Downed Passenger Plane May Spark Russian Escalation

Sharm el-Sheikh terminal

Terminal at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, Egypt/photo by Shilovich

Downed Passenger Plane May Spark Russian Escalation

| published November 5, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff


Alongside the widening investigation into what brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula last weekend, there is an increasing fear that the crash may trigger a much bigger war in the Middle East.

Russia may seek to escalate its military interventions in Syria in its own war with ISIS as a direct result of a plane crash in which 224 passengers and crew died.

Yesterday, British and U.S. intelligence officials confirmed what had been rumored for more than two days—the Russian airliner may have been blown out of the sky by a bomb, possibly smuggled on board by ground crews or baggage handlers in Egypt.

The bomb theory has gained credence just within the last two days. U.S. officials say that satellite imagery captured a massive heat signature from the plane in the same moments in which it vanished from radar. Forensic experts on the ground say that the debris—which is scattered across an area nearly 20 miles in diameter—shows clear evidence of a catastrophic break-up of the plane while still in midair. Other investigators on the ground say that chemical evidence points to a bomb—with residue typical of an explosion found on some of the human remains, as well as on luggage and airplane components scattered across the remote terrain.

Though officials in both Egypt and Russia at first denied that any such act was possible, investigators working on the case—along with who have examined the plane’s two black boxes, both recovered—have come to the inescapable conclusion that the plane was brought down deliberately. There is also substantial evidence that security was lax at the airport from which the plane took off, the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egyptian officials now acknowledge that sloppy security and conspiracy between airport employees may have combined to give ISIS operatives an opportunity to smuggle or plant a device on board the airplane.

After the crash of the Metrojet Airbus A321, which killed all 224 passengers and crew, ISIS posted videos and text reports on social media and on its various websites taking responsibility for the crash, and claiming that the downing of the airliner was in retaliation for Russia’s military interventions in Syria. Last month, Russia deployed air power, artillery and troops to Syria in an effort to give support to the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. ISIS said the downing of the Russian passenger airliner was intended to be retribution for the loss of civilian lives on the ground inside ISIS-controlled areas.

Though officials were quick to discount the theory that ISIS-linked militants may have shot the plane down using a ground-based anti-aircraft weapon, saying that it was highly unlikely that ISIS operatives in the Sinai could have come into the possession of a surface-to-air system capable of striking a plane at 30,000 feet, several investigators conceded early that the jetliner’s crash may have been the result of terror.

Now, those same officials are less circumspect, and there is mounting evidence that a bomb—possibly armed with a timer—may have been planted in the cargo hold area of the plane before it took off from the Egyptian coastal resort town. Egyptian aviation authorities dismissed at least three management-level employees from the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh, and officials in Cairo say that more firings may take place this week. Egyptian law enforcement officials are also investigating how many people might have been involved if, in fact, the evidence becomes even more clear that a bomb was planted aboard the plane.

The Metrojet Airbus was ferrying Russian vacationers back to St. Petersburg when it disappeared from radar screens about 25 minutes into its flight. The plane crashed in a remote, rugged area of the Sinai, with pieces scattered over a wide area. The cockpit was found some two miles from where the tail section was found, indicating a break-up of the plane at high altitude.

Intelligence and terrorism experts suggest that if in fact ISIS was able to accomplish this act of terror, it marks a dramatic upgrade in ISIS military strength in the Middle East. U.S. and coalition partners nations have conducted more than 8,000 sorties meant to degrade and destroy ISIS units on the ground. Despite this continued bombardment—using fighters, stealth bombers, drones, and cruise missles—the number of ISIS fighters has remained static, or even grown, depending on the intelligence estimates.

Though ISIS controls a contiguous area which covers a large part of northern Syria and northern Iraq, ISIS elements and direct offshoots of the militant group are now coalescing in a dozen other countries, including Yemen—where a variety of rebel factions are now merging into an ISIS-linked group—and Libya, as well as Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. ISIS has grown far more rapidly in the last 18 months than its counterpart, al Qaeda.

Military observers and foreign policy analysts in the United States calculate that it is only a matter of days or weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin ramps up Moscow’s military intervention in Syria.

Related Thursday Review articles:

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

Russian Airliner: Claims & Counterclaims Over ISIS; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; November 1, 2015.