Until now, most Western experts on terrorism could plausibly maintain that the majority of Islamic State’s attacks were the work of local or regional Islamist affiliates, franchises or groups. While bound by oaths of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, their operations were thought to be conducted solely by small local cells or “lone wolf” individuals.
But, of late, some intelligence and counterterrorism experts in the West are taking issue with this determination, especially since the Tunisian massacre last June. They argue that a local terror group would not have had the resources to set up the shooting attack on the Sousse beach by at least one terrorist, disguised as a typical holidaymaker, who killed nearly 40 vacationers, most of them British citizens, before he was shot dead by security forces.
That operation achieved all of its three strategic goals: It harmed British nationals, shook the Tunisian government to the core; and devastated the Tunisian tourism industry, on which much hope was pinned as a vital anchor of the national economy.
Sinai and Soussa attacks were plotted externally
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism experts confirm that only a large-scale terrorist organization could have pulled off an outrage of this kind, because it called for a whole cast of role-players.
One accessory rented the speedboat which carried the killer to the targeted beach. Beforehand, spies and spotters carried out surveillance on the targeted area on the types of tourists frequenting it and their movements. Firearms and ammo had to be prepared and positioned in advance.
The plotters would have spent time collecting advance logistical data from hotel staff and personnel working in the tourism industry of the Sousse holiday resort.
It has since been discovered, furthermore, that the Tunisian attack was plotted outside the country, in Libya.
In this and other respects, the Tunisian episode has much in common with the terror attack which five months later downed the Russian airliner in Sinai on Oct. 31.
In both events, foreign tourists were targeted in an Arab land. In the latter case, they were not British but Russian. But the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egyptian Sinai was selected because an attack on holidaymakers staying there would have a destabilizing effect on the El-Sisi regime in Cairo and disrupt Egypt’s tourism industry, a precious source of foreign currency.
(Another article in this issue examines the Egyptian president’s predicament)
There is every sign that the Sinai attack, like the one in Sousse, was planned outside the targeted country.
Sinai’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis lacks know-how for airliner bombing
On the theory favored by most experts, that a bomb was planted on the doomed plane before takeoff, operatives of Ansar Beit al Maqdis, renamed the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, would have had enough technical know-how and resources to build bombs able to blow up large airliners.
The bomb would have had to be small enough to evade notice and rigged to explode at a certain altitude or detonated by a timer, possibly removed from an ordinary alarm clock. Such a device would have consisted of about 400g of PETN, a component of Semtex, and a detonator made of lead azide in a syringe.
This is beyond the capacity of the local Sinai terrorist group. Indeed, the only terrorist in the vast area stretching from Yemen to Syria capable of building such a bomb is Ibrahim al-Asiri, a senior member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
One of the most closely guarded members of the Islamic terrorist elite, Al-Asiri is believed to be spending time in Iraq or Syria.
A bomb for causing the crash had therefore to be smuggled into Sinai for Ansar Beit el Maqdis from outside Egypt, and then, either hidden in a hotel at Sharm el-Sheikh, deposited secretly in the hands of complicit hotel workers, or passed directly to accessories among international airport ground staff, for planting in the cargo hold of the Metrojet Airbus.
Al-Baghdadi learned from Osama bin Laden’s mistakes
This would have been an extremely complex project at every stage. It would have required clandestine operatives proficient in running agents and rings of saboteurs, and also experienced in secreting bombs onto airplanes.
Ansar does not have these capabilities either, in the view of both Western and Middle East intelligence experts, familiar with the terrorist outfits in Sinai.
This means that ISIS would have had to import professionals from Iraq or Libya in order to plant a bomb aboard the Russian airliner – hence, a multinational operation.
In short, therefore, the bombing of the Russian passenger plane over Sinai, defined the Islamic State’s evolution into a multi-tasking, multinational terrorist organization capable of plotting large-scale terrorist attacks against strategic targets and pulling them off across several borders.
ISIS has grown into a bigger, better-organized and far more dangerous menace than Al Qaeda was in its heyday in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. It operated proactively in 11 countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Nigeria – not to mention cells in France, Britain, Belgium and Holland (click HERE for the map).
The self-styled Caliph Al-Baghdadi studied and drew lessons from Osama Bin Laden’s strategic mistakes.
In particular, Bin Laden never aspired to command large stretches of territory and limited himself to an alliance with the Taliban for bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He paid the price for this error when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and toppled the Taliban regime following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Strategic depth and looted revenue keep foes at bay
In contrast, ISIS has never depended on any host country. Instead it has overrun and now controls large swathes of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Sinai, and is gradually moving in on northern Afghanistan. According to a new Russian survey, 30,000 Islamic State terrorists hold 40 percent of Iraqi land, while the rest control 50 percent of Syria.
Neither does the Islamic State depend on the largesse of rich Muslims, as Bin Laden did.
Al-Baghdadi does not say no to donations, but at the same time he has looted sufficient assets to provide him with a steady income running into many millions of dollars for self-funding ISIS operations.
Its command over large expanses of terrain provides ISIS with the strategic depth for keeping at bay hostile forces that would endanger its rule or economic infrastructure.
The jihadis appear to feel they have achieved relative safety from outside peril in the foreseeable future.
That confidence is boosted by the presumption that no national leader – whether in North America, Europe, Russia or the Arab world – is strong enough personally, politically or economically, to wage a full-fledged war on the Islamic State, that would require armies of no less than a quarter of a million combatants to invade and wrest territory from ISIS control.