Russian Plane Crash

Russian Plane Crash Over Egypt

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A Metrojet Airbus, bound for St. Petersburg, Russia, crashed in the Sinai desert shortly after take-off from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Saturday. All 224 people on board, mostly Russian citizens, were killed. Could the self-proclaimed Islamic State have bombed flight 9268? As the investigation continues, please join CFR experts Steven A. Cook and Graeme Wood to discuss the potential implications of the tragedy for Egypt, Russia, and the United States.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us this afternoon to discuss questions about the crash of the Russian plane in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31.

I’m Anya Schmemann, Washington director of CFR communications.

As we all know, there are increasing indications that the Russian airliner was brought down by a bomb. And if this is confirmed, it raises very troubling questions about security in the region and the threat of further terrorist attacks, especially against Russia, which recently entered the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime.

I’m pleased to be joined today by two CFR colleagues.

Steven A. Cook is the Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, an expert on Arab politics and U.S. Middle East policy. Dr. Cook is the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square,” and also “Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.”

Also joining us is Graeme Wood, who is CFR’s Edward R. Murrow press fellow. He has been a writer and contributing editor for The Atlantic since 2006 and is currently conducting research on the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Let’s start with Graeme. Graeme, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for this attack, and U.S. and British officials say intelligence shows it was likely brought down by a bomb onboard. But despite efforts to bomb planes over the past decade, no militant group has actually successfully detonated a weapon inside a plane since a 2004 attack by Chechen bombers in Russia. If a bomb is, in fact, confirmed, can we say that ISIS is now more dangerous than al-Qaida? What are the consequences of this?

WOOD: Thanks. So I thought what I might do in response to that is just run through some of the aspects of the statement that ISIS’s Sinai affiliate put out.

So the—as I think people know, they quickly put out a statement taking credit for it, and there are some interesting aspects to it. They say quite clearly that, yes, we did. I think that’s even the title of the statement. They say we aren’t obliged to tell you how we did it, but we probably will in the fullness of time on our own schedule soon enough. And also interestingly, they mentioned almost with actually a tone of annoyance that nobody seems to have picked up on the fact that we took down the plane exactly one year after we joined ISIS. So they were phrasing it almost like an anniversary celebration to take down the plane.

So all of this is quite interesting. Some of it’s boilerplate claim of credit, but there are still some questions that we have to answer about it. First of all, of course, whether they actually did it. We don’t have any proof of that, although as you say most of the signs are pointing toward a bomb, and they would be the main suspects for that. But there are also questions like to what degree is this a local operation or one that was requested or ordered from on high. Of course, this group, which now calls it the Sinai Province of ISIS, has existed since long before ISIS did. So there’s a sense in which they’re—you know, they’ve got a certain amount of local autonomy as well.

But then another question that is on my mind—and it really could go either way—is to what degree this attack is aimed at Russia or at Egypt. And I think there’s perhaps overemphasis on the possibility of Russia. There are some reasons, of course, why Russia might be named or might be thought of as the main—the main target here. First, of course, that a huge number of Russians died. And then the second, of course, that Russia recently started bombing in Syria, even though its targets haven’t principally been ISIS ones. Also, though, the message that was put out by the Sinai affiliate was clearly addressed to Russia—actually, literally it was addressed to Rome, but you know, Rome’s often used as a kind of metonymy for a kind of crusader West.

On the other hand, though, I think we should really emphasize the degree to which this is something that also affects Egypt and where Egypt is one of the big losers here. So ISIS in general takes President Sisi of Egypt as, I would say, its—one of its very favorite villains; that is, among Sunni Arab leaders in particular he’s one who they love to counterpose themselves against—that is, as a very secular figure, one who really doesn’t even have the pretense of ruling by Sharia. And of course, Egypt being vulnerable in its tourism sector, which is I think around 10 or 12 percent of its economy. So what ISIS would want to do by taking down this plane, I think, is really show that Sisi can’t control his own country, that Egypt is going to slip toward chaos, that nothing is secure. That’s the message that it wants to project.

So to get, finally, to your—to your question about what this—what this portends, what it means if it’s aimed principally at Egypt, then this is sort of nothing new. There’s already been a war that ISIS has been fighting against Egypt in the Sinai, although it’s mostly been in the north Sinai and not against the tourist sites in Sharm el-Sheikh. If it’s aimed against Russia, though, then it’s a much more puzzling development and obviously less tolerable to the international community at large. That is, if what ISIS is starting to do is to plant bombs against Western targets here, there, everywhere, then it represents a very significant shift in ISIS’s strategy. They have focused so far on attacking in areas close to where they already have power, especially, and in Muslim countries in particular. So they’ve been focusing on keeping territory, building a state. If, instead, they’re now focused in a kind of old-style al-Qaida way on bringing down planes, attacking Western targets in spectacular ways, then that would mean that they are essentially adopting a strategy that they had previously viewed as a failed one—one that didn’t work for al-Qaida and that needed to be revamped with the whole project that we now know as the Islamic State.

So we—again, we still don’t even know if they took down the plane. But if they did, these are the questions that I think we should all be asking about the future of the group and what that means for the rest of us.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

OK, let’s look at Egypt a bit more closely. Steven Cook, thousands of tourists were left stranded at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. And they have started to be evacuated, you know, after most flights to the resort were suspended over the last week. There are allegations of lax security at the airport there. The possibility of a significant security breach could really dampen tourism to Egypt. Can Egypt’s economy and its tourism industry weather this blow?

