BY: Brendan Nicholson, Defense editor
Much too soon after the crash of the Russian Metrojet charter flight over the Sinai Peninsula came the denials.
Egyptian security officials quickly rejected claims that the airliner might have been brought down by a terrorist missile or bomb. And airline officials stated confidently that the crash was not caused by any mechanical fault in the Airbus A321, or by any error by the crew.
But then came the decision of British Prime Minister David Cameron to ban all flights out of the popular Egyptian tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh even though that meant stranding up to 20,000 British tourists there.
That was followed by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s apology to all those stranded in Egypt for what he acknowledged was an “immense disruption and inconvenience”.
However, Hammond said, the British government would not allow aircraft to leave until it was sure they could fly home safely.
Then came briefings from US intelligence sources to the American media that the evidence gathered so far indicated a bomb, probably placed by the Islamic State terror group or one of its affiliates, exploded aboard flight 9268 soon after it began its flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg on October 31.
All 224 passengers and crew were killed.
Whether it was by accident or design, the destruction of a Russian airliner weeks after Moscow launched a substantial military intervention in Syria could immeasurable complicate an already tangled situation in what has become the most volatile and dangerous part of the planet.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said it would not be appropriate to speculate on whether the airliner was destroyed in revenge for his country’s involvement in Syria.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the crash, saying the aircraft was destroyed in retaliation for Russia’s intervention to support the Shi’ite-linked regime in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is fighting the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State among other rebel groups in Syria’s multi-sided war, now in its fifth year.
Clearly unsure how best to capitalise on the crash, Islamic State affiliate Sinai Province issued a statement saying: “We will detail how it came down at the time of our choosing.”
But Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who was in London on an official visit planned well before the disaster, rejected the group’s claims as “false propaganda”.
“When there is propaganda that it crashed because of Daesh, this is one way to damage the stability and security of Egypt and the image of Egypt,” Sisi said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Believe me, the situation in Sinai, especially in this limited area, is under our full control.”
The Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is as popular with Russians as it is with Britons, and the airliner’s crash could prove disastrous for Egypt’s economy.
In London, Hammond said he recognised the immense impact the British ban on flights would have on Egypt but the safety and security of British nationals had to come above all other considerations. Flights would remain suspended until airport security was improved, he said.
British officials said there was a “significant possibility” the Russian crash was caused by an “explosive device”.
US media reports quoted American officials as saying an early view that the Islamic State terror group’s affiliate in the Sinai placed a bomb on the aircraft was based in part on intercepted communications.
The British government instructed British airlines to stop flights leaving Sharm el-Sheikh while security arrangements there were assessed by a team of specialists rushed to the resort.
When the Egyptian government objected strenuously and declared the British decision to be premature, Hammond said he recognised the concerns expressed by his Egyptian counterpart “but with respect to him he hasn’t seen all the information we have. While we regard the Egyptians as very important partners, we cannot ignore that information.”
It is likely that information included an image caught by a US surveillance satellite that showed a flash or “bloom” as the aircraft lost contact with controllers on the ground and began its rapid descent.
That could indicate an explosion aboard the aircraft.
As one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the Middle East is heavily monitored by the intelligence-gathering satellites of the major powers. An area as sensitive as the Sinai is under constant satellite surveillance.
When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine by Russian troops or local separatists trained by the Russians, horrified American technicians saw the whole thing happen as they monitored a feed from a surveillance satellite.
They saw the Russian-designed BUK missile launched and then explode just ahead of the Malaysian airliner, shredding its cockpit and forward fuselage. The BUK missile used on that occasion easily had the range to hit an aircraft flying above 30,000 feet and the launch vehicle was big and distinctive enough to be clearly visible to the satellite’s cameras.
A much smaller shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile would not have the range to hit an airliner flying over 30,000ft.
A bomb is another matter. It would not need to be big, as even a small breach in the passenger compartment or in the luggage hold could cause a catastrophic depressurisation of the aircraft in an instant.
It is not clear why the aircraft’s tail fin reportedly was found 5km from the rest of the wreckage. That again could indicate some sort of catastrophic mechanical or structural failure that might have nothing to do with terrorism.
