Intelligence officials in the U.S. are virtually certain the Metrojet airliner that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula was brought down by a bomb and the prime suspect is an ISIS affiliate that has taken claim all along.
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Ansar Beit al-Madquis (ABM), which claimed in an audio recording it was behind the attack, has been operating in the Sinai peninsula since 2011, organizing in the wake of the Arab Spring protests and the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
While it was born, in part, out of al Qaeda and organized criminal groups, it rose to become Egypt’s “most active armed group,” Al Jazeera reported.
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One year ago, the group pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and rebranded itself Wilayat Sinai — the Sinai province of the Islamic State.
But it appears that pledge may not have gone over well with everyone in ABM.
“Apparently there has been a bit of a schism in the group since that allegiance, with some elements of the group having rejected that allegiance,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “One hypothesis that observers have had for a while was that this internal schism might lead to a form of competition, whereby both halves of what used to be ABM would try to outdo the other.”
While that terror organization has in the past focused on attacking Egyptian military and police targets, this would be the ABM’s first major attack against a foreign target.
That would be a significant change in how the group operates, but Juneau explained it was as much a domestic target as an international one.
“It’s an attack against Egypt, absolutely, in the sense that Egyptian tourism is going to be affected by this, he said, noting that tourism accounts for approximately 11 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed just 23 minutes after taking off from the popular Red Sea resort destination of Sharm el-Sheikh on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board. In the wake of the crash, major European airlines stopped flights to Sharm el-Sheikh and the Russian government has put an outright ban on all flights to anywhere in Egypt and expects it to remain in place for several months.
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“But, clearly, they’re targeting Russia too,” said Juneau, adding it’s rather ironic considering that Russia’s bombing missions in Syria, purportedly against ISIS, have largely targeted opposition groups other than ISIS.
“[But] for the Islamic State to want to retaliate against Russia anyways makes sense because Russia right now is still viewed as bombing Sunnis and bombing an Arab State. Even though Islamic State is not directly targeted, it’s not surprising that it would want to retaliate.”
But the question is, if ABM is in fact responsible for the suspected bombing was it acting on the orders of ISIS?
We don’t really know that yet. Although ABM had roots in al Qaeda, specifically its Yemen-based affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it’s unclear how much sway ISIS has over its affiliates.
“AQAP is a very, powerful franchise within the global al Qaeda network and AQAP is very autonomous in its actions. But the change of command is very clear and AQAP is very committed to following the directions of AQ central.”
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ISIS, on the other hand, has thus far inspired “lone wolves or self-radicalized actors” to carry out attacks on foreign soil but has yet to directly order a specific terrorist attack that we know of.
Juneau said we still don’t know whether ISIS directs its so-called provinces to act on orders. Aside from Sinai, groups in Libya, Nigeria, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have vowed allegiance and ISIS has declared the regions they control as provinces.
But what’s really different about ABM compared to other ISIS affiliates is that none of them exist in such close proximity to a tourist hot spot.
“It’s right next door to the Sinai insurgency,” he said of Sharm el-Sheikh. “If you look every other jihadi hotspot — Syria, Yemen, Libya — you don’t have major tourist zones right next door, next door as in a few kilometres away.”