The likely cause of Friday’s crash of a Russian Metrojet over the Sinai Peninsula turned to terrorism as sources indicated a bomb may have been placed on board the aircraft before takeoff.
The flight was carrying 217 passengers and seven crew members; there were no survivors. The plane had departed from the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, headed toward St. Petersburg, when it came down over the Sinai — a desert now teeming with restive Islamist terrorists.
PJM reported this spring on an April call from ISIS to jihadists in Egypt to activate, noting that “wolves” are “one of the first jihad work stages” and simply indicates “individual small cells” who have a greater chance of taking the enemy by surprise.
“Jihad is going through various stages to reach the state of empowerment and the rule of the land, as it does our brothers in the land of the caliphate,” said the call posted online. Recruits don’t need “strength or muscle, huge experience in jihad work” and “each wolf chooses what suits him and what fits his goal and location of the implementation of the action.”
“Small firewood is what ignites huge and large flames… wolves will increase their expertise and will move with the time and expertise to the largest operations and to expand and diversify the weapon used.”
And what took down the Metrojet may have been a simple explosive device, perhaps packed in luggage and eluding weak security screening or facilitated by an airport worker turned jihadist.
“There is a definite feeling it was an explosive device planted in luggage or somewhere on the plane,” an official familiar with the latest U.S. intelligence analysis of the crash told CNN. This was corroborated by other U.S. officials who said the cause was leaning toward a bomb. Yesterday it was reported that a U.S. infrared satellite detected a flash of heat over the Sinai at the time of the crash.
Being analyzed are not just physical clues such as shrapnel in the victims’ bodies, but chatter among ISIS members, supporters and affiliates in the days since the crash. The tail section was found three miles from the rest of the wreckage.
An audio recording has surfaced in which ISIS claims responsibility for taking down the plane, but doesn’t offer corresponding proof.
The audio says that ISIS is “not obliged” to offer proof and can do so “in the time that we want,” and disbelievers can “die your rage.”
Britain got the bomb buzz going earlier today when Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesperson said in a statement that “as more information has come to light we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.”
Cameron called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday “to discuss what measures the Egyptians are taking to ensure the tightest possible security arrangements at Sharm el-Sheikh airport,” in a city where many European tourists soak up the sun.
The British government decided to delay flights that had been scheduled to leave from Sharm el-Sheikh for the UK until a team of British security experts could assess the situation on the ground there.
“We recognise that this information may cause concern for those in Sharm and indeed for those planning to travel to Sharm in the coming days. We have deployed extra consular staff to Sharm who will be on hand at the airport, working with the airlines, to assist British holidaymakers there,” Cameron’s office added, noting that “at this stage we are not changing the level of our travel advice.”
The State Department has not issued a travel warning for Egypt, though it did issue a revised one for Burundi on Tuesday. On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said that “as a precautionary measure” employees would not travel “anywhere in the Sinai Peninsula pending the outcome of the investigation into the tragic crash… The Embassy will issue another message when this measure is lifted.”
The Institute for the Study of Intelligence and Strategy said its sources have indicated that ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai, which reportedly notified Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before the attack, “may have used a sleeper agent with access to the airport in Sharm al-Sheik that the plane took off from and placed an explosive device consisting of 500 grams (a bit more than 1 lbs) of C4 disguised as luggage, although our source wasn’t sure if it was in the luggage compartment or went as a ‘carry-on.'”
“Even more disturbing is the fact that our [Egyptian Directorate of Military Intelligence] sources suspect this individual received assistance from radicalized security forces personnel,” added the intel group.
State Department press secretary John Kirby told reporters today that “the responsible thing for all of us to do right now is to let investigators do their job and not jump to conclusions and not act on rumor and speculation.”
“I think it’s also important for us to just take a step back and remember that there’s a whole lot of families right now that are going through a tough time. They just lost loved ones and friends, and they have a right to get answers to why and what happened,” Kirby said. “And I think we all need to let investigators go get those answers, and then when they do and when they report it out, then we can have a discussion about accountability if there needs to be a discussion about accountability.”
Kirby added later in the briefing that “it’s not new that there have been concerns about extremist activities in and around the Sinai.”
“That’s not a new development. In light of this plane crash, our embassy made the decision, as it is their responsibility, to limit – to restrict, in this case – U.S. government employees from traveling to the Sinai,” he said. “And I think until we know more, I think that’s the prudent thing to do. I mean, why wouldn’t you do that?”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest stressed at the daily briefing that “there are no U.S. carriers that regularly operate out of the Sinai Peninsula.”
“And in fact, the airport in question at Sharm el-Sheikh is in fact not the last point of departure into the United States for any airline, including foreign airlines that do operate in the Sinai Peninsula,” he said. “If it were the last point of departure for any aircraft operating — operating regularly in the United States, there would be a whole set of security regulations that would be imposed to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, told CNN today that the analysis “pendulum is swinging back and forth.”
“On the one hand, you have the Russians and the Egyptians who not want this to have been a bomb. The Russians, for obvious reasons, they’re trying to keep their populous engaged with the idea that they should be in Syria,” Risch said. “And the Egyptians, they have a tremendous financial interest in this…between Sharm El Sheikh and the pyramids, they account for a tremendous amount of revenue for the Egyptian government.”
“This is a lesson for the United States, right here and right now, and that is if they’re going to do this to Russia, they’re going to do this to us… ISIS is going to do everything they can to reach out and reach Americans.”