By Hans Mathias Moeller
This is part 1 of a series following-up a blog and white paper, “Security Threat Assessment: Egypt Economic Development Conference and Sinai Peninsula” published in March 2015, which discusses current security in Egypt.
A few months ago we published a blog with a brief assessment of the physical security environment leading up to the Egypt Economic Development Conference 2015 (EEDC) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. In that post, our analyst assessed that Sharm El-Sheikh was an attractive, high value target for a specific terrorist group operating in the Sinai Peninsula with allegiance to an international terrorist network based in Syria. Attacking the region was in the strategic and ideological interests of this group as it would undermine the area’s tourism sector and the overall Egyptian economy.
We based our assessment on a directive found in the open source – based on a statement from a sympathizer of the international terrorist network – to its franchise in Sinai to open up a front against the Egyptian economy and the Sharm el-Sheikh tourism sector, with foreign tourists named as specific targets. However, due to the defensive countermeasures put in place, terrorists would be deterred from attacking Sharm el-Sheikh and the EEDC meeting, and the terrorist group would consequently shift attacks to a different time or location.
While there was no attack at the EEDC or in Sharm el-Sheikh at that time, as predicted, there were attacks leading up to the conference, as well as in other parts of Egypt. More recently, on October 31, the same terrorist group identified in our white paper claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner departing from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, Russia with 224 passengers onboard. Russia’s Federal Security Service has since confirmed that the airliner was brought down with an improvised explosive device planted on the plane. Egyptian authorities have yet to confirm that the crash was tied to terrorism.
Why Now, and Why a Russian Airliner?
As noted in our previous assessment, while Sharm el-Sheikh is an attractive target, any form of attack during the EEDC was deterred due to extensive defensive security measures. It is likely that the Sharm el-Sheikh airport became a more accessible target as the security barriers were lowered after the EEDC. The timing of the attack and choice of a Russian commercial airliner departing from Sharm el-Sheikh likely fulfilled several strategic and ideological objectives of the terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for the attack.
This includes maximizing the economic impact on the Sinai hospitality sector and undermining the Egyptian economy. The tourism industry accounted for nearly 13 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014. Travel and tourism provided close to 12 percent of Egyptian jobs. The attack took place at the end of October, just prior to the peak in the Sinai tourism season, when European and Russian tourists travel to Sinai to escape the winter. In addition, Russian tourists account for approximately 60 percent of Sharm el-Sheikh’s foreign tourists and a sudden drop in Russian tourism to the Sinai Peninsula will likely cause a significant loss in tourism revenues and an increase in unemployment.
The terrorist group in the Sinai region subscribes to a Salafi ideology, which aims to purify those societies that they see to have been poisoned by Western influence and culture. By attacking the Sharm el-Sheikh hospitality sector, the terrorists likely aimed to change tourism behavior and force tourists to stay home or choose safer destinations.
The attack may also have been driven by a desire for revenge or pressure from the international terrorist network in Syria as they have been targeted by several Russian airstrikes in recent months. Since they may not have been able to strike Russia directly, the Russian airliner filled with tourists became a symbolic and indirect representative of a target that at the time was too difficult to attack.
Further, the attack may also have served to dissuade long-term foreign investments in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, as well as to undermine the authority of the Egyptian president. During the EEDC conference, the president portrayed Egypt as a safe and stable country in which to invest. Following the October 31 attack and the subsequent negative media attention of Egypt and Sharm el-Sheikh, any foreign investors motivated by the EEDC may have second thoughts.
Finally, the attack may also have been part of a signaling strategy aimed at winning over recruits, resources, and funds to the Sinai franchise and the international terrorist network they represent. There are indications that they are in competition with a decentralized and global horizontal network. At times, terrorist groups conduct spectacular attacks to gain prestige and communicate their capabilities and resolve to potential supporters that are uncertain which group will best represent their interests. This sometimes occurs when terrorists compete for recruits and support from a similar demographic pool of recruits.
Contact us for more information on deep-dive assessments performed by our Special Investigations Unit.