“The investigations are still in progress. We cannot rule out any theory.”
The official statement sums up the Egyptian position on the ongoing investigation into the cause of the Russian airbus crash in which 217 passengers and seven crew members lost their lives.
The statement, though, did not satisfy many Western countries which proceeded to issue their own pronouncements on the basis of a parallel intelligence investigation that has narrowed its focus to a single theory — that the plane was downed by a bomb smuggled on board by the so-called Islamic State (IS) Sinai Province.
Following the crash, an international technical investigatory committee was formed to work in tandem with Western and Israeli intelligence agencies that favour the theory that the crash was a terrorist act.
None of this was coordinated with Egypt. The development took place despite the existence of a 58-member investigatory commission, comprising 47 investigators and 11 advisors.
Ayman Al-Muqaddam, the head of the technical investigative committee, told a press conference on Saturday that five teams have been formed to analyse the recordings of the black boxes, examine the crash site, study information related to the crew and navigation and meteorological conditions, review the aircraft’s aviation systems and examine all medical and forensic evidence.
“The Egyptian government invited representatives from Russia, as the country operating the plane, Ireland as the country where the aircraft was registered, and France and Germany as the countries that designed and built the plane. It also called in advisors from the manufacturers [Airbus]. I represent Egypt and chair the investigative committee,” said Al-Muqaddam.
Al-Muqaddam said the fact that the debris of the aircraft was scattered over more than 13 square kilometres points to it breaking up in mid-air. He added that a noise, audible in the last moments of the plane’s flight on the cockpit voice recorder downloaded from the black box, requires closer analysis in specialised labs. The technical team also needs to examine the memory of the airplane’s computers which might contain crucial recorded data.
Al-Muqaddam stressed that preliminary observations of the wreckage were insufficient to determine the cause of the fracturing of the body of the plane. He added that the aircraft’s black boxes were found on the same day of the crash and that their contents had been downloaded successfully.
He underlined that the committee had obtained no information or evidence to corroborate any specific scenario and was not yet in a position to draw definitive conclusions.
In a related development, Sputnik news agency reported that the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee announced on 8 November that the airplane’s black box did not register any data suggesting a malfunction in the aircraft’s equipment or control systems before it crashed.
The committee reported that until the parametric recorder, which tracks the performance of the plane’s equipment and flight systems, abruptly stopped working, the plane was flying at a normal altitude of 9,400 metres and everything appeared normal.
This, the Russian news agency reported, seemed to confirm the theory that a sudden explosion occurred on board causing the plane to break-up in the air.
On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that a “terrorist attack” was a possible cause of the crash. However, Medvedev stressed that the investigation was ongoing.
While the procedures followed by the lead investigator are consistent with international investigations of aviation disasters, the behaviour of some Western nations has raised eyebrows.
As many Egyptian sources observed, incomprehensibly hasty and exaggerated decisions and statements on the part of some governments appeared politically motivated. The clearest example of this was the sudden decision on the part of London and Moscow to conduct emergency evacuations of their citizens from Sharm El-Sheikh.
More curious is the fact that countries that claim they have intelligence pointing to the plane being downed by a bomb have not shared this information with Cairo.
“There is a problem with the attitudes of these countries towards Egypt,” a former senior official in Egyptian General Intelligence told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“What is one to make of Britain’s behaviour when the [Egyptian] president was there on an official visit and the British government came out with all those statements and positions? The president was surprised by the British stance which made it seem to him as if the whole visit was about the crash and about human rights issues.”
Nurhan Al-Sheikh, professor of political science at Cairo University and an expert on Russian affairs, points out that the Egyptian handling of the crash was itself confused.
“The Egyptian position from the outset was to exclude the possibility of a terrorist attack. We failed to understand that Moscow was approaching the case on the basis of the worst scenario. The impression was left that Britain was more concerned for Russia than Egypt. Why is it that no senior Egyptian official has travelled to Russia to pay respects and attend the funeral ceremony of the victims?”
Al-Sheikh notes that when UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced on 5 November that he had information that he had passed on to Russia, Egypt appeared uninterested.
