What if the Egypt Air disaster was a terrorist attack?

Yesterday the world was forced to face yet again the possible spectre of terrorism.  An EgyptAir flight from Paris to Cairo suddenly plummeted into the Mediterranean near the border between Greek and Egyptian airspace, after having taken some unexpected turns.  The cause of the accident remains unclear.

I have long argued against what I call “instant analysis”, that annoying need to explain events immediately after their occurrence.  Before anything is known, “experts” weigh in on what happened and often make categorical statements, sounding sure of what they believe to have just happened.  Even Donald Trump tweeted that the downing of the aircraft was due to terrorism.  If the Donald says it is so…

Full disclosure: I have no insight and no real idea of what caused this plane to plunge into the sea, killing all aboard.  It could have been a mechanical failure, although I am no aircraft expert.  It may have been pilot error or pilot-caused: it is not as if that has not happened before (a March 2015 Germanywings crash was blamed on pilot depression and a 1999 incident involving another EgyptAir plane off the coast of New England has been linked to pilot “revenge”).

If it were terrorism, however, we need to keep a few things in mind: why and how.  Let’s start with the why.  This is not the first time an aircraft with links to Egypt has been targeted in recent history.  A Metrojet leaving Sharm el Sheikh on its way to St Petersburg was downed in a bombing claimed by IS in October 2015.  The terrorist group has not stopped making threats of new attacks.

Egypt would be a continued target for several reasons.  IS has an affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula that has been battling Egyptian security forces for some time and another airplane attack could be an attempt to ease pressure on their members in the area.  The Sisi-led military government has cracked down on Islamists of all stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood, thus inviting retaliation (there are signs that the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood are becoming more militant, although I want to stress that as of today there is NO evidence or intelligence to suggest MB involvement in this tragedy).  Egypt’s actions have only led to the creation of more enemies inside the country and abroad (as I noted almost a year ago).

Now to the “how”.  I see two possibilities so far based on the facts at hand.  This particular aircraft had stops in Asmara (Eritrea), Tunis and Cairo before its fatal takeoff from Paris on May 18.  A device could have been placed on the plane at any of these points and a delay timer installed (the perpetrators of the Air India flights in 1985 constructed bombs that did not explode until many hours later).

More worryingly is the possibility that a bomb was introduced in Paris.  French authorities have increased security, especially after the attacks  in Paris last November, but we do know that there is a significant problem with “radicalised” employees at French airports.  It is not impossible that someone with privileged access to the aircraft may have planted an explosive device.

In any event, there is much we do not know as of the morning of May 20.  Idle speculation is not helpful, although I am not so naive as to think it will end any time soon.  Whatever caused this EgyptAir flight to end tragically, the fear of more terrorism will only rise and Egypt will suffer more as tourists see that destination as too risky.

We will learn more in the days and weeks to come I hope.  At this time my thoughts and prayers go to the families of the victims of this awful loss of life.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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