On Saturday October 31, the day that the Russian Metrojet flight crashed in Sinai killing 224 people, many Western television networks and Internet sites showed a graph displaying the speed and altitude of the Airbus 321-1. It showed a sudden increase in ascent as the plane approached 30,000 feet. The jet was clearly unable to withstand the rapid change in altitude, experienced an aerodynamic stall and dropped from the sky.
Intelligence sources of DEBKA Weekly report that investigators are currently trying to determine whether the crash was due to major pilot error or an attempt to avoid a missile by suddenly lifting the Flight 3268 into a higher altitude, while aware of possible deadly consequences.
One of the theories among Russian investigators, not shared by the Egyptians, is that the pilot saw an approaching missile, tried to avoid it but caused a stall, meaning that the nose of the jet rose too sharply to maintain forward speed, causing the wings to lose lift.
This theory becomes more plausible if it is assumed that the plane broke in two and caught fire, which is what happens if a SAM missile hits a plane.
An American intelligence source said on Monday, Nov. 2, that infrared satellites passing over the Sinai Peninsula at the time of the crash did not show any sign of a missile fired at the plane. But the following day, the Americans amended their version. They reported the satellite had recorded a midair heat flash from the jet, and while ruling out a missile, allowed that a catastrophic event had occurred which could have been caused by a bomb.
A Buk missile could have reached a plane flying at high altitude
Previously, US and Russian sources ruled out a missile attack on the grounds that the Airbus jet was flying outside the range of ISIS Sinai’s shoulder-fired missiles, which are known to be mostly Russian SA-7s or American Stingers.
But DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources point out that it is very possible that the downing of the plane revealed the first use of the Buk missile system in Sinai.
The Russian-made Buk is a medium-range surface-to-air missile that can be used against smart bombs, UAVs, fixed and rotary-wing aircraft and cruise missiles, among others. It has a range of 3 km to 42 km, meaning that it could have easily downed the Russian plane, especially since a single BuK missile has a kill probability of 90-95 percent.
However, the military and intelligence circles dealing with the war on terror in the peninsula refuse to believe that ISIS-Sinai not only possesses such an advanced system, but is capable of operating it. They do not believe that the group can function like a standing army that has a number of such mobile batteries of antiaircraft missiles at its disposal.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has tried to dispel concerns regarding the parlous state of affairs in Sinai. He told the BBC on Tuesday, Nov. 3: “Believe me, the situation in Sinai – especially in this limited area (Jabal al Halal) is under our full control.”
ISIS runs a multi-branched smuggling hub from Sinai
If that is true, then the Buk missile system could not possibly be there. But those who are familiar with the security situation in Sinai know that El-Sisi’s comment reflects wishful thinking rather than the true state of affairs in the peninsula.
The jihadis of ISIS-Sinai (originally calling itself Ansar Beit Al Maqdis) are running riot in the central and northern parts of the peninsula, most of whose area is under the almost full control of Bedouin tribes. Egypt’s security authorities are fighting a losing battle against these forces. ISIS runs smuggling networks from Libya into Sinai and Egypt and has established there a hub for distributing contraband goods out to other parts of the Middle East, Africa and the Persian Gulf.
In the heart of Sinai, buried securely under the sand dunes at the foot of mountain crags, are hidden hundreds of heavy trucks and thousands of passenger vehicles that were stolen from ships or from shopping centers in Middle Eastern cities. All these vehicles were driven hundreds or thousands of kilometers to the wadis around Jabal Al Halal without any government or Egyptian security force stopping them. With the help of small bribes, the convoys pass through roadblocks unchecked.
ISIS may well have procured BuK system from its Libyan ally
Nobody knows how many of these convoys have carried weapons, including antiaircraft missiles.
The main source of the majority of the weapons and stolen merchandise is the extremist Ansar al Sharia, ISIS’s smuggling partner and close ally in Libya. It is this ferocious group that attacked the American consulate in Benghazi in September 2012 and murdered four Americans including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
From its base in eastern Libyan Benghazi, Ansar al Sharia maintains fraternal ties with Al Qaeda and ISIS cells in mainland Egypt and Sinai. To liberate eastern Libyan cities from its murderous grip, President El-Sisi earlier this year asked Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to fund an Egyptian army invasion. After hearing about the project, the Obama administration intervened and El-Sisi was persuaded to shelve it.
But its relevance to the Metrojet disaster is this: DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources report that Ansar Al Sharia bastions in Benghazi and Derna, on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Libya, have been in possession of Buk missile batteries since early 2014. Its leaders would have been more than ready to let ISIS-Sinai have the use of a couple of batteries for shooting down a Russian passenger plane if this would help destabilize El-Sisi’s regime.
Ansar al Sharia has made downing Western airliners a specialty
It would not have been the first such operation involving the ultra-violent Ansar al Sharia. On July 20, 2014, Air Algerie Flight 5017, from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso to Algiers, disappeared from radar screens about 50 minutes after takeoff and crashed in Mali. There were no survivors among the 110 passengers and six crew members on board the McDonnell Douglas MD-83.
France’s external intelligence service, the DGSE, said in a secret report on the crash to President Francois Hollande that there was a possibility that BuK missiles from Libya were used to shoot down the plane.
There is another similarity between the two disasters.
Just as the Algerian jet crashed near the remote Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains, the reputed lair of the notorious Al Qaeda terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his forces, the Russian plane crashed in an area close to Jabal al Halal, the stronghold of ISIS-Sinai.