“It was as though it only wanted to deal with one scenario — that the plane crashed because of some technical flaw — despite evidence suggesting the opposite.”
London: The theory that a bomb was planted aboard the Russian aircraft by IS Sinai Province was given impetus by a report in the British Sunday Times that British intelligence had been keeping Abu Osama Al-Masry, the head of IS, under surveillance.
The report said that British intelligence suspected that Al-Masry engineered the smuggling of an explosive substance or bomb on board the Russian plane. According to the report, Whitehall officials confirmed that Britain would help Egypt or Russia in a “kill or capture” mission.
“Such a move could involve the deployment of the SAS to Egypt,” it wrote, adding that British intelligence officials were convinced that someone inside the Sharm El-Sheikh airport had assisted Al-Masry by planting a bomb inside a suitcase belonging to one of the passengers.
The newspaper reported that British intelligence had obtained a voice print of Abu Osama Al-Masri and that it matched that of the voice claiming IS responsibility for the crash.
Britain has been urging Egypt to tighten security measures at Sharm El-Sheikh airport since 2013. An employee at the Egyptian Aviation Ministry told the Weekly that the Egyptian government had consistently implemented all recommendations, adding that a team of British specialists had visited Sharm El-Sheikh seven times to follow up on the UK’s recommendations and had supplied Egypt with ten modern explosives detectors.
Washington and Tel Aviv: Israeli TV 2 reported on Saturday that security sources had confirmed to CNN that Israeli intelligence had intercepted and recorded conversations between IS in Sinai members and had transmitted them to the UK and US.
According to the Israeli television station, these recordings were the intelligence on which Britain and the US based their assumption that the Russian plane crash was most likely caused by a bomb.
US officials confirmed to CNN that Israeli intelligence had picked up the conversations and transmitted them to the UK and US. They added that the US was consulting with Egypt and Russia on sending an FBI team to participate in the investigations.
Both an American official who has seen the US intelligence reports and a diplomatic source confirmed that some of the recordings used to assess IS’s role in the crash came from Israel.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon announced on Monday that Israel believes that militants caused the crash of the Russian passenger plane. A spokesman for Yaalon told Israeli reporters: “There is a high probability, from what we understand, that this was a terrorist attack — the highest of probabilities.”
“While there is a clear security component in Egyptian-Israeli relations. the level of existing security coordination does not guarantee that Israel will supply information directly to Egypt,” Tarek Fahmi, a specialist in Israeli affairs at the National Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, told the Weekly.
“In fact it does the opposite. It is perfectly happy to send general messages, about the possibility of something happening in Sinai, for instance. But in the end it wants to internationalise the situation in Sinai and promote the idea that there is a security vacuum there,” said Fahmi.
“Indeed, the situation has reached the point of Israel suggesting joint manoeuvres with Egypt. With regard to the plane, Israel furnished information to the US, which forwarded it to London, and the latter provided its ‘conclusions’ to Russia. All this serves Israel’s interests.”
Germany: The German government, too, has embraced the bomb theory. Analyses of the recordings from the black box that indicate that the plane was technically sound until the moment it broke up reinforce the theory, according to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s state-run international broadcaster.
Other German media outlets have confirmed that Berlin has joined other Western capitals in assuming a bomb is the most likely cause of the crash. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung cited a senior German security source saying that all available evidence points to the plane crash being caused by “a bomb planted by the IS terrorist organisation.”
France: France’s TV2 quoted a member of the investigative team in Egypt saying that the recorder on the aircraft had caught the sound of a violent explosion before the aircraft fell to the ground.
Egypt faces a major crisis regarding the handling of crash of the Russian passenger plane. If part of this crisis stems from the way Egypt managed it, as is suggested by some observers, there are also problems connected with the behaviour of Western governments.
Their exaggerated reactions, together with the refusal to bring Egypt into the loop when it comes to intelligence information, gives the impression of a lack of trust between many Western capitals and Cairo.
*This story was originally published in Ahram Weekly on 12 November 2015