COOK: Well, thanks very much, Anya.

Just to put a finer point on what Graeme was saying about the impact or potential impact on the Egyptian economy is that tourism revenue is part of—is one part of a revenue triangle, including the Suez Canal, remittances from Egyptians working abroad, and then finally tourism that essentially make up a very significant portion of the Egyptian economy.

Tourism has already been massively affected by the 2011 uprising and its aftermath. Egyptians consistently lie about the numbers of tourists who are there and their hotel occupancy, which probably wasn’t much greater than 10 percent at one point. The exception has been Sharm el-Sheikh. It’s been—there have been quite affordable vacation packages direct from Europe into Sharm, and there have been generally more people visiting the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh than they have in places in the Nile Valley, whether it’s Cairo or Luxor or other places that have previously drawn huge numbers of tourists. In 2010, the last year before the uprising, Egypt hosted 15 million tourists. They’re nowhere near those numbers—those numbers now.

We have been waiting for the bottom to fall out on tourism and for it to add additional drag on the Egyptian economy. This may very well be it. I don’t anticipate, however, that this is going to affect things in Egypt so much because of the fact that they can look towards Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to make up whatever differences that the—that will result as a result of this falloff in tourism.

I think it’s clear that the Egyptians miscalculated once again in response to this disaster by dissembling, by suggesting that it was—after the intelligence was shared with them that it was something other than terrorism, which shakes people’s confidence further in the ability of the Egyptians to secure their airports and screen baggage properly.

To anybody who’s been to Egypt anytime in the last, you know, 15 years or so, certainly since September 11th, have recognized that there really isn’t a heavy emphasis on security in the airports. There are a number of layers, but it’s hard to imagine that the police who are screening—the airport police who are doing the screening are really taking this—their jobs very seriously. So I think that Egypt is going to have—it’s going to have a significant impact, obviously, on the tourism industry.

SCHMEMANN: And then just to follow up, Steven, Graeme suggested that this possible attack might have been targeted at Egypt, in fact, and perhaps not at Russia. I wonder what you think about that. Or do you think that this could have just been an opportunity? Or was Egypt, in fact, possibly a real target here?

COOK: Oh, I certainly agree that it’s more likely that Egypt was the target here than Russia. If you think about the strategy that the Islamic State has pursued more broadly, this runs counter to that. But of course, who we think might have kind of carried it out is the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, and it’s unclear to me—perhaps Graeme knows this; I’m sure he does—the extent to which there is coordination between the Islamic State and the Sinai Province. But the Sinai Province has been around in one form or another for much longer and been confronting the Egyptian state longer than the Islamic State has been taking over territory in Syria and Iraq and carrying out operations in other parts of the country. It’s clear that the Egyptians are confronting a nasty insurgency from a number of different directions, and this Sinai Province, you know, it has declared its fealty to the Islamic State, perhaps out of convenience, out of branding, out of whatever, but have entirely different tactics from the Islamic State. There’s every reason to believe that Egypt was the target given the fact that this insurgency has been going on now for a number of years and it’s a dirty little war that is happening in the Sinai Peninsula, and this was just the Sinai Province’s way of upping the ante as well as demonstrating to the international community that everything that Sisi said when he came to power—which is that he could bring stability to Egypt, that he could bring economic prosperity to Egypt—that none of this is actually going to happen.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

We have quite a few people on the phone, so I think we’ll turn now to our listeners. And I’m sure we’re going to delve into some of these issues in the questions.

Just as a reminder, if you are just joining us now or joined us late, this is an on-the-record CFR call about the downing of the Russian plane in Egypt. I’m joined by CFR fellows Steven Cook and Graeme Wood. And note that additional resources and experts are available on CFR.org.

And now, Operator, if you could give everyone a reminder about how to get into the queue for questions. Thanks.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Jacob Silverman with—freelancer, Politico.

Q: Hello. Thanks for having me.

I was wondering if you all could comment on the notion that, with Putin largely focusing his fire or his forces’ fire on anti-Assad rebels and not really the Islamic State, will there be more pressure or more incentive for him to intervene directly against the Islamic State in Syria because of the plane crash?

SCHMEMANN: Graeme, why don’t we start with you?

WOOD: So first I’ll point out I’m not a Russia expert, so the pressures that he’ll face domestically are ones you should ask others about. But already you’ve seen a bit of a step-up in Russian activity against ISIS targets. ISIS recently published a series of images of what they claim were Russian—rubble from Russian attacks.

I think the question, though, it really points out the ways in which attacking Russia is strategically a kind of peculiar move for ISIS. It doesn’t mean they didn’t do it, but the fact that it might put them more in the crosshairs of Russian Air Force should, I think, give them some pause.

And I think it’s also—another thing that points I that direction, too, is although the Sinai affiliate claimed the attack very quickly, and although there was celebration through official channels from Syria in particular, it didn’t quite have the same official—how should I put it?—the propaganda did not come out in the same way that it has in other kinds of attacks. There wasn’t instantly a whole martyrdom reel or something that ISIS put out. So there might even be—if, in fact, this was partially a local or freelance operation, some consternation, actually—quiet consternation on the part of ISIS, centrally, over what happened.

SCHMEMANN: Steven, do you have anything to add?

