WS’ videos where Al-Zarqawi’s position with regards to the American army in Iraq is compared to Wilayat Sinai in relation to the Egyptian army.
However, strong anti-Western sentiment does infuse some of the group’s rhetoric and sporadically appears in its propaganda videos. One such release addresses ‘the crusaders and the apostates’, claiming that ‘the crusader offensive is failing’. One of the fighters reiterates that they do not fear the crusaders and claims that their weapons fall in the hands of the mujahideen who will not stop until ‘either you become Muslim or pay jizyah’. Another attempt to portray the intricacies of an ongoing ‘intellectual war’ also mentions the Western infidels and their use of tools and coalitions against the Islamic State.
At the time of writing, WS do not appear to have an official social media presence. However, accounts that claim to be associated with Wilayat Sinai exhibit an anti-Western tendency. One such individual, Abu Miqdad Al-Sinawi, promised the defeat of Russia and the US, stating ‘you, your army and your allies will be crushed in hell’.
Other accounts claiming to be WS members, quite predictably, described the crash of the Russian plane as retribution for its involvement in Syria: ‘This is what Russia’s planes did in Al-Sham, and today Russia is given a taste of its own medicine’.
An official release of Wilayat Sinai follows the same argument, stating that there is no safety for Russians and their allies in ‘the lands of Muslims’. The claim of responsibility for the crash, titled ‘We downed it so die in your rage’, was distributed in both Arabic and Russian, pointing to a more recent trend of WS using a variety of languages to release its threats and propaganda. In addition to Russian and Arabic, official propaganda has also used French and Hebrew. The phrase die in your rage is often used by the Islamic State members on Twitter and perhaps highlights the growing connectivity between WS and Islamic State.
On top of its propaganda campaign, an expansion of the group’s capabilities and tactics became apparent in the last year. Over recent years, WS have also sought to damage the Egyptian economy using terrorism, and in this context, the attack on the Russian airliner fits neatly within this overall strategy. One account which appears to be associated to Wilayat Sinai, singled out France and Germany and claimed that the main reason for ‘hiding the fact that the plane was downed, is the economic catastrophe that will hit them as a result’.
Wilayat Sinai previously attempted to inflict economic damage on Egypt by targeting gas pipelines, tourist buses and Egyptian naval vessels in the Mediterranean – harming Egypt’s reputation in the region.
For several years, WS and their predecessor ABM** have become a formidable terrorist group, largely ignored by the Western media until the Russian airline attack. If the group were responsible for the Metrojet attack, despite the lack of public statements the attack does fit with their overall strategy of a) aligning themselves with Islamic State b) Disrupting Egypt’s economy and c) Targeting the West.
Unless Egypt is able to fully re-assert its control over Sinai, the group is likely to conduct further attacks against critical economic aspects of Egypt’s economy, particularly the tourism, oil and gas and maritime sectors.
*Before pledging allegiance to Islamic State, the group were known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (Supporters of the Holy House). The group emerged during the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011. The group have predominantly targeted the Egyptian military and police, but have also attacked tourists and fired rockets towards Israel.
**Reference to the Egyptian Army, not the West.