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Nov 12, 2015 | 08:52 GMT

Why the Attack on a Russian Airliner Changes Nothing

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
A bomb appears to have downed Metrojet Flight 9268 and many fear the Islamic State may have been behind it
(KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

While the mystery of the Metrojet Flight 9268 crash remains unsolved, a mounting pile of evidence suggests that it was taken down by a bomb. As the idea becomes more widely accepted, some are beginning to label the attack a "game changer;" others are starting to sow panic that the Islamic State may try to attack other tourist-filled airliners. But panic is the last thing the world needs right now, and it serves little purpose other than to contribute to terrible policy decisions. Instead, what we really need is a calm demeanor and a little perspective.

A Persistent Target

The idea of attacking a passenger airliner is nothing new. Terrorists have been bombing planes since the 1960s, and jihadists have targeted them since at least 1994, when Abdul Basit Karim (also known as Ramzi Yousef) began conducting test runs for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Operation Bojinka plot. Since then, we've seen the 9/11 attacks, the 2001 shoe bomb case, the 2002 Library Tower plot, the twin attacks in 2004 by Chechen female suicide bombers, the 2006 U.K. airliner and liquid bomb plots, the 2009 and 2012 underwear bomb plots, and the 2014 toothpaste bomb plot. Each of these attacks posed a threat to passenger airlines, and there are likely other plots and failed attempts that we don't know about. In fact, I am confident that over the past two decades, there has not been a time when some jihadist fighter or group was not planning to attack a commercial airliner. With all of these attempts, both failed and successful, it should come as no surprise that one group eventually succeeded in its plans.

Nor is it a surprise that the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai would be involved in such a plot; the group and its predecessors have a long history of attacking tourist targets in the Sinai Peninsula. These attacks include the dual suicide bombings in October 2004 in Taba and Ras al Satan that killed 34 people; a quadruple vehicle bomb attack in July 2005 in Sharm el-Sheikh that killed at least 63; and a multiple-bomb attack in April 2006 in Dahab that killed 23. Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, an early predecessor of the current Wilayat Sinai with ties to both al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq, was responsible for each of these plots.

In 2011, a successor to Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad arose in the Sinai: Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. True to form, the group conducted a suicide bombing against a tourist bus in Taba in February 2014. (It also launched several attacks against Egyptian security forces and Israelis near the Egypt-Israel border.) Ansar Beit al-Maqdis' Sinai faction pledged "bayat," or allegiance, to the Islamic State in October that year and renamed itself the Wilayat Sinai. With its history of bombings and ready access to both explosives and experienced bombmakers, crafting a simple device that could be smuggled onboard Flight 9268 is well within the group's capabilities.

Launching attacks against Egypt’s tourist sector is relatively common for jihadists in Sinai and, by extension, for the Islamic State's Egyptian faction. Putting a bomb on board an aircraft in Sharm el-Sheikh is simply another means to do so, and a spectacular one at that. The Russian plane was an especially attractive target not only because it had less stringent airline security measures in place than Western airlines but also because it provided a way to symbolically punish Russia for its recent entry into Syria's civil war. Coupled with the notoriously poor security of the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, these factors created a recipe for security failure. But while it is important to understand what went wrong in the case of Metrojet Flight 9268, it is just as important to recognize that a success for one Islamic State province does not automatically guarantee other factions will be able to effectively replicate its efforts.

Evolving Tactics

Aviation security officials have long engaged in an evolutionary arms race with would-be aircraft attackers. The threat to passenger planes transcends ideology: Marxist Palestinians, anti-Castro Cubans, Colombian cartel members, Sikhs, and government agents of North Korea and Libya have all targeted planes before. Jihadists — and not all of them professional terrorists — are just one of the many groups that have shown interest in the tactic. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's innovative bombmaker, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, even published instructions in the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula publication Inspire Magazine explaining how grassroots jihadists could create a concealable bomb to use against aircraft.

Terrorists' long-standing fixation on planes as targets may have something to do with the fact that an airplane's fragility makes it possible to cause catastrophic damage with a relatively small amount of explosives. Passengers inside an aircraft are essentially locked in a metal tube traveling at hundreds of miles per hour at tens of thousands of feet in the air. If the plane's structural integrity fails, its passengers have nowhere to go. Aircraft bombings, therefore, can bring about significant losses with relative ease, as the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am 103, the Libyan bombing of UTA 772 and the Colombian cartel bombing of Avianca 203 all demonstrate. (In several cases, however, aircraft survived bombing attacks and managed to land, as was true for the 1982 Pan Am Flight 830, the 1986 TWA Flight 840 and the 1994 Philippine Airlines Flight 434.)