COOK: I’m not a Russia expert either. From what I understand, Vladimir Putin doesn’t actually feel political pressure because he’s created an alternative reality—alternative reality there.

It’s entirely unclear to me that the Russians would now direct most of their attention or a significant portion of their attention to ISIS because my sense of their strategy in Syria has been to clear the field and force a choice on the rest of the world, Assad or ISIS. So I think that if, you know, I’m right about that, it’s possible—and again, not being a Russia expert—that the Russians compartmentalize between what they’re doing in Syria and what happens in the Sinai Peninsula.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.

Operator, we’ll take the next—

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Doyle McManus from Los Angeles Times.

SCHMEMANN: Hi, Doyle.

Q: Thank you for—thank you for doing this call. I joined a bit late, so forgive me if you’ve covered this already. I think this is principally for Graeme Wood.

The distinguishing mark of Daesh’s strategy until now has been the establishment of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, with franchises, and hasn’t been marked by attacks against foreign targets outside their theater of operations. We’ve seen an increasing number of charges from American officials and others that ISIS/Daesh is fomenting, encouraging, even organizing al-Qaida-style attacks outside the theater. How strong is the evidence for that?

SCHMEMANN: Go ahead, Graeme.

WOOD: So I would say that ISIS—so far what we’ve actually observed is a continuing strategy of encouragement of attacks rather than actual planning or sponsorship of an attack. This might be the exception. This might be a change to that strategy. But so far you’ve—I think you’ve correctly categorized the way that ISIS has seen its core tasks and its method of expansion.

I would just point out, though, that although one method expansion is through conquest, another one is through the acceptance of allegiance in the form of what they call bayah, which they got from Sinai of course. But then a third sort of longer-term strategy that they’ve pursued is to encourage chaos, civil war, unrest, and just a kind of semi-organic decay of established governments in the region. And that is something that is very much hurried along by this.

I mentioned earlier that they want to show that Sisi can’t control Egypt, that his promises will not be fulfilled. This is—this is part of that strategy, certainly, that they’ll show that he can’t—that he can’t be trusted to provide law and order. And one of ISIS’s main methods of expansion is to show that even if your government can’t do it, we can. So we should see it partially as—if we’re looking at it as an attack on Egypt, as a continuation of their strategy. Of course, if they continue to blow up planes belonging to Western countries, then that’s a huge change.

SCHMEMANN: Steven, on this issue of a widened arena for Islamic State, I wonder what you’ve heard from Egypt’s neighbors, from the region. There must be some concern and alarm, I would imagine, in Saudi and UAE and in others, you know, if this fight is being taken to new areas.

COOK: Well, thanks for the question, Anya, because I just spent 12 days in the Gulf. And it’s interesting to hear what the Gulfies have to say.

Of course, ISIS is part of their discussion, but their focus really has been on Yemen. And I think the article in The New York Times yesterday about the number of airstrikes and other things that the Arab allies are doing has significantly fallen off bears out precisely what I’ve heard, which is that their focus is on Iran, their focus is on Yemen. I think where you hear about ISIS and the extremist threat is primarily in Egypt, and that is a significant departure between Egypt and its Gulf allies. It has led Egypt down a different road when it comes to Syria. It has left Egypt to be somewhat of a—of a lonely voice when it comes to the situation in Libya. But the Egyptians sit at a place now where they see a gathering of very significant security threats coming from Libya, coming up from Sudan, and coming from this triangle that is Libya, Chad, and all the way down into places like Mali where, you know, there is extremist activities. And they all see this, and the Egyptians worry very much about what all of this kind of instability and extremist activity means for their security.

The major problem, then, I think that the Israelis worry about and the Emiratis worry about is that, when it comes to this fight that the Egyptians now find themselves in—in Sinai in particular, potentially along its western border—is that the Egyptians simply do not have the capacity to carry on this fight, that one of the spectacular successes of the American military aid program to Egypt over the course of the last 35 years is that it has made Egypt unable to fight it the Sinai. That was our goal. We did not want there to be another Israeli-Egyptian war, and so we saw to it that the Egyptians really couldn’t fight in the Sinai Peninsula. Now we would like for them to fight and they’re having a very hard time. And given the kind of institutional cultural world view of Egyptian military officers, it’s very hard to have the conversation with them about updating their doctrine to meet the kinds of threats that they confront right now. And so—and especially since there’s no trust between the United State and Egypt.

So it’s really fallen to Israelis and Emiratis to try and help, as best as they possibly can, to provide whatever capacity to the Egyptians. But it really is this kind of issue that they see themselves being surrounded by these extremist threats, their allies—the allies who’ve floated their economy are increasingly distracted by Yemen. And that’s why you’ve seen tighter coordination between Israel and Egypt, and Egypt and the Russians.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

Operator, if you could please remind our listeners how to get into the queue for questions.

OPERATOR: Absolutely.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

SCHMEMANN: While we’re waiting for the next question, let me just throw another one out there for—let’s start with Graeme. What are we to make of the confusion and chaos, really, after this incident in terms of a lot of finger-pointing, some denial, the Egyptians claiming that the United Kingdom and the United States have not shared intelligence with them, and now Israel today coming out and saying they think it’s a bomb? It seems to have been a pretty chaotic response altogether. What were your thoughts on that?

