ISIL’s Sinai attack demonstrates the scale of its regional reach

The attack on the Russian airliner in Sinai by ISIL represents a change in tactics for the extremist group, argues Allison McManus

 Russia's Emergency Ministry shows Russian Emergency Minister Vladimir Puchkov visiting the crash site of a A321 Russian airliner in Wadi Al Zolomat, a mountainous area of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. AFP PHOTO
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Just a few hours after a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt’s Sinai, ISIL in Sinai, Wilayat Sinai, claimed to have downed the plane, catapulting the group onto the international media scene. Before the October 31 crash, Wilayat Sinai had focused its efforts on the local and domestic level – primarily against the Egyptian army. Does this incident indicate a shift in strategy? Taken with the Paris attacks, are we seeing a new ISIL, one that adopts the Al Qaeda strategy of hitting global targets?

The answer is yes, and no. What these attacks indicate is ISIL’s mobility between the local and global registers, exploiting local grievances or invoking “global war” as it suits their strategic needs. This mobility is not a mere discursive one: as horrifically shown these past weeks, ISIL poses both a local and international threat.

On the global level, the claim represents a shift in discourse: this was first statement that Wilayat Sinai had issued with no mention of Egypt, the military, or local concerns. Rather, the statement described only Russia’s participation in actions against ISIL in Syria.

This globalisation had been hinted at before.

In August, the militants beheaded a Croatian topographer, Tomislav Salopek, referencing Croatia’s support for the war on terror. The claim was a reach – Croatia is certainly not a foremost or even a secondary player – but this was a hint at the intent to link the local Sinai insurgency to the central ISIL fight.

Yet, while downing the Russian plane was termed in an explicitly global context, the tragedy brought the group a dual benefit. On the one hand, it exploited the notion of global war, demonstrating its chops in avenging itself against those who attack it.

Several days after the crash, ISIL in Homs issued a video thanking their brothers, and the most recent issue of the ISIL’s Dabiq magazine praises the plane attack in avenging the women and children killed in Russian air strikes in Syria.

On the other hand, the blow to Egypt’s tourism aligns directly with Wilayat Sinai’s domestic goals. It is already beginning to have the effect of hobbling an economy that is so dependent on tourism, especially Russian tourism. The Kremlin’s decision to stop all flights to Egypt will deprive them of roughly 30 per cent of its tourists.

Before its November 2014 pledge of allegiance to ISIL’s Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the Sinai group operated as Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis, a distinctly Egyptian entity.

It benefits from the bond to ISIL not only in its international “branding” but also in its receipt of technical expertise, media support, and strategic and tactical coordination.

The latest issue of Dabiq refers to a late change in target from American to Russian citizens, which, if true, demonstrates the interconnectedness of Wilayat Sinai’s behaviour to the larger ISIL experience.

But, Wilayat Sinai’s continued actions and statements reveal that the group is still very much defined by its local insurgent aim. A recent report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy describes this as “a sacred mandate to bring justice to ‘apostate’ forces: the Egyptian state and its institutions”.

Since the plane crash, they have carried out over a dozen attacks, all on Egyptian targets, including a suicide bombing that killed judges monitoring parliamentary elections.

The international community has largely viewed the Sinai insurgency as Egypt’s domestic battle. The Russian crash should change this mindset, driving home the message that, even with local aims, Wilayat Sinai is a transnational threat.

The globalised discourse, the increased coordination with ISIL central, and the waning hesitation to target civilians sends an alarming message. Wilayat Sinai is screaming that it is ready to attack tourists or other foreign targets in Sinai or elsewhere.

We should not forget the bloody bombings on the Red Sea that took place just a decade ago; not least because elements of the group that carried out these attacks are present in Wilayat Sinai.

In recent weeks, world leaders have expressed their determination to make ISIL pay for its actions. But few have announced plans to make sure these attacks never happen again.

The response to such violence must be as complex as the reasons that it occurs. It must be comprehensive and, like the terrorism it seeks to address, it must be global.

Allison McManus is the research director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

On Twitter: @kulchidiallison