Moscow and Egypt Part Company in Responses to the Islamist Challenge
After Metrojet Flight 9268 disappeared from radar screens at 6:15 A.M. on Saturday, Oct. 31, and all attempts by Egyptian and Cypriot control towers to contact the plane failed, the Russian and Egyptian governments surrendered to their first instinct, which was to cover up the crash – or at least, gain time to gather their wits from the shock.
They did this by weaving between conflicting accounts: The aviation authorities in Egypt and Russia first announced that contact with the plane had been reestablished and it was safely transiting Turkish skies en route to its destination at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg. Soon afterwards, they reported the plane already in Cypriot airspace, even though the burnt fragments of the plane were already scattered across the desolate Bir al-Hasana area in central Sinai and 224 passengers and crew were dead.
So far, Russian transports have flown home just 130 bodies and 40 partial remains of victims. Some can only be identified by DNA testing. Others may never be identified or even found at all.
The crash site lies just 20 kilometers from the Jabal al Halal mountain range, stronghold of the Sinai Ansar Beit al Maqdis terrorist group that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.
Deadliest air disaster of the year, and worst for Russia
The Russian Airbus 321 crash was the deadliest air disaster of 2015 and the most calamitous in Egyptian aviation history – worse even than the Flash Airlines Flight 604 crash of 2004. For Russia, it broke all records of aviation fatalities, even compared with the 1985 Aeroflot Flight 7425 tragedy. It was also the first time any Airbus A321 had dropped out of the sky in this manner.
On Monday, Nov. 2, the first hints came from government sources in Moscow that an act of terror may have been the cause of the disaster. Dmitri Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that the Kremlin had not ruled out the possibility that the crash was the result of a terrorist attack.
Several Western and Gulf airlines then announced the rerouting of their flights to avoid Sinai: They were followed by a warning from the US, Britain and Germany advising their country’s airlines and pilots to maintain an altitude of no lower than 26,000 feet when flying over Sinai, and to avoid the Sharm el-Sheikh airport due to extremist violence.
This warning explicitly mentioned the threat of anti-aircraft weapons capable of striking targets at high altitudes – the first indication that the plane was widely believed to have been shot down by a missile.
They were probably referring to the Russian-made Buk missile system, which may have made its first appearance in Sinai. (See separate article on this weapon)
ISIS claim dismissed as “not verified”
At the same time, the disputes going back and forth among officials and aviation experts over the precise cause of the disaster gave the Egyptians and Russians an alibi for ducking away from hitting back at the Islamist terrorists who took responsibility for the disaster.
The ISIS statement was clear: "The fighters of the Islamic State were able to down a Russian plane over Sinai province that was carrying over 220 Russian crusaders…You should know, Russians and your allies, that you have no security on Muslim land or its airspace… The daily murder of scores of innocents in Syria by your air bombardments will bring upon you disasters… Just as you kill, so you will be killed…”
This claim was treated with skepticism in Cairo and Moscow and also in Beirut and Western capitals, which trotted out the standard evasion that the Islamist claim had not been verified.
This pretext has often served as an excuse for those officials to say they can’t verify the ISIS buildup in Sinai, its links with Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in eastern Libya or the convoys bearing advanced anti-aircraft missiles smuggled in from there a year ago.
A surreal situation unfolded this week in Sinai, whereby the local branch of the Islamic State carried on functioning as usual, its command centers, arms depots and fighters unscathed, just 20 kilometers from the widely scattered black and gutted remains of the Airbus A321.
DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources report that the ISIS-Sinai command, boosted since early this year by former officers of the Iraqi army who served the brutal Saddam Hussein, and high-profile Ansar al Sharia terrorists from mainland Egypt and Libya, dived into hiding places deep in the heart of the mountains straight after the crash. They feared retribution, but it never came.
Islamists go to ground in Sinai’s “Tora Bora”
Those bunkers, caves and tunnels have won Jabal al Halal the nickname of “Tora Bora of Sinai”- after the rugged mountainous area where Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants went to ground after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The Egyptian army has never ventured into this forbidding eminence 900 meters above sea level to directly confront ISIS, neither during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak nor the incumbent President Abdel–Fattah El-Sisi. Planes and helicopters are useless against the caves and tunnels riddling the mountains, which provide safe sanctuary for fugitives. The few times that small Egyptian armored units attempted to reach these warrens, terrorists at superior vantage points were able to destroy the tanks and kill most of the commanders.
Egypt’s leaders are not ready to give up.
For two years, they have engaged in endless palaver with US defense and intelligence authorities on ways and means for putting a stop to the terrorist blight plaguing the Sinai Peninsula. But no real war plans have come out of those discussions, except for the placement of sensor systems and electronic monitoring posts the entire length of the Suez Canal to secure international shipping against terrorist attack.
Israel plays a limited role in the counter-terror effort in Sinai in as far as it is related to the links between the Islamists of the peninsula and the violent Salafi organizations in the Gaza Strip.