WOOD: Yes, the reports that I saw of the Israeli response just sounded like that they were in the same fog that the rest of us are. It’s just there’s not that much information out there at this point. And the only thing that I think will actually add to the information, of course, is forensic work—black box analysis and so forth.

And, you know, ISIS in their own very confident, authoritative claim of responsibility, one of the things that they said is go check the black box, that will confirm everything for you. They’ve lied before. They are not unwilling to inflate claims. But it is pretty odd for them to make that kind of confident claim on letterhead and then to—and then to really give everybody—give the world a way to disprove the claim. So it’s—it seems like they’re ready to lose a lot of credibility over this if it’s not—if it’s not real, which makes me think that their claim probably should be judged as likely at this point.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm.

And, Steven, the Egyptian charge that the United Kingdom didn’t share intelligence with them and the United States has kept them in the dark, is that credible at all?

COOK: I don’t think so. (Chuckles.) I find it hard to believe that if the United States and the U.K. had suspicions, understood that this was an attack rather than a mechanical failure of some sort—I find it hard to believe that neither of those countries would share intelligence with the Egyptians. Of course, there’s always concerns about who you share and how they handle that intelligence, but this situation seems to clearly warrant it. And I think that the Egyptians have sought to—have suggested they haven’t gotten it because they have a compelling interest in wanting more people to continue to come to the Sinai Peninsula and not completely wreck their tourism industry.

Of course, I think that this is—makes it harder for people to continue to enjoy Egypt’s Sinai coastline because of the dissembling and the confusion and the denial that the Egyptians have engaged in. It’s reminiscent of EgyptAir Flight 990, which crashed exactly 16 years to the day that this plane came down in the—in the Sinai Peninsula. And those of you who remember, the Egyptians went to great lengths to make the case that the co-pilot did not intentionally bring the plane down. And the kind of things that the Egyptians have been saying, the way in which they’ve dissembled on this, is quite reminiscent of that—of that episode. This is not to say that the—perhaps the United States and the U.K. shouldn’t have handled this situation better, but it strikes me that the Egyptians had a(n) incentive to claim that the intelligence was not shared with them, that it’s not—it’s not a terrorist attack, that it’s perhaps a mechanical failure.

But of course, look, it’s hard to imagine that an airplane breaks up at 31,000 feet for no reason, or that there’s some sort of catastrophic problem on the airplane and that the pilots have no—do not call in, don’t even have a few seconds to call in. This was the breakup of a plane suddenly. It strikes virtually everybody at this point that it was some sort of explosion on the plane.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm. So at this point we are waiting for additional questions. We do know that there are a lot of listeners on the line, so we welcome your questions. I will ask another to Graeme, then we’ll see is anyone pipes up on the line.

Graeme, if indeed this was an Islamic State bomb, then that’s really a pretty significant coup by this group and they may be, in fact, newly emboldened by this. So just looking ahead to the future, I know you track a lot of websites and listen to a lot of the online chatter, but what might these groups be planning next? What do we need to fear?

WOOD: I’m not actually—I’m not—I don’t think it’s likely that this is the beginning of a big bombing campaign against Western targets in particular. I do think, though, that it’s quite possible that they will begin attacks on civilian targets in areas where—that they see as vulnerable for this kind of thing. Egypt would be an excellent case of this. There’s already pretty regularly attacks in Saudi Arabia, mostly against Shia targets. And I would imagine that they might be considering Turkey as well. So this is a possibility.

I think, though, that there’s still not enough to—there’s still not enough evidence, though, that they’re actually embarking on a complete shift in strategy toward targets that would go further beyond their reach than that. So I think that might be the current worst-case scenario, is a series of attacks against civilian targets in places like Egypt, Turkey.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm.

And, Steven, just in our last few minutes while we’re still waiting for any additional questions, what do you have to say about that potential of Turkey being a possible target?

COOK: Well, Turkey’s already been a target of Islamic State attacks. It’s unclear, though, what—now that we’re past the re-running of the Egyptian parliamentary elections and President Erdogan has gotten the parliamentary majority that he wanted, whether the Turks will go back to their default position of not directly confronting the Islamic State. And there’s—you know, they—from their perspective, there’s good reason not to do that. One, they don’t want blood running in their streets, and there’s an extremist, you know, infrastructure and network already present in Turkey. Two, they are far more concerned about the implications of Kurdish nationalism, especially in Syria. And that they don’t believe that the coalition confronting the Islamic State is really addressing the problem, which is the Assad regime. That’s their perspective.

So we will have to see how the Turks now respond, now that the long electoral season in Turkey is over. It’s instructive that the Turks used the bombings that have been subsequently attributed to the Islamic State to attack the PKK, this terrorist organization that they’ve been battling since the mid-1980s. So yes, it’s entirely possible that Turkey is a target. It’s unclear to me what Turkey’s posture is actually going to be with regard to the Islamic State going forward.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

So last call for questions. A reminder that you can press star-one to ask a question. And if there are no further questions, we will wrap up this call.

Just a reminder to everyone that we have been talking with Steven A. Cook and Graeme Wood, and we’ve been discussing the downing of the Russian plane. And once again, there are additional resources and links for our experts on CFR.org. We will also have the transcript from this call posted online, so we invite you to come and see that there. I do not see any additional questions at this time, so we will conclude this call. Once again, do visit us on CFR.org for the transcript and audio of this call, and for anything else that you might need.

