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U.S. Investigation Into Russian Airliner Crash Raises Possible ISIS Link

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Here in the U.S., the working theory is that an employee at the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh might have helped a terrorist group get a bomb on the plane. There are many terrorist groups in the part of Egypt where the plane crashed, the Sinai Peninsula. In the past year, several of these groups have come together under the umbrella of ISIS. That's one reason why ISIS is now the No. 1 suspect in the case. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: You could be forgiven if you haven't heard of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis before. That's the name of ISIS's branch in the Sinai.

KATHLEEN HICKS: A lot of people refer to it as ABM. It affiliated with ISIS about one year ago.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kathleen Hicks was a deputy undersecretary at the Pentagon and now directs the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And when she says affiliated with ISIS, she means the group pledged allegiance to ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who is thought to be in Syria or Iraq.

HICKS: Its lineage to ISIS is new, but it has a long history, as does the Sinai in general, of jihadist activity.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For some time now, the Sinai has been a safe haven for violent Islamist nursing resentments. When the military removed Egypt's president Mohamed Morsi, terrorism out of the region picked up. ABM targeted Egyptian police and security forces. In fact, last year, the group downed an Egyptian military helicopter and posted a video of the entire attack on YouTube. The video opens with fighters firing a surface-to-air missile into the sky and then zooms in on the helicopter overhead as it bursts into flames. Five members of the Egyptian Air Force were killed in the crash.

Late last year, the group changed its name and now calls itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. Hicks says the name change is more than just cosmetic.

HICKS: This group, along with groups in Afghanistan and in Libya, are maybe, if you will, a step above in terms of their allegiance, affiliation and activity in support of ISIS's goals.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation says their attacks changed too.

BRIAN FISHMAN: What's interesting about this particular ISIS affiliate as opposed to many of the others around the world is that it has demonstrated over the last year or so increasingly sophisticated tactics.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The group is known to build relatively sophisticated bombs. Insider attacks are considered its specialty. The group has turned soldiers and police into suicide bombers. In the Russian Metrojet case, while U.S. officials haven't had any access to forensic evidence, they're piecing together clues from what they do have - satellite images. Several officials tell NPR that those images suggest a military grade explosive, and Brian Fishman says that kind of sophistication requires some support.

FISHMAN: So it has raised the question for analysts over, you know - watching this group over the past year about whether they're actually has been direct knowledge transfer from Iraq and Syria to this organization in the Sinai.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, the question is whether ISIS is training its affiliates in terrorist attacks and sending them around the world. Have they taught franchise groups, for example, how to make bombs? And did ISIS's core leadership order the Metrojet attack? Fishman says this wouldn't necessarily just be revenge against Russia for joining the fight in Syria. It's a vital part of ISIS's effort to win recruits.

FISHMAN: ISIS calculates that confrontation with major world powers, whether it's the United States or Russia or any other major power, that doesn't kill them ultimately makes them stronger.

TEMPLE-RASTON: If that sounds familiar, it should. That was Osama bin Laden's strategy as well. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.