In 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 its 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.