So with that, thank you, Steven Cook, and thank you, Graeme Wood. We appreciate your time today.

COOK: Thanks very much. Everybody have a nice day.

WOOD: Thank you.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

And, Operator, that concludes our call.

This is an uncorrected transcript.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us this afternoon to discuss questions about the crash of the Russian plane in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31.

I’m Anya Schmemann, Washington director of CFR communications.

As we all know, there are increasing indications that the Russian airliner was brought down by a bomb. And if this is confirmed, it raises very troubling questions about security in the region and the threat of further terrorist attacks, especially against Russia, which recently entered the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime.

I’m pleased to be joined today by two CFR colleagues.

Steven A. Cook is the Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, an expert on Arab politics and U.S. Middle East policy. Dr. Cook is the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square,” and also “Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.”

Also joining us is Graeme Wood, who is CFR’s Edward R. Murrow press fellow. He has been a writer and contributing editor for The Atlantic since 2006 and is currently conducting research on the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Let’s start with Graeme. Graeme, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for this attack, and U.S. and British officials say intelligence shows it was likely brought down by a bomb onboard. But despite efforts to bomb planes over the past decade, no militant group has actually successfully detonated a weapon inside a plane since a 2004 attack by Chechen bombers in Russia. If a bomb is, in fact, confirmed, can we say that ISIS is now more dangerous than al-Qaida? What are the consequences of this?

WOOD: Thanks. So I thought what I might do in response to that is just run through some of the aspects of the statement that ISIS’s Sinai affiliate put out.

So the—as I think people know, they quickly put out a statement taking credit for it, and there are some interesting aspects to it. They say quite clearly that, yes, we did. I think that’s even the title of the statement. They say we aren’t obliged to tell you how we did it, but we probably will in the fullness of time on our own schedule soon enough. And also interestingly, they mentioned almost with actually a tone of annoyance that nobody seems to have picked up on the fact that we took down the plane exactly one year after we joined ISIS. So they were phrasing it almost like an anniversary celebration to take down the plane.

So all of this is quite interesting. Some of it’s boilerplate claim of credit, but there are still some questions that we have to answer about it. First of all, of course, whether they actually did it. We don’t have any proof of that, although as you say most of the signs are pointing toward a bomb, and they would be the main suspects for that. But there are also questions like to what degree is this a local operation or one that was requested or ordered from on high. Of course, this group, which now calls it the Sinai Province of ISIS, has existed since long before ISIS did. So there’s a sense in which they’re—you know, they’ve got a certain amount of local autonomy as well.

But then another question that is on my mind—and it really could go either way—is to what degree this attack is aimed at Russia or at Egypt. And I think there’s perhaps overemphasis on the possibility of Russia. There are some reasons, of course, why Russia might be named or might be thought of as the main—the main target here. First, of course, that a huge number of Russians died. And then the second, of course, that Russia recently started bombing in Syria, even though its targets haven’t principally been ISIS ones. Also, though, the message that was put out by the Sinai affiliate was clearly addressed to Russia—actually, literally it was addressed to Rome, but you know, Rome’s often used as a kind of metonymy for a kind of crusader West.

On the other hand, though, I think we should really emphasize the degree to which this is something that also affects Egypt and where Egypt is one of the big losers here. So ISIS in general takes President Sisi of Egypt as, I would say, its—one of its very favorite villains; that is, among Sunni Arab leaders in particular he’s one who they love to counterpose themselves against—that is, as a very secular figure, one who really doesn’t even have the pretense of ruling by Sharia. And of course, Egypt being vulnerable in its tourism sector, which is I think around 10 or 12 percent of its economy. So what ISIS would want to do by taking down this plane, I think, is really show that Sisi can’t control his own country, that Egypt is going to slip toward chaos, that nothing is secure. That’s the message that it wants to project.

So to get, finally, to your—to your question about what this—what this portends, what it means if it’s aimed principally at Egypt, then this is sort of nothing new. There’s already been a war that ISIS has been fighting against Egypt in the Sinai, although it’s mostly been in the north Sinai and not against the tourist sites in Sharm el-Sheikh. If it’s aimed against Russia, though, then it’s a much more puzzling development and obviously less tolerable to the international community at large. That is, if what ISIS is starting to do is to plant bombs against Western targets here, there, everywhere, then it represents a very significant shift in ISIS’s strategy. They have focused so far on attacking in areas close to where they already have power, especially, and in Muslim countries in particular. So they’ve been focusing on keeping territory, building a state. If, instead, they’re now focused in a kind of old-style al-Qaida way on bringing down planes, attacking Western targets in spectacular ways, then that would mean that they are essentially adopting a strategy that they had previously viewed as a failed one—one that didn’t work for al-Qaida and that needed to be revamped with the whole project that we now know as the Islamic State.

So we—again, we still don’t even know if they took down the plane. But if they did, these are the questions that I think we should all be asking about the future of the group and what that means for the rest of us.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

OK, let’s look at Egypt a bit more closely. Steven Cook, thousands of tourists were left stranded at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. And they have started to be evacuated, you know, after most flights to the resort were suspended over the last week. There are allegations of lax security at the airport there. The possibility of a significant security breach could really dampen tourism to Egypt. Can Egypt’s economy and its tourism industry weather this blow?

COOK: Well, thanks very much, Anya.