Despite the best efforts of governments and aviation security personnel alike, it is impossible to keep bombs from ever being used to attack an aircraft as long as people and luggage are permitted onboard. Explosives come in many different forms, including liquids, solids, flexible sheets and cords, plasticized solids, powders and gels, and they can be hidden in any number of innovative and creative ways. One of the most notable early experimenters in concealing bombs on aircraft was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, whose bombmakers melted TNT and Composition B explosives and cast them into different molds, including a tea set. The group also hid Semtex and other plastic explosives inside a variety of items, including running shoes and electronics.

Electronic devices historically have been a popular choice for bombmakers looking to smuggle improvised explosive devices onto planes. Perhaps the most famous case is the Libyan bomb concealed inside a Toshiba radio cassette player that was used to bring down Pan Am Flight 103. A few months before the bombing, authorities found similar devices hidden inside another model of Toshiba cassette player during a raid on a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command safe-house in Germany. In 1987, the year before the Pan Am Flight 103 attack, North Korean agents destroyed Korean Airlines Flight 858 using a modular explosive device design in which the firing train and a small C4 charge were hidden inside a radio that was then used to initiate the main charge of liquid explosive PLX inside a liquor bottle. And in 1986, Nezar Hindawi, a Jordanian working for Syrian intelligence, gave his unwitting and pregnant Irish girlfriend a bag holding an improvised explosive device to take on an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv. The device's timer and detonator were concealed in a pocket calculator, while the main explosive charge was hidden under the suitcase's false bottom.

Electronics offer one way to hide bombs, but attackers have also sought to conceal explosives by wearing them. In addition to making use of the infamous shoe and underwear bombs, terrorists could easily hide nitrocellulose inside any clothing items or other objects with fiber filling. In the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434, Abdul Basit Karim and his associates even went so far as to camouflage nitrocellulose inside the body of a baby doll.

Bomb smuggling efforts actually parallel drug smuggling efforts fairly closely, and many of the methods mentioned above have also been used to hide narcotics, and other, newer and innovative narcotics smuggling methods can be used to hide explosives. For instance, some drug-traffickers have begun saturating clothing with liquid cocaine or methamphetamine and bombers could conceal explosive liquid explosives in the same manner. For instance, just as some bombers conceal explosive liquid within the fabric of their clothing, some drug-traffickers saturate cloth with liquid cocaine. As security measures have changed and adapted to counter the latest drug-smuggling tactics, narcotics "mules" have in turn adjusted to security efforts by hiding contraband in everything from body cavities to dead babies. Aspiring bombers adapt to aviation security efforts in the same way.

The history of adaptive bomb and narcotics smuggling highlights the impossibility of using technical screening measures to prevent, with absolute certainty, any explosive material from being brought on board a passenger airliner. Even strip searches in prisons have not completely eliminated contraband, especially because corrupt insiders help them elude security measures. Terrorists and drug traffickers — and their deadly or dangerous cargo — are no different. The intrinsic limits of any security measure, compounded at times by plain ineptitude on the part of security officials, make it easy for attackers to bring down planes even with relatively unsophisticated bombs. Indeed, given the lax security at Sharm el-Sheikh, it may well have been an extremely simple device that caused the crash of Flight 9268 and not a highly sophisticated new type of device as some are speculating in the media.

Keeping Things in Perspective

Is all air passenger screening futile, then? No. At the very least, such measures prevent low-level threats from becoming successful attacks. But the public needs to understand that with enough persistence and innovation, someone will eventually be able to get a bomb past even the best security and onto an aircraft. This appears to be what happened in Sharm el-Sheikh, and this time, the bomb on Flight 9268 must have functioned better than the shoe or underwear bombs of years past. In those plots the attackers got bombs onto a passenger plane, but the attacks failed because the devices themselves malfunctioned. 

Attacks on airliners tend to generate a great deal of media coverage that magnifies the terror caused by the attack itself. In the wake of a terrorist attack, people also have a tendency to ascribe superhuman attributes to those responsible, which only further fans the flames of panic. This is exactly what is happening now in the aftermath of the Oct. 31 Russian airliner crash. But like any other actor, the Islamic State and its regional affiliate can only do so much. While Wilayat Sinai may have conducted one effective attack, it is extremely unlikely that it will be able to do so again, much less bomb multiple aircraft. Like al Qaeda, the group's efforts will probably only occasionally meet with success.

Both governments and the general public should keep the latest attack in the proper perspective to avoid succumbing to panic and acting rashly. Policies rooted in fear usually lead to waste and poor security decisions, while unrealistic demands from the public can cost huge amounts of money, encroach on personal privacy and still fail to guarantee security. Instead, a better response is to maintain realistic expectations and recognize that it is impossible to fully secure any target. Terrorist attacks that kill people are terrible and tragic, but the world is a dangerous place, and people sometimes plot to do terrible things. Every now and then, they will succeed. But when they do, our reaction can rob them of an even greater victory.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.
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