Why ISIL is a Vast Exaggeration: & No, it can’t Shoot down Planes

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in the Sinai Peninsula made a big deal of claiming they shot down a Russian airliner Saturday morning. They did not. The plane was at 30,000 feet when it got into trouble. Anti-aircraft weaponry like Manpads can’t reach those altitudes.

This kind of grandstanding is typical of the radical vigilantes in this tiny organization. They don’t have any real strength in the Sinai, either. They have some good fighters and some fair equipment and can sometimes duke it out with an Egyptian army platoon. But their main advantage in the Sinai is not that they are popular or numerous or powerful but that it is a big rugged place where they are hard to locate and can fight a guerrilla war.

The Sinai Peninsula has a population of about 600,000. It is about a fourth the size of Wyoming but has a similar population. But both have wide expanses and are thinly populated. It is Egypt’s old west. Egypt’s population is about 84 million; I don’t think some small groups in Sinai can take the Egyptian Army. Members of Daesh in Sinai are local radicals with local grievances (especially the Egyptian state’s neglect of the Bedouin-background people living in the interior away from the tourist sites). The small guerrilla groups had local names until last year when they suddenly declared themselves Daesh. This is like a juvenile delinquent shaving his head. He’s the same pimply 17-year-old, he’s just trying to project menace that would be hard to achieve without riding the coattails of some known unpleasant iconic group.

In the Nile Valley, from Alexandria down to Aswan, no one likes Daesh/ ISIL. No one. In fact, people were traumatized by the authoritarian tendencies of even the moderate Muslim Brotherhood and I think the latter’s popularity has plummeted. Pious people often wear beards in Egypt, and Salafi women sometimes try to adopt the Gulf-style black full veil called niqab. But both are deeply disliked. Egyptians have a mainstream Sunni Islam that is sort of like Brazilian Catholicism and is not fundamentalist. Most Egyptians don’t like fundamentalism, and virtually no one likes militant fundamentalism. So you hear stories of young men shaving because they don’t want to get the stinkeye as they walk in the street. Egypt’s Mufti routinely orders girls in his audience to take off the niqab, pronouncing it un-Egyptian.

Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), is a weird cult with almost no popular support. It probably rules over about 3 million people in the far east of the Arab world, having kidnapped them at gunpoint or having convinced them that the alternative is worse. Western journalism has been snookered by this small mafia of some 25,000 fighters into thinking they are important and will remain so. Nope. Flash in the pan. Muslim version of People’s Temple.

Daesh has made some of its biggest splashes with a smartphone camera and some petty thuggery. (Grabbing someone and killing him is not that hard, and illiterate teenagers in American inner cities do it every day). In a day of news as infotainment, per-minute payments for advertisements, and social media, a single beheading can create an impression. But like 15,000 people a year are murdered in the United States and since most of those murders are committed by gunmen, we’re not allowed to talk about those.

When Daesh took the province of Raqqa in Syria, population 800,000, at least 400,000 or 500,000 people promptly ran away from them. When they took Mosul, a metropolitan area of 2 million, again about half the population fled. Journalists talk about Daesh ruling 9 million people, not taking into account this very substantial voting with the feet.

Sharm El Sheikh is perfectly safe, as is the rest of Egypt, for tourism, as long as you go through regular channels. People shouldn’t let themselves be spooked by these small time desert thugs. That is what they want, to hurt the Egyptian economy. Go see the Pyramids if you haven’t. You’ll get a personal tour and it won’t be crowded. Air travel is the safest way to get around. Last year in the US 30,000 died in auto accidents and almost no one in plane crashes.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Russian passenger plane crashes in Egypt’s Sinai desert”

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21 Responses

  1. My expat friends (before they left) painted a much less rosy picture of Egypt. ISIS proper is not big outside Sinai, but other groups are escalating attacks, bombs go off regularly in Cairo now. Call them moderate rebels. Society is deeply polarized, sometimes violent and suspicious of Westerners.

    Sort of like Syria 2011 I guess, except since Sisi is US allied the MB type rebels won’t be getting US and Saudi arms, since Russia isn’t in the business of destabilizing governments these days. Egypt’s lucky day I guess.

      • It isn’t like Syria *now*, obviously. My point is the different courses of the revolts in Syria and Libya vs Egypt and Bahrain have to do with the external supply of weapons. If the US were to flood Egypt with weapons for ‘moderates’ MB groups to use, Egypt might well look like Syria in 2-3 years.

        • No, Egypt isn’t like Syria was in 2010 or 2011 either. I was there last year. Quiet as a dormouse. People have demobilized except more hotheaded Brotherhood, who seem to have almost no practical support. I don’t deny there are demos in villages and sometimes campus, and occasional sniping at police or even scattered bombings. But Brotherhood leadership plays a long game and knows violence is self-defeating; youth have gone home, and there is an amazing amount of support for army and al-Sisi. US is very happy with this situation.

        • I also wonder how long Sisi will be able to keep the lid on Egypt. I think Professor Cole is right that for the medium term things do look stable in Egypt, and Sisi has probably delivered some economic relief to the population. The the structural issues that led up to the Tahrir square protests are all still present: Egypt has youth unemployment that is shockingly high (35-40%), a gdp per capita that is far lower than it’s regional compatriots (which was also lower to the Syrian gdp per capita prior to 2010), and human rights is severely lacking in Egypt. Maybe, the recent gas discoveries will allow Egypt to improve existing social services… However, if Sisi plans to be Mubarak-lite, which appears to be the case, then in the long run it’s difficult to see how this won’t lead to more upheaval.

