10 November 2015

Our Spies Are Running Hard Trying to Keep Up With the ISIS Threat

Sam Jones
November 7, 2015

Intelligence agencies race to keep up with evolving Isis threat

The trajectory is clear enough: with Russia also suspending all flights to Egypt, there is a growing belief that the disaster was indeed a terrorist attack — potentially making it one of the worst such militant Islamist strikes since September 11 2001.

UK and Middle Eastern intelligence officials told the Financial Times that compelling evidence of a terror plot was now in circulation — shared through bilateral relationships with regional and European governments, Washington and Moscow.

The intelligence picture is nevertheless still confused. Many question why the US, in particular, has not been more outspoken.

The UK — the first country to suspend flights, and dispatch security teams to Egypt — has been the most vociferous in publicly asserting that the attack was a bomb plot. Britain’s evidence, according to those familiar with it, is gleaned from sensitive signals intelligence that picked up conversations between members of the militant group Isis discussing the attack.

Britain’s move to break ranks and act on such information publicly — without waiting for the US or Russia — is not without reason.

The country has more than 20,000 of its citizens holidaying in the Red Sea resort. Britons are a prime target for jihadi groups — as the June attack on the Tunisian resort of Sousse that killed 30 UK tourists demonstrated. And unlike the US, which does not have any direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, many European carriers operate between the Egyptian destination’s airport and British hubs.

The UK dispatched a military team to the airport, to supervise the security checks and measures in place for each plane flying to Britain. An “operations team” is also going to be established in Egypt to keep closer tabs on Isis affiliates in Sinai and in Libya.

“I think they are on really solid ground,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA official and now director of special projects for the Soufan Group, a strategic security consultancy.

“The UK is usually hesitant to hype terrorism. They are usually pretty reluctant to go out ahead of evidence. So whatever chatter there was out there was enough that they felt they should probably say something. That tells us that there is probably a continuing issue, too. The UK felt they couldn’t wait a couple of weeks for security measures to come in.”

Above all else, it is the prospect that the attack was mounted by Isis — and, specifically, its Sinai branch — that is causing the most concern among counter-terrorism officials. If true, it points to a dramatic shift in both the aspirations and capabilities of the group.

“It has been helpful to think of Isis as almost two organisations,” said Mr Skinner. “There’s Isis that controls territory in Iraq and Syria and there’s the inspirational Isis — the one that dominates social media and gets so much attention.

“This attack changes all of that because it shows that inspirational Isis is so much further along. It’s not just inspirational but powerfully motivational. They can potentially bring aboard individuals anywhere in these regions they have a presence — insiders at airports among them.”

Over the past few months, western intelligence agencies’ assessments of Isis have shifted. Squeezed in Iraq and Syria, the group has developed a more conscious “foreign strategy” as it seeks to expand its influence, export its terror farther afield and bolster the capabilities of its foreign branches and affiliates in order to maintain momentum.

“It’s very important to Isis that they continue to be seen as dynamic, powerful and in control,” said one senior British diplomat. “They need that because so much of their success lies in the narrative they spin about themselves. They need to be constantly fighting.”

It is still hard, however, to generalise from the Sinai air tragedy. It looks likeliest that a bomb was planted in the cargo hold of the plane, with the help of an insider at the airport. Such a device would not have to be sophisticated, so it does not necessarily show that Isis has acquired advanced bomb-making techniques.

Sharm el-Sheikh is one of only a handful of key international tourist destinations that abuts an Isis hotbed — Sousse is another — and it may be unusual in having inadequate security standards at its airport.

Nonetheless, national spy agencies will be anxious to improve their intelligence capabilities in areas beyond their usual expertise, especially where large numbers of their citizens on holiday present an attractive target.

The UK ramped up its intelligence presence in Tunisia, for example. Russia will now be looking to do the same in Egypt.

No comments: