The loss of a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai peninsula has been blamed on terrorism or mechanical failure, with the culprit so far being identified more on the need to avoid political or commercial embarrassment than on the facts. The recovery of the aircraft's black boxes should provide reliable answers fairly swiftly. Yet as Aegis Advisory's latest Strategic Outlook argues, even now there are real problems with the terrorism explanation - particularly if, as so much conjecture suggests, the culprit is meant to be a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile.
The loss of any commercial aircraft with all on board is always a tragedy. But when it happens over an area like Sinai, where European and US aviation authority advisories about the maintenance of safe flight levels have been in force for several months; when the aircraft involved is Russian, at the end of a month in which Russia has committed military support to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria; and when the local affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claims to have destroyed the aircraft, with video footage on YouTube that purports to show its last moments, it is not surprising that some commentators ask whether KGL 9268 – the Metrojet Airbus A-321 lost over Egypt on 31 October, killing all 224 people on board – was indeed brought down by terrorist action, as the self-proclaimed Wilayat Sinai/Sinai Province (SP) franchise of ISIL has claimed. Several airlines – including Air France and Lufthansa – have perhaps unhelpfully added to the credibility of SP’s claim by announcing that they will not overfly Sinai until the loss of the A-321 is explained. Meanwhile on 2 November Alexander Smirnov, deputy general director of Metrojet, announced that ‘We rule out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error. The only explainable cause is physical impact on the aircraft.’ Egypt’s prime minister Sherif Ismail, on the other hand, has declared that a technical fault was the most likely cause of the disaster.
Sinai Province and the ‘terrorism’ hypothesis
Can credence be given to SP’s claims? Part of the difficulty is that everyone who has so far chosen to ascribe responsibility has blamed exactly who one would expect them to blame. The Egyptians will not want the incident to be a terrorist attack (one third of all tourists in Egypt come from Russia); the airline will not want to be deemed responsible (though there are already reports they have declared bankruptcy); the Russian government, which was quick to open criminal negligence proceedings against Metrojet, will not want any linkage between its intervention in Syria, supposedly against ISIL, and the death of its citizens.
It is possible that the aircraft was brought down by a device inserted onto the aircraft at Sharm el-Sheikh (SSH); while passengers and their baggage are no doubt screened to the standards expected at an airport which handles a large number of western and Russian tourists, few airline and government auditing processes are able to exclude the possibility that an airport or airline employee working on the aircraft might have chosen or been persuaded to insert a device into a cargo bay or elsewhere. The rapid loss of height and unconfirmed reports, supposedly based on a transcript of the cockpit voice recording, of a very sudden on board emergency certainly suggest a catastrophic failure, while the grainy footage posted by SP might, conceivably, be of the last moments of the aircraft, filmed from the mountains of Sinai. Yet previous SP videos – including of the destruction of an Egyptian military helicopter – have been of much greater professionalism. It is certainly the case that the fact that SP has yet to produce a ‘martyrdom’ video by a suicide bomber seems to militate against this eventuality. Yet there is major terrorist activity in the Sinai peninsula directed at Egyptian military and police targets and, historically, also at resorts such as Sharm el Sheikh and, in particular, those popular with Israeli tourists. These groups are known to have shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), many from the cornucopia of such weapons looted and distributed across North Africa after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.
Western intelligence agencies have also, in the wake of the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, undertaken reviews of the potential capabilities of the generic range of MANPADS, a review that has led to recent advisory notices from the UK Department for Transport and the French government about overflights of Pakistan and Afghanistan at below 25,000 feet. The reasoning behind the new advisories is the belief that terrorists could, in the Hindu Kush and other mountainous areas, take MANPADS to altitudes of 10,000 feet and, by launching from that height, extend the altitude capability of a MANPADS to well above its normal operating ceiling of 24-25,000 feet.
It is also fair to point out that in its previous incarnation as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis – a title it renounced when it swore allegiance to the ISIL ‘Caliphate’ in November 2014 – SP used a Russian made Strela-2 (NATO designation SA-7) MANPADS to shoot down an Egyptian military helicopter in Sinai in January 2014. Add the elevation of Mount Catherine, the highest peak in Sinai at 8,625 feet some 80 miles north west of Sharm el Sheikh, to the known ceiling of the SA-7 and one reaches a figure uncomfortably close to KGL 9268’s known maximum altitude on 31 October.
The MANPADS threat
Why bother with all this explanation of the unlikelihood of a MANPADS attack when, with the flight data recorders recovered and a joint Russian/Egyptian team now at work at the crash site, we are likely to know the cause of the loss in a few days at most? It is to attempt to put the recent French and British advice about Pakistan and Afghanistan into this unfortunately wider, and real, context.
If a terrorist wishes to bring down a particular passenger aircraft – in this case Russian – he has, of course, the option of climbing to the top of a high mountain and waiting for the aircraft to come into view. If, probably a big ‘if’ in the mountains of Sinai, he has a working internet connection, he can access Flightradar 24 to help identify his target from the not inconsiderable stream of traffic either inbound or outbound to Sharm el-Sheikh or overflying Sinai towards Cairo and the Mediterranean. He may, of course, feel inhibited about going online in many remote locations because of his vulnerability to hostile surveillance and a possible drone strike. This would limit his ability to be sure that the aircraft he was aiming his missile at was the one he wished to bring down. But he could limit his exposure by having a less easily traceable HF radio link to a colleague who was monitoring Flightradar 24.
In the case of Sharm el Sheikh, a resort that is now heavily guarded by the Egyptians because of the threat level in Sinai, despite the extra security provision he still has the options of either standing off from SSH in a boat that could have been hidden until the critical moment behind Tiran Island, some 10 miles offshore from the Sinai coast, or of lurking in the foothills of the Sinai mountains that begin quite close to the airport. From either sea or land, he would have both a better chance of identifying the aircraft he wanted to bring down and of catching it at its moment of maximum vulnerability, lumbering at low speed and high levels of thrust in the early stages of its climb. The Al-Qa’ida MANPADS attack against an Israeli charter aircraft at Mombasa in November 2002 failed because the attackers posted themselves abeam of the runway and too close to it. From further away, and from a position that enabled the best acquisition of the heat signal from the aircraft, they would probably have hit it.
The discovery of the flight data recorders, apparently in good condition, should provide answers to what happened to KGL 9268 – though whether all the stakeholders will accept them is another matter. What the SP claim of responsibility for the tragedy has shown is that there is a high degree of credulousness about what ISIL affiliates, and even wider terrorist groups, can do. The MANPADS threat is real, but limited. If, in the absence of concrete evidence, people or institutions choose the terrorism explanation for KGL 9268’s loss, it will be a comment more on the need for the tragedy to be an act of malice than a reliable assessment of the aircraft’s fate.
Post by HELP Intelligence Experts - Aegis Advisory
Contact - Ed Whitten +44(0)20 7222 1020 firstname.lastname@example.org
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