But Israel’s input is marginal, limited mainly to supplying intelligence and operating surveillance missions when specifically requested by the Egyptians.
Putin is concerned to keep popular support behind Syria operation
Ironically, military operations by the United States, Israel, and Egypt in Sinai skirting the ISIS stronghold have enclosed it inside a kind of security bubble in the heart of the peninsula, from which 15,000 to 18,000 jihadis can operate with relative ease.
Moscow and Cairo have worked together since the Russian airliner crashed to hide the fact that it was shot down. The Egyptian president dismissed the Islamic State claim to have downed the jet as “propaganda.”
President Putin is concerned to preserve popular support for his military campaign in Syria – so much so that Moscow went out of its way in the last week of October to explain the death of 19-year old Russian soldier Vadim Kostenko, who serviced airplanes at the Russian base in Latakia, as suicide – not as a victim of the war on terror. The bereaved family strongly objected.
If a single Russian death in Syria poses a major problem for the Kremlin, how much more sensitive are 224 deaths of innocent holidaymakers at the hands of terrorists in revenge for Putin’s Syrian operation?
Nonetheless, two days after pursuing the same line as Cairo, the Russians changed direction and started throwing out hints of a terrorist factor in the disaster.
Egypt has a record of covering up terrorist hands in air disasters
In a desperate attempt to save its tourist industry from the repercussions of a terrorist attack, Egypt is still sticking to its guns that the crash was caused by a technical fault. This is a major source of foreign currency and the Russian market is especially valuable, when three million Russian tourists visited Egypt in 2014, most of them choosing sunny winter holidays at Sharm el-Sheikh.
Officials in Cairo may think they can get away with their cover-up, because it wouldn’t be their first.
Egyptian official probes have a history of denying terrorist hands behind aviation disasters, since the loss of Egypt Air Flight 990, which dived into the Atlantic on Oct. 31, 1999, approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Nantucket Island in the US state of Massachusetts.
To this day, Cairo denies this was an act of Islamic terror, even though the pilot, Gameel Al-Batouti commandeered the cockpit shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he drove the plane down into the ocean.
On Jan. 3, 2004, Flash Airlines Flight 604, a Boeing 737-300 operated by an Egyptian charter company crashed into the Red Sea soon after takeoff from Sharm al-Sheikh airport. All 135 passengers, most of them French tourists, and 13 crew members were killed.
A multinational team of investigators failed to agree on a single cause of the disaster, but the majority concluded that the crash was the result of a terrorist attack. The death toll was the highest of any plane crash in Egypt for twelve years until Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed last week.
Moscow and Cairo at odds on post-disaster strategy
Russian officials changed course when they realized that going along with Egypt’s denial of the terrorist factor would eventually lead them into embarrassments best avoided and so they decided to start letting the Russian people start discovering the truth.
At the time of this writing, forensic testing on the victims’ remains in St. Petersburg cannot avoid revealing signs of an explosion of some kind that brought the plane down, without waiting for protracted investigations that could stretch out for years.
Egyptian medics at the scene of the crash reported that some of the bodies showed “explosive trauma” of extensive burns with their skin pierced by pieces of metal.
President El-Sisi this week accused the sources of the information that ISIS shot the plane down of seeking to destabilize his government. He dismissed the ISIS claim of responsibility as “propaganda.”
At a symposium organized by Egypt's military, El-Sisi said: "In such cases, the issue should be left to specialists, and there should be no speculation about reasons behind the crash since the issue is being extensively investigated and these are complicated technical procedures and could take months before results have been announced."
The Egyptian president obviously hopes to keep on buying time for the political and security-related shocks to die down and fade into the distant past. But he is unlikely to get away with this for long because he has no idea when, where or how ISIS will strike next.
He did not have long to wait.
ISIS missile hits two foes with one missile or bomb
Wednesday, Nov. 4, Wilayat Sinai (Sinai province of the Islamic State) released an audio message repeating its claim to have brought down the Russian jet which crashed on Saturday, and challenging the Egyptian authorities to “prove we did not.” Their modus operandi would be revealed in due course said the message, which is believed to have carried the voice of Abu Osama al-Masri, who has delivered messages for the group in the past. He claimed that the crash occurred the year after the Sinai group first pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Sources in Moscow said after the disaster, that the perpetrators of the deadly attack on the Russian airliner were bent on damaging close Russian-Egyptian relations. This assumption makes sense. The Islamic State’s leaders are fully aware of the Egyptian president’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in common with Moscow, which has intervened in the Syrian war to bolster its president.
Therefore, if it did indeed down the passenger plane over Sinai, the jihadi group hit two foes with one missile or bomb – Putin in Moscow and El-Sisi in Cairo.
The Russian president like his Egyptian colleague is on the spot. Once the truth is out, he may find himself under pressure to hit back for the brazen Islamist challenge – or change course in Syria.