Terrorism most likely cause of EgyptAir disaster, despite no ‘smoking gun’

EgyptAirEgypt’s aviation minister has joined the head of Russia’s domestic security service, unnamed US intelligence sources, as well as a host of aviation security experts, in seeing terrorism as the most likely cause behind the EgyptAir MS804 air disaster. That is despite the absence of a clear ‘smoking gun’ and silence from the Islamic State, which leads many to still caution that the possibility of an accident should not be ruled out. The regularly scheduled flight departed Paris, France, late on Wednesday, heading for Cairo, Egypt. But it disappeared from radar screens just minutes after entering Egyptian airspace and is now believed to have crashed into the Mediterranean Sea.

On Thursday, Egypt’s Minster of Aviation, Sherif Fathi, told reporters that, when carefully weighing what is known about the plane’s disappearance, “the possibility of having a different action or a terror attack is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure”. He was soon joined by Alexander Bortnikov, Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, who said that Wednesday’s air disaster was “in all likelihood” caused by an act of terrorism. Asked by reporters if the FSB had evidence pointing to a terrorist attack on the plane, Bortnikov refused to comment.

Also on Thursday, the American network CBS cited an unnamed “US intelligence source” familiar with US investigations into EgyptAir MS804, who said that “all indicators” were that “a catastrophic event took down the airplane”. The network added that American investigators were leaning toward the possibility of an explosion onboard the aircraft because of its chaotic flight path in the moments before its disappearance from radar screens. Additionally, US government sources noted that the aircraft descended “like a rock”, at extremely high speed, which also pointed to a sudden, catastrophic event. In contrast, aircraft engine failure typically results in a much lower rate of descent. Citing “two US government officials” CNN network reported that Washington was operating on the assumption that the EgyptAir flight had been “taken down by a bomb”, despite the absence of a “smoking gun”. Conflicting reports indicated that US reconnaissance satellites did not register evidence of an explosion or flash in the eastern Mediterranean around the time that the jetliner disappeared. However, it was also noted that US satellites monitoring the region were “not calibrated to detect explosions”.

In France, the former director of the country’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis for Aviation Security (BAE), Jean-Paul Troadec, said that the possibility of an accident was unlikely. “It’s a modern plane, the incident happened in mid-flight in extremely stable conditions. The quality of the maintenance and the quality of the plane are not in question in this incident”, he told Europe 1 Radio, adding that EgyptAir was authorized to operate out of European airports, so “it is not on any blacklist”. Another expert that weighed in on Thursday was CNN’s aviation correspondent Richard Quest. He told the network that, in today’s aviation environment, “planes just do not fall out of the sky for no reason, particularly at 37,000 feet”, adding that the EgyptAir jetliner disappeared while in cruising mode, which is typically the safest segment of any airborne journey.

Meanwhile, intelligence and security services in the Middle East, Europe and the US have been searching for evidence of a claim of responsibility issued by a group such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. There are also searches taking place to determine whether cellular or online ‘chatter’ from sources associated with terrorist groups has changed in volume or intensity, but so far no obvious signs of a change have been spotted, according to reports. The last time the Islamic State downed an airplane was when it targeted Metrojet Flight 9268, owned by Russian holiday tour operator Kogalymavia, over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The militant group quickly assumed responsibility for the attack, then 20 days later revealed photographs of the bomb that caused the fatal blast.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2016 | Permalink

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EgyptAir Flight MS804: Was it a terrorist attack?

EgyptAir MS804In the early hours of Thursday, May 19, EgyptAir, Egypt’s national airline carrier, announced via Twitter that flight MS804 had vanished from the radar. The regularly scheduled flight had departed Paris, France, on time at 11:09 p.m. and had been scheduled to arrive in Egyptian capital Cairo at 3:05 local time. The airplane, an Airbus A320-232, was carrying 59 passengers and 10 crew. According to reports, the airplane disappeared over the eastern Mediterranean, southeast of the island of Crete.

Was this a terrorist attack? It will be several hours before this question can be conclusively answered. However, there are some early indicators that can help shed some light on the incident.

1. What has happened to the plane? The plane has almost certainly crashed into the sea. It has now been five hours since it disappeared from the radar. The eastern Mediterranean is not like the vast Indian Ocean, where Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 literally disappeared in March 2014, never to be found. In the case of EgyptAir MS804, if the plane had landed at a regional airport, the sighting would have been reported immediately —even if it was in rebel-held Syrian regions, or Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq.

2. If the plane has indeed crashed, what brought it down? The possibility of a mechanical failure cannot be excluded. However, the plane is relatively new; it was built in France in 2003 and is less than 13 years old, which may mean that a serious mechanical failure is relatively unlikely. Additionally, weather conditions over the eastern Mediterranean were reportedly “clear and calm” at the time when the plane vanished from the radar. Last but not least, it must be stressed that there was reportedly no distress call made by the pilots or crew before the flight disappeared from radar screens. Which brings us to the next question, namely:

3. Was this a terrorist attack? American and European intelligence agencies, including France’s own DGSE, have warned repeatedly in previous weeks that the Islamic State was “planning new attacks […] and that France [was] clearly targeted”. The Islamic State is currently one of very few terrorist organizations that have the technical expertise and momentum to compromise security measures at a European airport. Moreover, the Islamic State has declared war on France, has attacked the country numerous times, and has stated repeatedly that it intends to continue and even intensify itsQ Quote efforts. The group has remained silent since early this morning, when EgyptAir announced the disappearance of flight MS804. However, it typically waits for several hours, and sometimes days, before assuming responsibility for high-profile attacks.

4. If it was a terrorist attack, how was the plane brought down? It is important to note that the plane is believed to have been flying at 37,000 feet when it vanished from radar screens. This means that, assuming that a non-state actor caused the aircraft’s disappearance, the attack must have been perpetrated from inside the plane. At least three of the 10-member crew are believed to be armed security guards. If that is the case, a team of hijackers would have to have been sizeable enough and sufficiently armed to overpower three armed security guards. What is more likely is that a bomb may have been planted on the plane, either in Paris or Cairo (the plane was returning to Cairo, having left from there for Paris earlier on Wednesday). The last time that the Islamic State assumed responsibility for downing an airliner, it did so by planting a bomb aboard the plane with the help of a ground worker in Egypt who had secretly joined the militant group.

5. If it was a terrorist attack, what does it mean? Should the Islamic State assume responsibility for this attack, it will make it increasingly difficult for France —and possibly other Western European nations— to resist putting boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, if a bomb was planted on the plane at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, it will mean that the Islamic State, or possibly another militant group, has found a way to beat what are perhaps the most stringent airline travel security measures in all of Europe. It could be that the group behind this possible terrorist attack has found a unique and thus far unforeseen way to defeat the latest technological measures used to secure airline travel. Such a possibility could spell even more massive changes for the world’s airline industry, which is already reeling from all sorts of financial and administrative pressures in the post 9/11 era.