Just to put a finer point on what Graeme was saying about the impact or potential impact on the Egyptian economy is that tourism revenue is part of—is one part of a revenue triangle, including the Suez Canal, remittances from Egyptians working abroad, and then finally tourism that essentially make up a very significant portion of the Egyptian economy.

Tourism has already been massively affected by the 2011 uprising and its aftermath. Egyptians consistently lie about the numbers of tourists who are there and their hotel occupancy, which probably wasn’t much greater than 10 percent at one point. The exception has been Sharm el-Sheikh. It’s been—there have been quite affordable vacation packages direct from Europe into Sharm, and there have been generally more people visiting the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh than they have in places in the Nile Valley, whether it’s Cairo or Luxor or other places that have previously drawn huge numbers of tourists. In 2010, the last year before the uprising, Egypt hosted 15 million tourists. They’re nowhere near those numbers—those numbers now.

We have been waiting for the bottom to fall out on tourism and for it to add additional drag on the Egyptian economy. This may very well be it. I don’t anticipate, however, that this is going to affect things in Egypt so much because of the fact that they can look towards Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to make up whatever differences that the—that will result as a result of this falloff in tourism.

I think it’s clear that the Egyptians miscalculated once again in response to this disaster by dissembling, by suggesting that it was—after the intelligence was shared with them that it was something other than terrorism, which shakes people’s confidence further in the ability of the Egyptians to secure their airports and screen baggage properly.

To anybody who’s been to Egypt anytime in the last, you know, 15 years or so, certainly since September 11th, have recognized that there really isn’t a heavy emphasis on security in the airports. There are a number of layers, but it’s hard to imagine that the police who are screening—the airport police who are doing the screening are really taking this—their jobs very seriously. So I think that Egypt is going to have—it’s going to have a significant impact, obviously, on the tourism industry.

SCHMEMANN: And then just to follow up, Steven, Graeme suggested that this possible attack might have been targeted at Egypt, in fact, and perhaps not at Russia. I wonder what you think about that. Or do you think that this could have just been an opportunity? Or was Egypt, in fact, possibly a real target here?

COOK: Oh, I certainly agree that it’s more likely that Egypt was the target here than Russia. If you think about the strategy that the Islamic State has pursued more broadly, this runs counter to that. But of course, who we think might have kind of carried it out is the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, and it’s unclear to me—perhaps Graeme knows this; I’m sure he does—the extent to which there is coordination between the Islamic State and the Sinai Province. But the Sinai Province has been around in one form or another for much longer and been confronting the Egyptian state longer than the Islamic State has been taking over territory in Syria and Iraq and carrying out operations in other parts of the country. It’s clear that the Egyptians are confronting a nasty insurgency from a number of different directions, and this Sinai Province, you know, it has declared its fealty to the Islamic State, perhaps out of convenience, out of branding, out of whatever, but have entirely different tactics from the Islamic State. There’s every reason to believe that Egypt was the target given the fact that this insurgency has been going on now for a number of years and it’s a dirty little war that is happening in the Sinai Peninsula, and this was just the Sinai Province’s way of upping the ante as well as demonstrating to the international community that everything that Sisi said when he came to power—which is that he could bring stability to Egypt, that he could bring economic prosperity to Egypt—that none of this is actually going to happen.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

We have quite a few people on the phone, so I think we’ll turn now to our listeners. And I’m sure we’re going to delve into some of these issues in the questions.

Just as a reminder, if you are just joining us now or joined us late, this is an on-the-record CFR call about the downing of the Russian plane in Egypt. I’m joined by CFR fellows Steven Cook and Graeme Wood. And note that additional resources and experts are available on CFR.org.

And now, Operator, if you could give everyone a reminder about how to get into the queue for questions. Thanks.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Jacob Silverman with—freelancer, Politico.

Q: Hello. Thanks for having me.

I was wondering if you all could comment on the notion that, with Putin largely focusing his fire or his forces’ fire on anti-Assad rebels and not really the Islamic State, will there be more pressure or more incentive for him to intervene directly against the Islamic State in Syria because of the plane crash?

SCHMEMANN: Graeme, why don’t we start with you?

WOOD: So first I’ll point out I’m not a Russia expert, so the pressures that he’ll face domestically are ones you should ask others about. But already you’ve seen a bit of a step-up in Russian activity against ISIS targets. ISIS recently published a series of images of what they claim were Russian—rubble from Russian attacks.

I think the question, though, it really points out the ways in which attacking Russia is strategically a kind of peculiar move for ISIS. It doesn’t mean they didn’t do it, but the fact that it might put them more in the crosshairs of Russian Air Force should, I think, give them some pause.

And I think it’s also—another thing that points I that direction, too, is although the Sinai affiliate claimed the attack very quickly, and although there was celebration through official channels from Syria in particular, it didn’t quite have the same official—how should I put it?—the propaganda did not come out in the same way that it has in other kinds of attacks. There wasn’t instantly a whole martyrdom reel or something that ISIS put out. So there might even be—if, in fact, this was partially a local or freelance operation, some consternation, actually—quiet consternation on the part of ISIS, centrally, over what happened.

SCHMEMANN: Steven, do you have anything to add?

COOK: I’m not a Russia expert either. From what I understand, Vladimir Putin doesn’t actually feel political pressure because he’s created an alternative reality—alternative reality there.

