Russian airplane

Terror in the sky

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Russian and Egyptian experts work at the crash site in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on November 2. Photo: RUSSIAN MINISTRY FOR EMERGENCY SITUATIONS/AP

The I.S. claims responsiblity for the crash of a Russian airplane with 224 people on board after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh. Western and Russian investigations concluded that it was a terrorist act, but the Egyptian authorities dismissed this as propaganda.

The downing of the Russian passenger plane Metrojet 9268 over the Sinai peninsula two weeks before the massacre in Paris is also being conclusively viewed as an act of terrorism. The Airbus A331 carrying 224 passengers and crew crashed soon after taking off from the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh on October 31. There were no survivors. It was the worst disaster in Russia’s civil aviation history. The wreckage of the plane was found scattered over a wide area in the uninhabited Hassanah area of the Sinai. All but five of the victims were Russian citizens, and many of the families on board the plane were on their first holiday abroad. Russia declared a day of national mourning on November 1.

The Islamic State (I.S.) was quick to claim responsiblity and stated that it brought down the airliner “in response to Russian air strikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land”. A statement issued by the I.S. said that its affiliate in the Sinai region, which calls itself the Islamic State of Sinai, had shot down the plane. The group has carried out frequent terror attacks against Egyptian security forces since the ouster of the government led by the Muslim Brotherhood two years ago. This year alone there have been 357 attacks. The extremist group in the Sinai is known to have a presence in Sharm el-Sheikh. Before it became an affiliate of the I.S., it had staged terror attacks in hotels in the resort city in 2004 and 2005, in which more than a hundred people, many of them foreign tourists, were killed.

The initial claim of the I.S. was immediately discounted by the Egyptian and Russian governments because the plane was flying at a height of over 31,000 feet (9,500 metres), making it highly unlikely that a missile could have brought it down. While the Egyptian government was vehement in its rejection of a terrorist hand, the Russian government said it would wait for the outcome of its investigations before coming to a definitive conclusion. The I.S. has since repeated its claim taking responsibility, and has stated that it will provide tangible proof at a time of its choosing.

Western intelligence agencies were quick to conclude that a terrorist act brought down the plane, and it was reported that United States satellite imagery showed signs of an explosion before the plane crashed. U.S. intelligence sources “tentatively concluded” that a bomb had been smuggled into the plane. “There is a definite feeling that it was an explosive device planted in the luggage [hold] or somewhere else on the plane,” a U.S intelligence official told the media. I.S. chatter intercepted by Western intelligence agencies bolstered the suspicions that the group was behind the act. The wreckage of the plane was scattered over a radius of over 100 square kilometres, which suggested that an explosive device was responsible. There were no distress calls by the pilots or a sudden dip in the plane’s altitude.

The British government was quick to order the stoppage of all flights to the popular resort from the country. The decision was taken when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was visiting London in the first week of November. “As more information has come to light, we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device,” a statement from British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said. The British and Russian governments dispatched chartered planes to Sharm el-Sheikh to get its citizens back home. The luggage of passengers was transported separately, giving credence to the theory that a bomb may have been smuggled into the plane’s luggage hold.

The beleaguered Egyptian economy is heavily dependent on proceeds from the tourism industry, and Sharm el-Sheikh has received the bulk of tourist traffic in recent years, most of them from Britain and Russia. The place is the single-most popular destination for Russian tourists. By mid-November, the city was virtually abandoned by foreign tourists. President Sisi made a surprise visit to Sharm el-Sheikh in the second week of November. During the visit, he expressed his unhappiness with “those who had rushed ahead of the investigations”. The Egyptian President continues to dismiss claims of a terrorist attack “as propaganda”.

Soon after the British decision to suspend flights, more governments followed suit. Russia, too, decided to do likewise. The Russian government also told Egypt Air to suspend its flights to Moscow. After the preliminary examination of the wreckage and the black box, the Russian authorities seem to have concluded that foul play was most probably behind the tragedy. A spokesman for the Russian government, however, issued a statement saying that the temporary suspension of flights did not mean that the Russian government had concluded that the crash was a result of terrorism. The Russian official said investigations into possible mechanical failure were also going on. At the same time, residue from the luggage section was being tested for traces of explosives. “There are now two versions under consideration: something stowed inside the plane or a technical fault. But a plane could just not fall apart in the air. A rocket is unlikely. There are no signs of it,” a Russian official said. The Russian side has asked the U.S’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help analyse forensic evidence from the crash site.

The Egyptian government continues to deny that terrorism played a role in the crash and criticised the decision of Western governments to suspend flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, A senior Egyptian official investigating the case confirmed that an in-flight break-up did take place, but denied assertions by Western intelligence agencies that a bomb was responsible for it.

The Egyptian authorities were critical of their counterparts in the West who leaked information about the probable cause of the accident without first coordinating with them. “We expected that we would have been informed of any available information at the technical level instead of it being released so widely to the media,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Shamir Shoukry said at a press conference.

With all evidence pointing to an I.S. hand in the downing of the plane, it is possible that the Russian civilian plane may not have been chosen at random by the terror group. Russia, unlike the West, has not been selectively targeting terrorist groups in Syria. The Russian air offensive has been very effective against the I.S. The Russian Air Force has launched around 59 strikes every day as compared with the U.S., which has restricted itself to around nine a day. The U.S. is only hitting the I.S. in areas where the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) is engaged in the fighting. Washington has turned a blind eye to the I.S. in other parts of Syria where it is in alliance with other jehadi groups fighting to overthrow the secular government in Damascus.

The Russian political commentator Dmitry Kiselyov said in his widely watched television show that it was indeed suspicious that the I.S. targeted a Russian plane 40 days after the Russian Air Force started targeting the I.S., while even two years after the U.S. started its attacks on the I.S., none of its civilian planes has been targeted. He suggested that the U.S. had cut a deal with the I.S. “not to touch the civilian aircraft from the Western coalition”. There are many conspiracy theories floating around, but the fact of the matter is that out of the many flights leaving Sharm el-Sheikh on October 31, it was the Russian civilian air plane that was targeted by the terrorists.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies in the region, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have bolstered the fire power of the jehadi groups they back. These groups, such as the Ahrar al Sham, have a tacit alliance with the I.S. and the Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Among the weaponry that is being distributed are shoulder-fired man portable air defence systems (MANPADS) capable of hitting aircraft. A U.S. official told the media that these weapons could help target Syrian air force planes and could also help keep Russian air power at bay. Previously, U.S. President Barack Obama had rejected plans for the supply of weapons which were capable of shooting down civilian planes, realising that they could easily fall into the hands of terrorist groups that have no love lost for the U.S.

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