Global Independent Analytics
Ioannis Mantzikos
Ioannis Mantzikos

Location: Greece

Specialization: Jihadist Groups, Islamic Terrorism, Global Security

Egypt Air Flight 804: What happened and what it means

Security has always been a “people, process, and technology” business, and it appears more than ever that advanced technology needs to be applied uniformly across the entire global aviation sector, as well as other vulnerable sectors to detect evolving threats.

Egypt Air Flight 804 vanished from the radar after it left Paris for Cairo with 66 people aboard, the airline said on May 19, 2016. The plane was flying at 37,000 feet when it lost ground contact above the Mediterranean Sea. Before it took off from France, the doomed plane made stops in Eritrea’s capital Asmara, Cairo, Tunis, and then again Cairo, before heading to Paris. Experts say security is less rigorous at these airports, but connecting flights in Paris are supposed to be subjected to stringent security checks to make sure that explosives smuggled aboard the plane or concealed on the body of a passenger would be detected before they could be detonated.

According to CNN, Greek air-traffic controllers said the plane “swerved 90 degrees left and then 360 degrees to the right” before plunging.  The airliner fell from the sky at a cruise altitude of 37,000 feet. Modern airliners simply do not do this without something catastrophic happening. The plane was in good shape with no known safety issues, and it gave no distress signal as it plunged down. There was no sign of a mid-air collision. According to analysts, the “first suspect” in the downing of the plane has to be terrorism, and if so, it had to be a bomb on board. The altitude was too high (and too far out in the middle of the ocean) for standard shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapons.

Three air marshals were on board. That sounds like a lot, but apparently Egypt Air had been ratcheting up security. Nevertheless, according to New York Times, the United States has not ruled out any possible causes for the crash, including mechanical failure, terrorism or a deliberate act by the pilot or crew. Reports that wreckage has been found floating in the eastern Mediterranean were later denied by Egyptian officials. Once they are found, as they will be, given the increasing indications that a bomb caused the disaster, an urgent priority for investigators will be to look for evidence in the wreckage.

The first thing to note is that the plane flew from Paris, where we know that there are active Islamist terror cells. This brings to the surface the question of Egypt Air’s readiness level. The head of France's internal intelligence agency Patrick Calvar had warned that France was being 'clearly targeted' by ISIS a week before the flight took off. Under EU rules, planes arriving from outside the European Union must be searched after landing, from the cargo hold to the cockpit to the toilets. Therefore, in the case of the Egypt Air flight, the responsibility for the searches falls on the airline that operates the plane and not on a local police or airport security. (Often airlines hire contractors to carry out the search).

The possibility that groups like the Islamic State - which was responsible for the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people - could have sympathizers working at the airport who are willing to act on its behalf — has remained a constant concern for authorities.

French officials said 57 people working at the airport had their security clearances revoked between January and November 2015. Police also searched thousands of employee lockers looking not only for drugs and weapons but also for extremist religious propaganda. After the Paris attacks, authorities announced they were reviewing the files of about 86,000 employees at Charles de Gaulle who had permits to enter a secure “reserved zone.” Based on the review, officials reportedly rescinded the security clearances of about a dozen staff members.

There has not been a credible claim yet by any terrorist group that it was responsible. But ever since the al-Qa`ida operative in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the so-called “underwear bomber”), came close to blowing up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit with a PETN explosive device built by the skillful Saudi bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, there has been heightened concern about the terrorist threat to passenger jets and the development and proliferation of advanced bomb-making techniques. In October 2010, the Saudi terrorist al-Asiri, probably the world’s best bomb-maker, constructed a very difficult-to-detect IED by using printer cartridges to conceal 400 grams of PETN that were timed to go off in mid-flight on two U.S.-bound cargo aircraft. Al-Asiri is also believed to have been behind another plot to bomb a U.S.-bound plane - thwarted in April 2012 - because the suicide bomber selected for the operation was a double agent working for Saudi and British intelligence.

However, despite a media narrative of terrorists developing “undetectable bombs,” it is very difficult to beat the latest generation of machines and scanners, including explosive trace detection (ETD), especially when these are combined as part of a “layered” approach to security. Indeed, the largest vulnerability facing the global aviation sector today is not master bomb makers beating current detection systems, but the opportunity for terrorist groups to recruit airport insiders, in both developed and developing countries, who either are likely to receive less scrutiny from fellow airport staff at security checkpoints than passengers or can evade screening altogether.

If the flight was brought down by a bomb, the timing of the blast could be a part of the signature of the bomb-maker. Was it timed to detonate specifically at the only place on the Egypt Air jet’s route when it was over water? The retrieval of the wreckage and, particularly, of the flight data recorders, is far more difficult with a plunge into the sea than when the airplane falls in plain sight over land. On the other hand, counter-terrorism experts have always believed that bombers would rather bring down a jet over land and, ideally, over a city - for maximum effect. This indeed was the intention of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - the underpants bomber - on Christmas Day 2009, as he was hoping the plane would crash in Detroit.

If terrorism is confirmed to have downed the plane, it will represent a new, and dangerous, escalation of militants’ capability to hit the West. This is also true since terrorist groups have attempted to share techniques with a broader jihadist audience, which means any sympathizer can be taught to carry out a terror attack. In late 2014, for example, AQAP’s Inspire magazine published detailed instructions on how to manufacture and conceal “non-metallic” explosives to target passenger planes. Their logic was that if enough supporters built such devices, some would get through security. While the instructions on their own may not lead to the construction of a viable device, it does point to their intent to inspire actions that disrupt and terrorize.

Why Egypt?

ISIS militants have had their eyes on Egypt for a long time. We should not exclude the possibility that Egypt Air was targeted in order to halt the anti-terror operations of Egyptian President Sisi in Sinai. The current uptick in the jihadist insurgency began in summer of 2013 after the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist elected in the previous year. To expand its presence in Egypt, since 2014, ISIS has been both communicating with and coaching Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Egypt’s deadliest militant group. ISIS and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis are linked on an ideological level. On July 2015, Jihadists aligned with ISIS have carried out a series of devastating assaults in Egypt’s Sinai province, following earlier attacks elsewhere in the country. The wave of raids launched on military and police targets left at least 64 Egyptian soldiers dead and signaled a frightening upsurge in a jihadist activity that suggests ISIS is growing in power inside the most populous Arab state, Egypt.

In May 2016, ISIS launched a massive media campaign in support of the insurgency in Sinai. Officials from 14 of its so-called provinces in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, released videos promoting an Egyptian affiliate group named Sinai Province. The videos feature typical ISIS themes, such as condemnations of apostate Arab and Western governments, glorification of successful attacks, and praise for martyred brethren.

Security has always been a “people, process, and technology” business, and it appears more than ever that advanced technology needs to be applied uniformly across the entire global aviation sector, as well as other vulnerable sectors to detect evolving threats. When many terrorist attacks take place in western countries that imply two things: that there is very weak intelligence on Islamists operating in western cities, and that at a time of the migration-tsunami many terrorists have managed to infiltrate Europe without being deported or arrested. While state-of-the-art technology is good at detecting explosives, the concern is that terrorist capabilities are challenging our technological capability to detect the latest threats, especially when terrorists may be aided by insiders working at airports.

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