Egyptian medical staff said a significant number of those killed appeared to have suffered extensive burns.
It is possible a fire or fuel explosion could have been caused by a mechanical issue such as an engine explosion.
Sisi said the cause of the crash might not be known for months. There should be no speculation until then, he said.
Russian officials have noted that so far no traces of explosive have been found on bodies recovered from the crash site, although previous experience has demonstrated that a very large passenger jet can be torn to pieces by a very small bomb.
The device that brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988 was packed into a “ghetto blaster” portable radio-tape recorder common at the time, about 40cm long. It contained as little as 350g of explosive, believed to be Semtex. The ghetto-blaster bomb had been packed into a suitcase; it blew a hole about 50cm wide in the fuselage, which instantly caused explosive decompression. Within seconds the aircraft disintegrated.
The pieces of wreckage reassembled by investigators revealed the blast left burn marks and residue around the hole, which in turn indicated what explosive was used.
While crash investigators, backed by hundreds of members of the Egyptian security forces, search the ancient desert of the Sinai for more pieces of wreckage and for the bodies of those still missing, it remains to be seen how Russia will react if it does emerge that Islamic State or its allies caused the crash.
If the destruction of Flight 9268 turns out to be the result of a terrorist attack carried out in retaliation for Russian actions in Syria, and if it was intended to discourage the Russians, then the perpetrators may have miscalculated.
In 1986, the Jerusalem Post reported on an episode it said followed the kidnapping in Lebanon of four Soviet diplomats by the Islamist group Hezbollah in September 1985.
When Moscow did not comply with the group’s demands, one of the diplomats, Arkady Katkov, was found murdered in a field in Beirut.
The Post reported the KGB kidnapped a relative of a leader of the group it believed was holding the diplomats.
The relative was castrated and shot in the head; his organs were sent to the Hezbollah leader with a warning that he would lose other relatives in a similar fashion if the three remaining diplomats were not immediately released.
They were quickly freed, the newspaper said.
In the wake of the British government’s warnings, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has reissued its travel advice warning Australians to “reconsider your need to travel” to Egypt because of ongoing political tension and the threat of terrorist attack and kidnapping.
That includes the Sharm el-Sheikh resort, DFAT says, warning “terrorist attacks could occur at anytime, anywhere in Egypt, including in tourist areas”.
Since mid-year, there has been a series of attacks on Egyptian forces and tourists in Egypt. DFAT warns that tourists and tourist infrastructure in South Sinai remain an attractive target for extremists.
In recent days, Moscow and the US have agreed to hold joint exercises to reduce the chances of Russian strike aircraft clashing over Syria or Iraq with jets from the US-led coalition, which includes RAAF Hornet and Super Hornet fighter-bombers.
While the US and its allies have focused their attacks on Islamic State targets, the Russians have been hitting anyone fighting against the Assad regime. An angry reaction from a retributive Russia could make the skies over Syria an even more dangerous place.
Plane bombings remain the biggest concern for aviation security experts, even as threats such as those from anti-aircraft missiles have heightened. A British aviation security official says there is evidence terrorists are continuing to try to devise ways to design bombs that can’t be detected by existing screening mechanism. That includes using non-metallic components that would be harder to spot.
While there is still no evidence the passenger airplane was rigged with an explosive before takeoff, the revelation that it broke apart before hitting the ground has fuelled such speculation, says Mokhtar Awad, an analyst at a Washington think tank, the Centre for American Progress, who specialises in Egyptian militant movements.
Wednesday’s claim of responsibility noted that the jet crashed on the first anniversary of Sinai Province, then known as Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, pledging allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
So far the Sinai Province group has confined its attacks to vehicle-borne bombs, short-range shoulder-fired rockets and ground assaults on Egyptian military installations.
In 2013 and 2014, while still operating as Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, the group claimed credit for two massive bombings at police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura and in the capital, Cairo. Both bombings circumvented multiple security checkpoints at the heavily guarded facilities and Egyptian prosecutors have investigated police officers on suspicion of assisting the group in the attacks.
“If you can recruit officers and get intelligence to penetrate Cairo and Mansoura security directorates,” Awad says, “you can probably penetrate Sharm el-Sheikh airport.”