What We Know About The ISIS Plot At the Center of Trump’s Russia Gaffe

Laptop threat
An illustrated picture shows a laptop on the screen of an X-ray security scanner, April 7. Donald Trump's laptop ban on U.S. flights incoming from Middle Eastern countries reportedly concerned an ISIS plot connected with aviation security. Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters

On Tuesday, as his administration continued to deal with the fallout of his firing of FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump appeared to confirm that he shared classified information pertaining to a terror plot linked to aviation security with Russia, secured from an allied Middle Eastern partner.

“As President I wanted to share with Russia...which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” he wrote in a tweet.

He justified the disclosure based on “humanitarian reasons” and said he wants Russia “to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism.” Michael Anton, an adviser to Trump on national security, said his tweets did not amount to a confirmation that he disclosed classified intelligence.

While discussion of Trump’s conduct in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak continues to swirl, the matter at the center of the outcry is just as significant: the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), in the territory it controls in Syria, is making plans to blow up an airliner.

The classified details that Trump told the Russians are yet to fully emerge, but here’s what we know so far about the threat.

Plot

U.S. officials with knowledge of the meeting between Trump and the Russian officials in the Oval Office told Reuters that the threat was not simply a stated wish of ISIS militants, but a concrete plot. The information Trump relayed to Lavrov was “Top Secret” that only several intelligence officials could access. His disclosure of the plot to an adversary in Syria was deemed such a mishap that the officials felt the need to immediately call the CIA and the National Security Agency to inform them of the breach, according to the news agency.

Trump reportedly described to Lavrov and Kasylak how ISIS was pushing ahead with this specific plot, and the catastrophic consequences if it managed to succeed in its execution. While the fallout of a Paris-style attack or a suicide bombing would be severe, the most severe and successful attack method for extremist groups, bar nuclear or chemical attacks, are related to aviation.

In the 9/11 attacks in 2001, al-Qaeda members hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers in downtown Manhattan, the Pentagon. A fourth airliner was brought down by the passengers who charged the cockpit after learning of the other attacks, crashing it into a field in Pennsylvania. Thousands perished on that day. In the October 2015 MetroJet crash in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the ISIS affiliate in the Sinai Province claimed responsibility for an explosive device detonated inside a can that downed the airliner and killed all 224 people on board. The attacks are the deadliest aviation disasters in U.S. and Russian history. ISIS has also targeted airports in ground assaults in Istanbul and Brussels.

Its interest in aviation is clear and the move towards smuggling explosives hidden in laptops onto commercial flights presents a new threat for security services. “I think it’s a level of sophistication that is quite disturbing,” says Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based security think tank. “It is quite worrying if we see ISIS having developed that kind of capacity.”

Not al-Qaeda?

This plot, and knowledge of jihadist intentions to develop laptop explosives, played a role in the decision of Britain and the U.S. to announce laptop bans on incoming flights from several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including countries where al-Qaeda and ISIS have operatives. Interestingly, the Trump furore centered on ISIS’s plans to commit what is believed to be a plan for a catastrophic aviation attack, and not al-Qaeda’s.

In March, when the U.S. and Britain announced their bans, U.S. officials cited al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the extremist group’s most powerful wing, as the source of the decision. They said it came after Trump’s botched special forces raid in Yemen in which a member of the U.S. military was killed, which reportedly secured intelligence pertaining to an aviation plot.

It also came after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cited the near-downing of an airliner in Somalia after a laptop exploded in mid-air, blowing a hole in the side of the craft. Al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the blast.

It demonstrated the intentions of the jihadist group to use laptops, but ISIS’s intentions for laptop explosives were less public and less clear. Officials had viewed ISIS, the most powerful jihadist group, as less advanced at such techniques in comparison to al-Qaeda. But the Trump disclosure reveals this may not be the case.

Location

The Washington Post , first to report on Trump’s alleged disclosure, said Trump revealed the city under ISIS control where the U.S. security partner had detected the threat through its espionage activities. The Post did not disclose the method the U.S. partner used to obtain the intelligence.

Read more: Britain issues laptop, tablet ban on direct flights from six countries

The space for espionage activities in ISIS-held territory continues to thin as the group loses territory and its ranks disperse. And such spycraft is vital to preventing a major disaster.

The country in question is known to many, the city in question known to fewer, but the publication of such details would threaten not only any assets behind enemy lines but, more importantly, the efforts of the U.S. ally to obtain intelligence that could prevent a catastrophic extremist attack.

Significance

It’s no secret that ISIS continues to plan operations in the West. It has directed or inspired attacks across America and Europe. But as the group continues to lose territory to U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria, the severity with which top U.S. officials regarded Trump’s disclosure laid bare the threat that the jihadist group continues to pose.

“It really does show the fact that they are still a group that has an aspiration to do some pretty dramatic things,” says Pantucci. “This talk of them being on the backburner and on the ropes is probably a bit premature.”

The disclosure that espionage activities inside ISIS territory led to the intelligence of the ISIS plot will not go missed inside its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The group has had knowledge of the laptop ban, which has been reported for the past two months. It is therefore unlikely--based on the latest disclosure--to accelerate any plot it had, but it could make the group switch its targets.

“They would have probably gone on a molehunt already,” says Pantucci. “What you’ll do is you might shift your attention. So you might say ‘okay, it’s going to be impossible to get on a flight the U.S. or the U.K., let’s try and get a device through an airport somewhere else’ and try to see if that can get into the airspace that they want to try to target.” The revelations, therefore, have a potentially dangerous consequence: increasing the threat to the lives of civilians traveling by air from the Middle East.