As the Prime Minister chairs another meeting of the governments emergency committee, Cobra, over fears of bomb attacks on UK flights from Sharm el-Sheikh; The Henry Jackson Society has again warned about the increased levels of activity by Islamic State against western interests and the threat posed by the terror group to Britons abroad, particularly in the Sinai which we detailed a year ago.
The security situation in the Sinai has been grave for some time, with Terror in the Sinai finding increasingly sophisticated and co-ordinated terrorist activity. The move to stop commercial flights comes as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi makes a visit to Britain today. The former head of Egypt’s armed forces led a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.
HJS’s Middle East expert Tom Wilson is warning about the growth of terrorism in the Sinai. While the focus will be on the terror alert and the harm it will do to Egyptian tourism, he says human rights should also be on the agenda for David Cameron: “It is important that Britain supports Egypt in its struggle to combat Islamic extremism and militants associated with the Islamic State, but President Sisi needs to do a lot more to explain to international partners how he intends to take practical steps to pursue a transition towards genuine democracy. Stability in Egypt is vital and no one would wish to see the country descend into the chaos engulfing so many of its neighbours, but we cannot justify turning a blind eye to the human rights situation either. Egypt cannot be allowed to sink bank into the kind of military dictatorship reminiscent of the Mubarak years. The oppression associated with such regimes only triggers further instability in the long run, which undermines British interests in the region.”
The grounding of flights came five days after a Russian airliner to St Petersberg was downed over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, shortly after take off from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board. Some Russian politicians have complained that Britain’s decision to suspend flights is partly intended to exert “psychological pressure” on Russia over its involvement in Syria, while other Russian officials are calling for western intelligence agencies to share information with Moscow.
Dr Andrew Foxall of the Russian Studies Centre at HJS has been analysing how this affects the Kremlin domestically: “If it is proven, as the UK and US have suggested, that IS downed A321 over the Sinai, there is likely to be a backlash in Russia against President Vladimir Putin. Russian domestic support for Putin’s bombing campaign in Syria is fragile, and has ebbed and flowed since late September. Since Russia started its bombing campaign, several Islamist groups have called for attacks against Russia, and some of these groups have affiliates inside Russia. Owing to Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and Syria, the Kremlin is isolated internationally. Now Putin is beginning to learn why it’s important not to alienate the West, particularly if, as is now the case, he wishes to engage in intelligence-sharing.”
While the Egyptian authorities say the decision to ground planes was premature and unwarranted, Dr Alan Mendoza welcomed the move saying: “The British government has obviously made this move as a result of carefully considered intelligence gathering. We know from recent revelations that IS seeks to attack British targets at home. It would seem obvious that a sensible precaution would therefore be to put British targets abroad out of harm’s way as long as a heightened security situation and concerns about safety remain.”