It’s entirely unclear to me that the Russians would now direct most of their attention or a significant portion of their attention to ISIS because my sense of their strategy in Syria has been to clear the field and force a choice on the rest of the world, Assad or ISIS. So I think that if, you know, I’m right about that, it’s possible—and again, not being a Russia expert—that the Russians compartmentalize between what they’re doing in Syria and what happens in the Sinai Peninsula.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.

Operator, we’ll take the next—

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Doyle McManus from Los Angeles Times.

SCHMEMANN: Hi, Doyle.

Q: Thank you for—thank you for doing this call. I joined a bit late, so forgive me if you’ve covered this already. I think this is principally for Graeme Wood.

The distinguishing mark of Daesh’s strategy until now has been the establishment of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, with franchises, and hasn’t been marked by attacks against foreign targets outside their theater of operations. We’ve seen an increasing number of charges from American officials and others that ISIS/Daesh is fomenting, encouraging, even organizing al-Qaida-style attacks outside the theater. How strong is the evidence for that?

SCHMEMANN: Go ahead, Graeme.

WOOD: So I would say that ISIS—so far what we’ve actually observed is a continuing strategy of encouragement of attacks rather than actual planning or sponsorship of an attack. This might be the exception. This might be a change to that strategy. But so far you’ve—I think you’ve correctly categorized the way that ISIS has seen its core tasks and its method of expansion.

I would just point out, though, that although one method expansion is through conquest, another one is through the acceptance of allegiance in the form of what they call bayah, which they got from Sinai of course. But then a third sort of longer-term strategy that they’ve pursued is to encourage chaos, civil war, unrest, and just a kind of semi-organic decay of established governments in the region. And that is something that is very much hurried along by this.

I mentioned earlier that they want to show that Sisi can’t control Egypt, that his promises will not be fulfilled. This is—this is part of that strategy, certainly, that they’ll show that he can’t—that he can’t be trusted to provide law and order. And one of ISIS’s main methods of expansion is to show that even if your government can’t do it, we can. So we should see it partially as—if we’re looking at it as an attack on Egypt, as a continuation of their strategy. Of course, if they continue to blow up planes belonging to Western countries, then that’s a huge change.

SCHMEMANN: Steven, on this issue of a widened arena for Islamic State, I wonder what you’ve heard from Egypt’s neighbors, from the region. There must be some concern and alarm, I would imagine, in Saudi and UAE and in others, you know, if this fight is being taken to new areas.

COOK: Well, thanks for the question, Anya, because I just spent 12 days in the Gulf. And it’s interesting to hear what the Gulfies have to say.

Of course, ISIS is part of their discussion, but their focus really has been on Yemen. And I think the article in The New York Times yesterday about the number of airstrikes and other things that the Arab allies are doing has significantly fallen off bears out precisely what I’ve heard, which is that their focus is on Iran, their focus is on Yemen. I think where you hear about ISIS and the extremist threat is primarily in Egypt, and that is a significant departure between Egypt and its Gulf allies. It has led Egypt down a different road when it comes to Syria. It has left Egypt to be somewhat of a—of a lonely voice when it comes to the situation in Libya. But the Egyptians sit at a place now where they see a gathering of very significant security threats coming from Libya, coming up from Sudan, and coming from this triangle that is Libya, Chad, and all the way down into places like Mali where, you know, there is extremist activities. And they all see this, and the Egyptians worry very much about what all of this kind of instability and extremist activity means for their security.

The major problem, then, I think that the Israelis worry about and the Emiratis worry about is that, when it comes to this fight that the Egyptians now find themselves in—in Sinai in particular, potentially along its western border—is that the Egyptians simply do not have the capacity to carry on this fight, that one of the spectacular successes of the American military aid program to Egypt over the course of the last 35 years is that it has made Egypt unable to fight it the Sinai. That was our goal. We did not want there to be another Israeli-Egyptian war, and so we saw to it that the Egyptians really couldn’t fight in the Sinai Peninsula. Now we would like for them to fight and they’re having a very hard time. And given the kind of institutional cultural world view of Egyptian military officers, it’s very hard to have the conversation with them about updating their doctrine to meet the kinds of threats that they confront right now. And so—and especially since there’s no trust between the United State and Egypt.

So it’s really fallen to Israelis and Emiratis to try and help, as best as they possibly can, to provide whatever capacity to the Egyptians. But it really is this kind of issue that they see themselves being surrounded by these extremist threats, their allies—the allies who’ve floated their economy are increasingly distracted by Yemen. And that’s why you’ve seen tighter coordination between Israel and Egypt, and Egypt and the Russians.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

Operator, if you could please remind our listeners how to get into the queue for questions.

OPERATOR: Absolutely.

(Gives queueing instructions.)

SCHMEMANN: While we’re waiting for the next question, let me just throw another one out there for—let’s start with Graeme. What are we to make of the confusion and chaos, really, after this incident in terms of a lot of finger-pointing, some denial, the Egyptians claiming that the United Kingdom and the United States have not shared intelligence with them, and now Israel today coming out and saying they think it’s a bomb? It seems to have been a pretty chaotic response altogether. What were your thoughts on that?

WOOD: Yes, the reports that I saw of the Israeli response just sounded like that they were in the same fog that the rest of us are. It’s just there’s not that much information out there at this point. And the only thing that I think will actually add to the information, of course, is forensic work—black box analysis and so forth.