  2. Thank you for this. There is so little real contextual information about this in this time of hysterical click-bait news, and Tea-Party/Neo-Con war mongering.

  3. Prof Cole,

    Can you please link to “official” Isis announcement that plane was shot down? The one I saw does not state specifically the means of downing.

    I really don’t think an airport employee with ISIS sympathies smuggling a bomb onto the plane can be ruled out yet. The crash is highly atypical – planes don’t just fall out of the sky in that phase of flight in clear weather. Additionally I read that reports of the pilot seeking to make an emergency landing due to technical problems were unconfirmed.

    Granted this has nothing to do with the broader argument of your post but I think it’s premature to call BS on ISIS’ claim for the moment.

  4. It’s the same ole fecal matter:
    No boogeyman under your bed,
    no free-market defense buck$!
    So, go shopping for tape and be
    sure to duck and cover afterwards.

  5. Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in the Sinai Peninsula made a big deal of claiming they shot down a Russian airliner Saturday morning. They did not. ….

    This kind of grandstanding is typical of the radical vigilantes in this tiny organization.

    And people who hang large “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banners on aircraft carriers.

    • “And people who hang large “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banners on aircraft carriers.”

      Indeed, that small group of terrorists managed to make it into the largest war-making machine on the planet. I am surprised there are no areas that glow in the dark.

  6. That Daesh would claim credit even for the Chicago Fire, if it could, is understandable; however, slipping a barometric device thru some lax security is worthy of consideration, e.g. The Saudi mosque frequented by the intelligence unit etc.

  7. Had a shave with a straight razor under torchlight in Cairo as 10 little kids watched 4 years ago….would do it again if I got to sail the nile too…trip of my life

  8. 24 hours later this story looks very different. New York Times and others are reporting that the Russians are looking at a mid-air event unrelated to mechanical malfunction or pilot error.
    Thoughts?

    • The point is that the claims of military prowess by ISIL are unwarranted. If it is mere terrorism, so they are mere terrorism. They shouldn’t be taken seriously as a conventional power.

  9. People confuse control with power. ISIS or ISIL has very little power. Their power comes mostly from fear. If all their military forces were concentrated and put into open battle with a modern military force, such as the US Army, one armored brigade would probably be enough to destroy them. Most people don’t understand that asymmetrical warfare is employed when and because one side knows it cannot defeat its foe in open battle. It is a sign of military weakness, not military power. Their success is ultimately determined by their popular support of lack thereof and the popular support of their enemies. Because ISIS seem to lack widespread popular support, they will ultimately fail and their opponents need only to contain them and cut off their economic support.

    • “cut off their economic support”

      The USA cousl do this fairly easily, BUT . . .

      It would require bombing vehicles moving into and out of Turkey and using drone strikes in Saudi Arabia to kill the financiers.

      The oil ISIS sells is “white washed” by Turkey and the brokerage is done partually in Saudi Arabia.

      The USA could bleed ISIS dry financially but it would require getting very deadly with our so-called allies.

      The bottom line is Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the main instigators of ISIS.

  10. I understood your point. But if an organization is able to down a plane (and I realize its too early to know) it matters very little how they do it. Further, which conventional force has shown itself willing & able to dislodge ISIL from the territory they now hold? Perhaps conventionality is the problem
    Do you know something we dont about the willingness of the Kurds or the Iranians or the turks or the Russians to win back territory & hold it with conventional forces?

  11. Where do you get your figure of 25,000 ISIL fighters, Juan? How could they possibly hold half of Syria, almost, with such a small number? And, by all accounts, they’re active in the communities they dominate, walking around, knocking on doors and putting their strange bureaucracies in place. There were a lot of reports that US bombs had killed between 10,000 – 20,000 ISIL members in the past year, though US officials won’t give any number, and that certainly seems exaggerated. But even if we only killed half that number, that would mean ISIL had to replace a quarter of their force in the past year if they wanted to keep their number at 25,000.

  12. The most likely scenario is a bomb internal to the aircraft. Aircraft are structurally very strong so it takes a lot to break them apart in the air. For example, a Hawaii Air 737 lost over 15 feet of the roof and still landed safely.

    An external explosion is unlikely because of the altitude. Above 20k feet something like a BUK or an S-300 is required (and after the fiasco with the shoot down of the civilian aircraft I doubt if Russia would let anyone use their stuff). The smaller, MANPAD type missiles have a range much less than 20K feet and do NOT have any real guidance system unlike a radar and infrared controlled BUK or S-300. When I flew in Vietnam we stayed above 3000 feet because most humans can not accurately hit an aircraft at that distance with a personal weapon (AK-47, 50 cal, etc) and there were no MANPADS.

    When the investigation is done, I will be surprised if it wasn’t a bomb.

  13. The chartered Russian Airbus A321 midair disintegration over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula due to “External influence” can mean two potential scenarios:

    1 – An object impacting the airframe from outside of the aircraft. (e.g., mh317 shoot-down over the Ukraine on July 17.)
    2 – “External influence” can also mean an explosive device placed on-board the chartered aircraft and is the much more likely scenario if “External Influence” is the actual cause.

    Satellite data reveals a “heat flash” concurrent with the demise of the Airbus. Lending credence to a bomb as the ““External Influence.”

    In any event, it appears ISIL will gladly accept responsibility, no matter who did it.

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