Key evidence in fatal EgyptAir crash points to terrorist cause

French and Egyptian leaders vow close co-operation after 66 die over Mediterranean

French police  at Charles de Gaulle airport: The crash of the EgyptAir flight coincided with the extension of France’s state of emergency for the third time since the November 13th, 2015, attacks that killed 130 people. Photograph: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

French police at Charles de Gaulle airport: The crash of the EgyptAir flight coincided with the extension of France’s state of emergency for the third time since the November 13th, 2015, attacks that killed 130 people. Photograph: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

 

French and Egyptian officials consider terrorism to be the most likely cause of the crash of EgyptAir flight MS804 over the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday morning.

“We have a duty to know everything,” French president François Hollande said. “Once we know the truth, we will draw conclusions, whether it’s an accident or another hypothesis that is in all our minds, perhaps a terrorist hypothesis.”

The Egyptian minister for civil aviation Sherif Fathy, speaking at a press conference in Cairo, said “The situation may . . . lead us to think that the probability, the possibility, of an action on board, of a terrorist attack, is higher than that of a technical failure.”

The head of the Russian intelligence service FSB, Alexandre Bortnikov, said the crash was “in all probability” due to a terrorist act.

The suddenness of the plane’s disappearance and the lack of a distress call (though the Egyptians made contradictory statements on the question) were consistent with a bomb. 

Last October 31st , a Russian charter carrying 224 passengers from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh crashed over the Sinai desert. It was later found to have been downed by a bomb in a soda can, planted on the flight by an Egyptian affiliated with Islamic State.

Armed to teeth

Although the pilot and co-pilot had an aggregate of more than 9,000 hours of flying experience, the possibility of a suicide pilot is always considered. An EgyptAir co-pilot crashed a Los Angeles – Cairo flight in October 1999, after saying repeatedly, “I entrust myself to God.”

No one would be surprised if Islamic State, also known as Isis, claimed responsibility for the crash. Bringing down a Paris-Cairo flight would strike two of the group’s main enemies with a single blow. French and Egyptian citizens comprised three-quarters of the 66 dead, with 15 and 30 victims respectively.

Recent parliamentary testimony by Patrick Calvar, the director general of the French domestic intelligence agency DGSI, shed light on the threat from Islamic State and may have been premonitory.

France remains “the most threatened country”, Calvar said. “We know that Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for Islamic State] is planning further attacks and that France is clearly threatened . . . We risk being confronted with a new form of attack.”

In Brussels on March 22nd, Islamic State abandoned the mass shootings that were its hallmark last year in favour of bombings. Calvar predicted “a terrorist campaign characterised by explosive devices in places where there are large crowds, to create a climate of panic”.

France expects 2.5 million people to attend football matches in stadiums and some 7.5 million to watch from “fan zones” in 10 host cities during the Euro 2016 championships from June 10th-July 10th. 

The crash of the EgyptAir flight coincided with the extension of France’s state of emergency for the third time since the November 13th, 2015, attacks that killed 130 people. “The organisation of the Euro 2016 and the Tour de France this summer forces us to redouble our vigilance,” interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. “These popular events on an international scale are potential targets for terrorists.”

The US-led coalition estimates Islamic State has lost 45 per cent of the territory it held in Iraq, and 20 per cent of the areas it controlled in Syria. The killing of more than 200 Shia Muslims in and around Baghdad in recent days is seen as a diversion from the group’s military setbacks. Bringing down an airliner could serve the same purpose.

Constant surveillance

On May 9th, prime minister Manuel Valls announced a new anti-terrorism plan that includes constant surveillance of personnel in sensitive posts. 

Some 85,000 people hold security clearances for Roissy airport, where security checks, baggage-handling and janitorial duties tend to be carried out by north African Arabs and black Africans, many of whom are Muslim. The Paris airport authority last December withdrew clearances from 70 employees it claimed had been radicalised.

President François Hollande has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Egypt, allying himself closely with its president, Abdel-Fattah el- Sissi, to whom France sold more than €5 billion worth of fighter jets, a frigate and missiles last year.

The two leaders promised close co-operation in the wake of the EgyptAir crash. Three French investigators from the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses , which investigates air crashes, left for Cairo with an Airbus technician yesterday . Egypt’s record for poor airline security and a longstanding penchant for disinformation, especially regarding terrorist attacks, could fray the Franco- Egyptian friendship.

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