And, you know, ISIS in their own very confident, authoritative claim of responsibility, one of the things that they said is go check the black box, that will confirm everything for you. They’ve lied before. They are not unwilling to inflate claims. But it is pretty odd for them to make that kind of confident claim on letterhead and then to—and then to really give everybody—give the world a way to disprove the claim. So it’s—it seems like they’re ready to lose a lot of credibility over this if it’s not—if it’s not real, which makes me think that their claim probably should be judged as likely at this point.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm.

And, Steven, the Egyptian charge that the United Kingdom didn’t share intelligence with them and the United States has kept them in the dark, is that credible at all?

COOK: I don’t think so. (Chuckles.) I find it hard to believe that if the United States and the U.K. had suspicions, understood that this was an attack rather than a mechanical failure of some sort—I find it hard to believe that neither of those countries would share intelligence with the Egyptians. Of course, there’s always concerns about who you share and how they handle that intelligence, but this situation seems to clearly warrant it. And I think that the Egyptians have sought to—have suggested they haven’t gotten it because they have a compelling interest in wanting more people to continue to come to the Sinai Peninsula and not completely wreck their tourism industry.

Of course, I think that this is—makes it harder for people to continue to enjoy Egypt’s Sinai coastline because of the dissembling and the confusion and the denial that the Egyptians have engaged in. It’s reminiscent of EgyptAir Flight 990, which crashed exactly 16 years to the day that this plane came down in the—in the Sinai Peninsula. And those of you who remember, the Egyptians went to great lengths to make the case that the co-pilot did not intentionally bring the plane down. And the kind of things that the Egyptians have been saying, the way in which they’ve dissembled on this, is quite reminiscent of that—of that episode. This is not to say that the—perhaps the United States and the U.K. shouldn’t have handled this situation better, but it strikes me that the Egyptians had a(n) incentive to claim that the intelligence was not shared with them, that it’s not—it’s not a terrorist attack, that it’s perhaps a mechanical failure.

But of course, look, it’s hard to imagine that an airplane breaks up at 31,000 feet for no reason, or that there’s some sort of catastrophic problem on the airplane and that the pilots have no—do not call in, don’t even have a few seconds to call in. This was the breakup of a plane suddenly. It strikes virtually everybody at this point that it was some sort of explosion on the plane.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm. So at this point we are waiting for additional questions. We do know that there are a lot of listeners on the line, so we welcome your questions. I will ask another to Graeme, then we’ll see is anyone pipes up on the line.

Graeme, if indeed this was an Islamic State bomb, then that’s really a pretty significant coup by this group and they may be, in fact, newly emboldened by this. So just looking ahead to the future, I know you track a lot of websites and listen to a lot of the online chatter, but what might these groups be planning next? What do we need to fear?

WOOD: I’m not actually—I’m not—I don’t think it’s likely that this is the beginning of a big bombing campaign against Western targets in particular. I do think, though, that it’s quite possible that they will begin attacks on civilian targets in areas where—that they see as vulnerable for this kind of thing. Egypt would be an excellent case of this. There’s already pretty regularly attacks in Saudi Arabia, mostly against Shia targets. And I would imagine that they might be considering Turkey as well. So this is a possibility.

I think, though, that there’s still not enough to—there’s still not enough evidence, though, that they’re actually embarking on a complete shift in strategy toward targets that would go further beyond their reach than that. So I think that might be the current worst-case scenario, is a series of attacks against civilian targets in places like Egypt, Turkey.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm.

And, Steven, just in our last few minutes while we’re still waiting for any additional questions, what do you have to say about that potential of Turkey being a possible target?

COOK: Well, Turkey’s already been a target of Islamic State attacks. It’s unclear, though, what—now that we’re past the re-running of the Egyptian parliamentary elections and President Erdogan has gotten the parliamentary majority that he wanted, whether the Turks will go back to their default position of not directly confronting the Islamic State. And there’s—you know, they—from their perspective, there’s good reason not to do that. One, they don’t want blood running in their streets, and there’s an extremist, you know, infrastructure and network already present in Turkey. Two, they are far more concerned about the implications of Kurdish nationalism, especially in Syria. And that they don’t believe that the coalition confronting the Islamic State is really addressing the problem, which is the Assad regime. That’s their perspective.

So we will have to see how the Turks now respond, now that the long electoral season in Turkey is over. It’s instructive that the Turks used the bombings that have been subsequently attributed to the Islamic State to attack the PKK, this terrorist organization that they’ve been battling since the mid-1980s. So yes, it’s entirely possible that Turkey is a target. It’s unclear to me what Turkey’s posture is actually going to be with regard to the Islamic State going forward.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

So last call for questions. A reminder that you can press star-one to ask a question. And if there are no further questions, we will wrap up this call.

Just a reminder to everyone that we have been talking with Steven A. Cook and Graeme Wood, and we’ve been discussing the downing of the Russian plane. And once again, there are additional resources and links for our experts on CFR.org. We will also have the transcript from this call posted online, so we invite you to come and see that there. I do not see any additional questions at this time, so we will conclude this call. Once again, do visit us on CFR.org for the transcript and audio of this call, and for anything else that you might need.

So with that, thank you, Steven Cook, and thank you, Graeme Wood. We appreciate your time today.

COOK: Thanks very much. Everybody have a nice day.

WOOD: Thank you.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

And, Operator, that concludes our call.

(END)

This is an uncorrected transcript.

 

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