U.S. intelligence now believes that the explosion of a Russian airliner over Egypt that killed 224 people was due to a bomb planted by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) on the plane. If you thought the terrorist group was strong before, then get ready for what one terrorism expert is predicting will be a "turbocharged" ISIS.
The current assessment is that the Islamic State had an operative working inside the Sharm al-Sheikh airport who planted the bomb. Officials say that intercepted communications lead the U.S. to believe that the Islamic State was indeed responsible. Whereas Al-Qaeda has focused on developing innovative bombs that can make it past airport security, ISIS has apparently succeeded by infiltrating the security.
It is still possible that the bomber simply exploited holes in security. Experts and officials say that it was known that the airport had inadequate protective measures, yet one expert told CNN that the airport's screening of luggage is above average.
Former CIA case officer Robert Baer said that the Islamic State could have received advanced bomb-making skills from former members of Iraqi intelligence who joined Al-Qaeda (and later ISIS) after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. He also said that he spoke with a technician who reconstructs explosive devices about the possibility that a bomb could get through the TSA screening process. The technician said that—even with good airport security—there is a 65% chance that it'd get through.
Shortly after the explosion, the Islamic State released a poor quality video that was uncharacteristic of the group, therefore raising doubts about its claims of responsibility. The video didn't have any slick editing or narration for context. The statements were vague and said the group would not disclose how it destroyed the airliner at this time, making it seem like a desperate plea for attention.
If the Islamic State has a plant inside airport security or a unique method, it makes operational sense to delay giving details until the operative escapes or the method is compromised. After all, they would assume that enemy governments will conclude it was an attack in the matter of days.
CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said that if ISIS is indeed responsible, the successful attack would "turbocharge their popularity." Baer said that ISIS has "widespread support across the Middle East" already.
Cruickshank is right that such an attack will increase their popularity among jihadists because the group’s appeal comes from success and the appearance of Allah's endorsement. But it also could spur action by the millions of Islamic State supporters who have yet to actually pick up arms. My analysis of multiple polls showed that the Islamic State likely has 22 million strong supporters in the Arab world; a number that increases to around 42 million if those who view the group "somewhat positively" are included.
A confirmation of the Islamic State’s responsibility could also be a decisive moment in its caliphate competition with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The symbolism of the Islamic State destroying a Russian airliner is powerful. Al-Qaeda hasn’t destroyed an enemy airliner since 9/11 so the Islamic State will be able to say that Al-Qaeda's time has passed and Caliph al-Baghdadi is the true successor to Osama Bin Laden, not Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The 224 civilians, including 17 children, are the most immediate victims of this apparent attack on Russia, but it is also an attack on Egypt. This could be a mighty blow to Egypt's tourism industry. It is certainly an embarrassment for the Egyptian government as it touts progress against the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula.
If the Islamic State destroyed the Russian airliner as is now thought to be the case, it will be a hallmark achievement for the group and it will force a chilling realization: Over a year after the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State began, the group's ability to commit international terrorism is greater than ever.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.