What brought down the Russian jet in Egypt?

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik

Dr. Theodore Karasik

By : Dr. Theodore Karasik

The tragic crash of Russian airliner Kolavia/Metrojet’s Flight 9268, an Airbus A321-200, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in southern Arish killing 224 people illuminates key security and economic issues. The site is spread over nearly 20 square kilometers and is the worst crash in Russian aviation history.

The fact that the jet crashed 23 minutes after takeoff, apparently on auto-pilot at 31,000 feet and rising, and dropped out of the sky in less than 30 seconds, is raising questions about what exactly happened. It seems the jet experienced a catastrophic failure. The plane blew up in the sky. No one will know the exact cause of the disaster one hundred percent until the appropriate forensics are completed and released to the public. Even then, there will likely be skeptics.

Of course, conspiracy theories and sickening calls of triumph erupted immediately. The crash occurred over the Sinai Peninsula, home to the ISIS’s Sinai Province. Social media erupted with congratulations that the Russians were taught a lesson for their intervention in Syria and the killing of Syrian Muslims by airstrikes. Some even invoked the horrible memory of Aminat Nagayeva and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova, the two “Chechen black widows” who allegedly destroyed two Russian jets mid-flight in 2004 in revenge for the killing of their husbands by Russian security forces.

Later in the day, ISIS media claimed responsibility for the downing of the jet, saying that the group “brought down” the plane. I believe that assertion is false given that Flight 9268 was way above the threshold height of 15,000 feet for a man portable air defense system (MANPADS) missile to shoot the jet down. Sinai Province is not known to be in possession of weaponry than that can shoot above 15,000 feet.

Let’s be clear: There are reportedly eight MANPADS variants in ISIS hands. While most are Soviet-era models, the Russian Federation command guided SA-24 and Chinese FN-6 have been sighted among ISIS’ arsenal over the past few years. Their batteries are likely drained and unable to be fired accurately or successfully. Other MANPADS versions –1st generation infrared and reticle scan– on the regional black market are incapable of solid operation too. A hypothetical MANPAD attack on a commercial aircraft can only be done on take-off or landing around an airport. Local force protection measures prevent this event from occurring if there is any serious means and intent by extremists.

I also believe it is unlikely that a passenger was responsible: The flight was a charter aircraft through St. Petersburg tourist companies. Russian security for its citizens travelling is tight, although baggage can be tampered with.

Of course, conspiracy theories and sickening calls of triumph erupted immediately

Theodore Karasik

Nevertheless, a number of airline companies, Lufthansa, Air France, and other airlines, are now avoiding flying over the Sinai Peninsula as a general precaution but also to avoid a conflict zone –where the Egyptian army is confronting Sinai Province on a daily basis– until the crash cause is ascertained. This action is a now a normal procedure by the bulk of the aviation industry around the world. Meanwhile, British Airways and Ryanair are continuing their flying over the Sinai to Sharm el-Sheikh. But the move by some carriers also means that re-routing means longer flights and more fuel costs. We are already seeing the economic impact for airline companies of closed airspaces in and around Syria and parts of Iraq, for the past few years.

The quick response of Russian and Egyptian authorities to Flight 9268 is dramatic. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM) immediately dispatched over 100 personnel of its rescue and recovery responders. EMERCOM’s rapid response outside of Russia to Egypt illustrates Moscow’s capacity and capability in the immediacy of the crisis.

Serious economic interests

Both Moscow and Cairo have serious economic interests at stake. Specifically, the Russians and the Egyptian are both interested against the catastrophe focusing on a plane diversion or a terrorist attack. The Kremlin is involved militarily and politically in Syria and with close ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, do not want this event to get out of control in their info-sphere. Russia is now a partner with Egypt in a number of economic arenas including the defense realm.

For Egypt, the security threat to their tourism hub can decimate the industry in Sharm el-Sheikh. Sisi, speaking to high-ranking army officers, asked them to observe a moment of silence before urging the public not to jump to conclusions. He said: “This is a complicated matter and requires advanced technologies and broad investigations that could take months.” The longer the investigation takes, the more doubt there will be about security and safety in Egypt. Cairo doesn’t want security flaws out in the public especially if there is proved to be a problem at Sharm el-Sheikh airport. Both accidents and attacks are claiming the lives of tourists to Egypt. That’s bad news for Egyptian business continuity.

Finally, Russian authorities are looking at Metrojet closely: Not only the owners of the company and their maintenance records but also background checks on employees. The airline has violated safety standards before and has been fined by Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee. The airplane itself, 17 years old, suffered a “tail strike” more than a dozen years ago upon landing in Cairo that corrupted the fuselage. In addition, it should be pointed out that this particular aircraft type— the Airbus—is a foreign aircraft in Russia, so maintenance is expensive due to the weak ruble and thus, the company may have tried to cut costs, thereby affecting the upkeep of the airplane’s engines.

Clearly, this catastrophe will resonate for some time to come. In 2004, Flash Airlines Flight 603 took off and crashed from Sharm El-Sheikh killing 135 French nationals. The findings of the investigation were disagreed upon by the investigating countries including terrorism claims by a Yemeni group versus mechanical failure. Now, like other airliner disasters– the two recent disasters with Malaysia Airlines come to mind– the Metrojet disaster exposes a multitude of issues that are not only important for Russia and Egypt, but the region as well.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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