CIA Director Blames Downing of Russian Airliner on ISIS Group in Sinai

This image released by the Prime Minister's office shows the tail of a Metrojet plane that crashed in Hassana Egypt, Friday, Oct. 31, 2015. Suliman el-Oteify, Egypt Prime Minister's Office via AP
This image released by the Prime Minister's office shows the tail of a Metrojet plane that crashed in Hassana Egypt, Friday, Oct. 31, 2015. Suliman el-Oteify, Egypt Prime Minister's Office via AP

CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday blamed the crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt last October on the ISIS affiliate in Sinai, a group that's also suspect in the loss of EgyptAir Flight 804 over the Mediterranean Sea in May.

"We do attribute the downing of that Russian airliner to this group" called the Sinai Branch, Brennan said Thursday in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, referring to the Oct. 31 crash of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 that killed all 224 aboard. The flight originated in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh and was headed to St. Petersburg.

Sinai branch operatives were "able to get on board that aircraft an improvised explosive device and to bring it down," Brennan said in stressing the growing threat from ISIS affiliates and "lone wolf" sympathizers around the world.

"We have great concern about ISIL in other countries," he said, using another acronym for the terror group that has proclaimed a "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria.

Brennan testified as Egyptian officials announced that the voice recorder from EgyptAir Flight 804, an Airbus A320 enroute from Paris to Cairo with 66 people aboard, had been recovered from the sea floor.

The Sinai branch has not claimed responsibility for the downing of EgyptAir Flight 804 but Egyptian officials have not ruled out terrorism.

"If you analyze the situation properly, the possibility of having a terror attack is higher than the possibility of having a technical" failure, Egyptian Minister of Civil Aviation Sherif Fathy told The Guardian newspaper.

In testimony that at times contradicted the assessments of the Pentagon and White House of overall progress in the campaign against ISIS, Brennan warned that a resilient ISIS maintained the ability to counter-attack while spreading its influence across the globe to threaten the U.S. and the West.

Among ISIS' affiliates worldwide, Brennan rated the ISIS militants in Libya as the "most dangerous" and the Sinai branch as the "most active."

"We judge that ISIL is training and attempting to deploy operatives for further attacks," he said. "ISIL has a large cadre of Western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West. And the group is probably exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the West, including refugee flows, smuggling routes, and legitimate methods of travel.

"Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach," Brennan said.

"The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly," he added. "In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda."

At a news conference following Brennan's testimony, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook did not dispute the CIA Director's pessimistic analysis. Cook said that "the military effort to defeat ISIL is absolutely necessary but it is not sufficient to deal with this threat in full.

"ISIL remains a concern and a threat. We've acknowledged that," Cook said, but inflicting a lasting defeat on ISIS "is going to take time. This is not going to be easy. We never said it would be. I think Director Brennan is acknowledging that."

Despite progress made by the U.S. military against ISIS, Brennan said that the group remained "a formidable, resilient, and largely cohesive enemy, and we anticipate that the group will adjust its strategy and tactics in an effort to regain momentum."

"Moreover, the group's foreign branches and global networks can help preserve its capacity for terrorism regardless of events in Iraq and Syria," Brennan said. "In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda."

Brennan concluded that ISIS' Sinai Branch "has established itself as the most active and capable terrorist group in Egypt. The branch focuses its attacks on Egyptian military and government targets, but it has also targeted foreigners and tourists, as we saw with the downing of a Russian passenger jet last October."

On Thursday, two Egyptian policemen were killed by gunmen in the city of al-Arish in Egypt's North Sinai province, the Egyptian Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Four masked men stormed the policemen's house and fired at them, the ministry said. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack as yet, but the Sinai Branch has been implicated in most of the previous attacks in the area.

The increasing attacks by the Sinai Branch have raised concerns for the 700 U.S. troops in Sinai with the Multinational Force and Observers group that has continually monitored compliance with the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Twelve nations currently contribute a total of about 1,700 troops to the force.

Last September, several U.S. troops were wounded by an improvised explosive device suspected of being planted by the Sinai Branch.

The Sinai Branch, believed to have about 1,000 jihadists in its ranks, was previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis before pledging allegiance to ISIS in November 2014.

Under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the former chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Brennan gave a brief rundown of the agency's estimates of the strength of ISIS and its affiliates worldwide.

"We're talking about tens of thousands of individuals" under the ISIS brand, Brennan said.

The CIA estimates ISIS had about 18,000-22,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, which was lower than the White House estimate of 25,000-30,000 and significantly lower than the CIA's previous estimate of a total of 33,000, he said.

In Libya, there were about 5,000-8,000 ISIS adherents, mostly concentrated around the port city of Sirte, which is now under siege by Libyan government forces backed by the U.S. and European allies, Brennan said.

"Inside of Yemen, you have several hundred," and another several hundred in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he said.

In Nigeria, there were about 7,000 militants with the Boko Haram group, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS, Brennan said, and there was also increasing concern at the agency over ISIS' growing influence in southeast Asia.

All told, "the numbers are significant," Brennan said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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