Egypt: Reports of Terrorist Involvement in Egyptair Flight 804 Crash Remain Speculative

Thursday May. 19, 2016

Egypt: Reports of Terrorist Involvement in Egyptair Flight 804 Crash Remain Speculative

Key Judgments:
  • Egyptair (MS) Flight 804 from Paris (CDG) to Cairo (CAI) disappeared from radar at about 0230 EET May 19 and crashed into the Mediterranean Sea with 56 passengers and 10 crew members aboard. Egyptair officials stated at 1900 EET that wreckage from the aircraft had been found near the Greek island of Karpathos, but Greek officials have subsequently stated that the debris in question was not from an aircraft.
  • As of 1900 EET on May 19 there was no confirmed evidence linking the crash of MS804 to an act of terrorism.
     
  • The crash has not caused any significant disruptions to flight operations at Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG). All other Egyptair flights, including the airline's flights to and from Paris, are also operating normally.
     
  • Should the investigation into the loss of MS804 conclusively link the crash to terrorism, business and leisure travel from Europe to Egypt would likely decrease significantly, further harming Egypt's already-struggling economy.
  • Islamic State (IS) has previously demonstrated the ability to smuggle an explosive device onboard a commercial airliner, but has not previously done so at a Western European airport.

 

Current Information
 
Egyptair (MS) Flight 804 departed Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG) at 2321 CEST, approximately 35 minutes late, and was scheduled to arrive at Cairo International Airport (CAI) at 0240 EET. The flight had 56 passengers and 10 crew members onboard, including three Egyptair security personnel. The aircraft in question was an Airbus A320 that had been delivered new to the airline in 2003.
 
Reports conflict as to whether MS804 responded to a routine radio call by Greek air traffic controllers at 0227 EET as the flight passed from the Greek air traffic control region into the Egyptian air traffic control region. At 0230, air traffic controllers reportedly lost contact with the aircraft. Several reputable flight tracking websites showed the aircraft cruising at 37,000 feet when it stopped sending transponder signals. Other pilots flying in the same area at the same time reported that weather conditions were ideal.
 
Greece's defense minister stated that radar showed the aircraft turning sharply to the left, then making a 360-degree turn to the right as it descended sharply from its cruise altitude. The aircraft disappeared from radar screens as it descended through 9,000 feet. Some sources have reported that sailors aboard ships near the aircraft's last known location witnessed an explosion, but such reports are unconfirmed. Other unconfirmed reports indicate that authorities received signals from the aircraft's emergency locator beacon approximately two hours after it disappeared.
 
At 1900 EET, Egyptian authorities stated that wreckage from the aircraft had been found in the Mediterranean, but the accuracy of this claim was later questioned by Greek officials, who said the debris was not from an aircraft. Information regarding the location of the wreckage is not clear. Egyptair's statement says that the wreckage was found near the Greek island of Karpathos, which is well north of the aircraft's last known location. Other sources, however, have indicated that wreckage was found approximately 50 miles (80 km) south of the aircraft's last known location.
 
Speculation of Terrorist Involvement
 
Egyptian and Russian authorities, along with numerous media outlets, have suggested that terrorism is the most likely reason for MS804's loss. These suggestions primarily stem from a lack of evidence indicating other causes for the crash, and from the fact that both Egypt and France have been struck by major attacks by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in the past nine months. As of 1900 EET on May 19, there were no public reports of clear evidence indicating that MS804 was brought down by a terrorist attack, and any suggestions of terrorist involvement remain purely speculative.
 
Egypt's civil aviation minister stated that a terrorist attack was a more likely reason for the crash than a technical issue. The head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) also told the Interfax news agency that "in all likelihood, this is a terrorist act." None of these figures cited concrete evidence to back their claims of terrorist involvement in MS804's disappearance.
 
As of 1900 EET on May 19, neither IS, its affiliates, nor any other major terrorist group has claimed responsibility for downing MS804. Previous IS attacks have generally been accompanied by claims of responsibility; when the group's Egyptian affiliate allegedly downed Metrojet (7K) Flight 9268 over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, the group claimed responsibility for the attack within approximately 12 hours of the crash.
 
IS has previously demonstrated both the ability to smuggle an explosive device onto a commercial aircraft and to carry out attacks in Paris, France. The group has not, however, previously demonstrated the ability to get an explosive device past airport security in a Western country. Other terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have gotten explosive devices past security screeners in Western Europe in the course of attempted attacks that were later foiled, but screening measures have been upgraded since these incidents.
 
Immediate Impact
 
The MS804 crash has not had a significant immediate impact on operations at Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG) or Egyptair operations. Flight operations at CDG remain largely unaffected by the crash, and Egyptair's scheduled afternoon flight from CDG operated normally. Security measures at CDG were already elevated due to France's ongoing State of Emergency, which was implemented in the aftermath of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
 
The US State Department has stated that it does not intend to issue a Travel Warning for Egypt in response to the incident.
 
Long-term Impact
 
The long-term impact of the MS804 crash will depend on the findings of the investigation into the crash. Conclusive evidence linking the crash to a terrorist act will likely cause a significant decrease in European business and leisure travel to Egypt, which will cause major damage to Egypt's already-struggling economy. Such evidence would also likely trigger a notable increase in security measures at CDG, especially if a terrorist attack is linked to a security breach at the airport. Evidence linking the crash to a technical fault or pilot error would likely reduce the crash's impact on the Egyptian economy, but could cause a significant drop-off in passenger numbers at Egyptair.
 
Current reports indicate that the investigation will be led by the Egyptian civil aviation authorities. Responsibility for the investigation would likely shift to the Greek authorities if it is determined that the aircraft crashed in Greek territorial waters. The Egyptian civil aviation minister's relatively quick and unsubstantiated statement that the crash of MS804 was more likely a terrorist act than a technical fault reinforces concerns about the Egyptian civil aviation authorities' neutrality and prudence, even if he is ultimately proved correct.
 
Authored by: 
Maxwell Leitschuh
Eric Boger
Ed Daly
John Thorn
 
 
The value of intelligence is determined by its accuracy and timeliness. Our 24x7 global monitoring mission keeps you aware of developing and ongoing situations around the world.

Max is an Airline Safety Analyst in iJET’s Executive Decision Support (XDS) team. He is the lead author of iJET’s quarterly Airline Safety Newsletter. Max joined iJET in 2010 after working at the Library of Congress and in the US Senate. He holds a degree in International History from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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