U.S. & U.K. Intelligence: ISIS “Chatter” Prior to Russian Crash

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Photo courtesy of Egyptian Prime Minister's Office

U.S. & U.K. Intelligence:
ISIS “Chatter” Prior to Russian Crash

| published November 6, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review staff


Though there is still a wide range of disagreement between officials in Egypt and Russia over what caused the breakup and crash of a Metrojet Airbus A321 last weekend on a flight from the Red Sea to St. Petersburg, the theory that gained additional traction today is of a plane brought down by a terrorist act.

The Russian plane broke apart in midair about 25 minutes after it left the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh, a coastal resort town on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Immediately after the plane’s parts crashed into a remote area of desert and rugged hills, ISIS took responsibility for the act, declaring it had destroyed the plane in retaliation for Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, and for its air attacks against ISIS militants on the ground.

Though Russian officials have been circumspect, and though Egyptian authorities seem resistant to blame the plane’s downing on a terror plot--much less on the militant organization known as ISIS-- intelligence experts in Britain and the United States now say that there are too many overlapping factors pointing to the plane’s destruction as an act of terror, possibly a bomb hidden in the cargo hold.

According to Reuters and other news sources, British and American intelligence and law enforcement are saying that there was ample digital chatter between known operatives and followers of ISIS to conclude that elements of the radical army may have been behind the crash. ISIS has been known in the past to claim responsibility for acts it did not commit, but these same experts point out that some of the online chatter—emails, text messages, social media talk, conversations in chat rooms, even discussion between known ISIS leaders—took place before the crash of the Metrojet airliner.

That chatter included enough specific talk of a bomb, sources say, to suggest that the theory of an ISIS-inspired attack must be taken very seriously.

Though Egypt has generally scoffed at the theory of a bomb or a rocket being involved in the plane crash, which took the lives of 244 passengers and crew, Egyptian authorities fired at least three airport employees in Sharm el-Sheikh (including a supervisor), and have said that others may be fired as well. Investigations are under way in Egypt into who may have had access to the cargo hold and luggage compartments of the doomed Metrojet prior to take-off.

U.S. satellites observed a massive heat plume in the moments just before the plane disappeared from radar. Investigators at the scene of the crash say that the debris field, which stretches some 20 miles in diameter and places the cockpit and tail sections some two miles apart, is consistent with an explosion in midair. Photographs of pieces of the fuselage show clear signs of shrapnel exiting from the interior of the plane, with small and medium-sized holes open on the metal skin and flaps of steel and aluminum turned outwards. Unconfirmed reports also indicate some preliminary evidence of scorching and explosive residue on luggage and seats.

All signs, most observers say, that the plane was brought down by some form of internal explosion, though it remains possible that the explosion could have been caused by something other than a bomb.

Skeptics of the bomb theory point to TWA Flight 800, which exploded over the skies off the coast of Long Island in July of 1996. Though several alternative theories exist, and though there remains some controversy about the destruction of that plane, a four-year NTSB investigation and several subsequent FBI inquiries (which had at first concentrated on the possibility of criminal involvement) concluded that the plane exploded because of an electrical short circuit in a faulty fuel tank reservoir. Though no terrorist group or criminal group took responsibility for the downing of TWA 800, speculation abounded (and abounds even to this day), that the plane may have been blown from the sky by a missile or a bomb.

At issue in the recent Airbus crash: extremely lax security at the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town popular with Russians and Eastern Europeans for its sandy white beaches, posh hotels, swimming pools and gift shops. Security experts say that initial investigations show a highly unregulated airport with few controls over baggage, and fewer security controls over who has access to the runway, maintenance areas and luggage handling.

Though various press agencies are quoting sources who wish not to be identified, some officials close to the investigation say there is mounting evidence that an explosive device was smuggled into the plane, possibly planted among the suitcases and bags placed in the cargo hold by the airport’s baggage handlers. Investigators are looking at surveillance video of the baggage areas and the runway, but have not made any statements indicating that they have found a suspect.

Numerous airlines have cancelled flights into and out of airports in the Sinai, where an ISIS-linked militant group now operates with increasing effectiveness. Though Egyptian officials have downplayed the role ISIS plays in the Sinai, U.S. and British intelligence analysts and foreign policy experts say that ISIS has greatly expanded its footprint in remote parts of Egypt, just as the militant group has expanded its number and influence in neighboring areas of Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

As recently as last year ISIS operations were generally limited to northeastern Syria and northern Iraq, but now maintains elements in a dozen countries, including Afghanistan—where it is rapidly supplanting al Qaeda and Taliban influences—and in parts of Jordan, Egypt, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Yemen, the Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Dagestan. Though some of these groups operate under different names, all pledge allegiance to the newly-consolidated Islamic State, which is based primarily in northern and central Syria.

Even the fiercely independent and violent militant group Boko Haram, which is centered in West Africa and spreads its tentacles into four countries, recently went online to openly pledge its allegiance to ISIS and declare its goals identical to those of the same ISIS which now battles the regime of Syria’s Bashir al-Assad. Militant Islamic groups in Bosnia have also recently declared their allegiance to ISIS.

Terrorism experts and aviation safety officials alike worry that under such circumstances it may become increasingly difficult to maintain entirely reliable and safe links between hundreds of airports across a wide tract of Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and the southern half of Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, those Egyptian and Russian officials closest to the investigation are asking journalists to let those examining the crash and its evidence do their work without interference and rampant speculation. As of late Thursday, Russia has demanded that all of its airlines suspend service to airports in the Sinai, pending the outcome of the investigation. Moscow may also be considering suspending—or greatly limiting—flights near other potentially hostile areas, especially those flights with flightpaths which might bring passenger planes within range of surface-to-air missiles under ISIS control.

The ground-launched missile theory has been generally dismissed because military analysts doubt that ISIS groups operating in the Sinai could have come into possession of the sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry required to take down a plane cruising at 30,000 feet.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Downed Passenger Plane May Spark Russian Escalation; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; November 5, 2015.

U.S. Satellites Detected Heat Before Crash; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; November 3, 2015.