Tragedy in the Mediterranean

Egypt is hurting – tourist arrivals, one of its biggest sources of foreign currency, have slumped by more than 40 per cent since the bombing of a Russian jetliner

 

It says much about the world we live in that the mid-air explosion aboard EgyptAir’s Flight MS804 from Paris, and the deaths of 66 passengers and crew in the Mediterranean, was almost immediately being scrutinised in the context of the vulnerability to terrorism of our airports and international transportation. These vital mass transport hubs play a central part in modern society and are an ever-more important aspect of our way of life. Their function of congregating and then dispersing within hours hundreds of thousands of travellers every day, and the inevitability that they will be staffed by thousands of workers from every walk of life, makes them accessible targets for terrorism.

The challenge involved is one of the key dilemmas of our time – movement will be suffocated and airports will become incapable of functioning if security is ramped up sufficiently to make them utterly impermeable. Is there a point at which we accept and acknowledge the impossibility of the task of 100 per cent securing airports, without condoning complacency or incompetence where it does exist, and instead set ourselves explicitly the realistic task of minimising risk rather than eliminating it? Politically such realism may be inexpressible but it may become a reality, just as the long-unspoken “acceptable level of violence” was in the North.

We cannot be certain yet that this was indeed a terrorist attack nor who might have been responsible nor where any bomb – if there was such a device – might have been loaded. But what we know of the cataclysmic, almost instantaneous nature of the flight’s mid-air “event”, its plunge from 37,000 feet and then disappearance, points in that direction. And Islamic State has considerable form. It has targeted airports, airliners and tourist sites in Europe, Egypt, Tunisia and other Middle East countries over the past few years. Despite official caution, Egypt’s aviation minister admitted yesterday a terrorist attack was more likely to have taken down the aircraft than a technical failure.

Last October, the downing of a Russian jet – an Airbus A321 operated by Russia’s Metrojet – was almost certainly the work of IS which claimed responsibility for smuggling an explosive device on board. The plane crashed in the Sinai minutes after it took off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board.

And Egypt has been a particular target. It has been waging a ferocious campaign against both IS and supporters of the more moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as army chief, toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The country is hurting – tourist arrivals, one of its biggest sources of foreign currency have slumped by more than 40 per cent since the bombing of the Russian jetliner.

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