On Tuesday, the Egyptian government announced that it is increasing security at airports over the possibility that a Russian plane departing from a Sinai resort was brought down by a bomb late last month.
A statement released by the interior ministry disclosed that “taking into consideration all possible causes behind the plane crash, including the possibility that it was targeted by a terrorist attack, the Egyptian authorities have enhanced security measures in all airports.” The country’s’ interior ministry further disclosed on Tuesday that there was a review of screening measures for passengers and luggage, “and enhancement of search procedures for passengers and workers upon entry into the airport.” The ministry added that “security sweeps” of airplanes would be conducted as well as “reviews of flight crews’ security permits.” The release of the statement came as an Egyptian minister disclosed that a probe into the crash had yet to reach any final conclusions pertaining to the disaster. Speaking at a news conference, Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal stated that “until now the (investigation) committee has not yet arrived to any results indicating the cause of the crash.” The remarks came shortly after officials in Russia announced that a bomb had brought down the aircraft. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB, disclosed Tuesday that the conclusion of Russian investigators was that a homemade bomb containing around 1 kg (2 lbs) of TNT had detonated during the flight, which caused the plane to break up in mid air. He further stated that “we can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act.”
The plane, which was flown by Russian firm Kogalymavia, came down shortly after take off from resort Sharm el-Sheikh on 31 October. All 224 people on board were killed in what is Russia’s worst air disaster. The crash prompted Britain to restrict flights to the resort, and Moscow to all Egyptian airports while barring the country’s national carrier EgyptAir from Russia.
It is now known how a bomb would have been smuggled on the plane before it set off from the popular Red Sea resort, however there have been suspicions that it was an inside job. Two security officials and an airport employee disclosed on Tuesday that Egyptian authorities have detained two employees of Sharm el-Sheikh airport for questioning in connection with the downing of the Russian jet. One of the security officials has indicated that “seventeen people are being held, two of them are suspected of helping whoever planted the bomb on the plane at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.” The other security official has disclosed that CCTV footage showed a baggage handler carrying a suitcase from an airport building to another man, who was loading luggage onto the doomed airliner from beneath the plane on the runway. Meanwhile an employee at the airport media department has also confirmed that two members of the ground crew had been detained for questioning on Monday night. It currently remains unclear what role the employees had at the airport, which is the third largest in the country and which handles a vast number of charter and budget flights for tourists visiting the southern Sinai peninsula. In a statement however, the interior and civil aviation ministries’ media departments denied that there had been any arrests.
Separately, other sources at the airport have reported that security forces were searching for two employees who are suspected of leaving a baggage-scanning machine unattended for a period of time while passengers were boarding the Russian plane. Sources have indicated that CCTV footage is being examined in order to confirm what occurred. Sources however have reported that investigators had questioned all the airport staff involved with handling the Russian plane, its passengers and bags after the accident. So far, no arrests have been made in the search for the two employees who were believed to have stepped away from the baggage-scanning machine.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has previously stated that failures in security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport may have enabled the attack. According to Hammond, “you don’t need a sophisticated capability to get a small bomb, and that’s all you need to bring down an aircraft, a small bomb with a straightforward timer,” adding that “sadly there are many, many people who can do that. The issue is about getting it air side in an airport that is supposed to be secure…Where this points the finger is at the capability of the security on the ground at Sharm el-Sheikh.”
Days after authorities dismissed claims that the Islamic State (IS) Group brought down a Russian passenger jet on Saturday, a US intelligence analysis has now suggested that either the terror group or one of its affiliates planted a bomb on the plane. On Thursday, Britain also disclosed that there was a significant possibility that IS’ Egyptian affiliate was behind a suspected bomb attack on the Russian airliner that killed 224 people in the Sinai Peninsula. Russia, however, has indicated that such theories remain speculation at this stage, adding that only the official investigation can determine what occurred. Egyptian officials have also disclosed that so far, there is no indication that a bomb was to blame.
On Saturday, Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula after breaking apart in mid-air. It was en route to St Petersburg from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Multiple US officials have indicated that the latest US intelligence has suggested that the crash was most likely caused by a bomb that was planted on the plane by IS or an affiliate. One US official has indicted that intelligence also suggests that someone at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport helped get a bomb onto the plane. The official disclosed that “this airport has lax security. It is known for that…But there is intelligence suggesting an assist from someone at the airport.” Officials however have stressed that no formal conclusion has been reached by the US intelligence community and that US officials have not seen forensic evidence from the crash investigation.
Egyptian authorities who are leading the investigation into the crash, have not publicly responded to the US intelligence reports however since the crash, they have downplayed the possibility that this could have been a terrorist attack. Both Egypt and Russia have also stated that any theories are “speculation.”
In the wake of the crash, late on Wednesday, the UK announced that it has suspended flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh. Ireland and the Netherlands have also banned flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh. On Thursday, German airline Lufthansa announced that its subsidiaries Edelweiss and Eurowings are stopping all flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. On Saturday, the airline reported that its planes would no longer fly over the Sinai Peninsula. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, has disclosed that Russian planes are still flying to and from Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated in the wake of the UK suspending flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh, that it could be “some time” before all British tourists stranded in the tourist destination are home. Sources have disclosed that UK security experts are working with local authorities in order to get Britons home. Monarch airlines has reported that three “rescue flights” will operate on Friday. The airline further indicated that the flights would be in addition to its two scheduled flights. British Airways has also confirmed that it will operate two flights. There are an estimated 20,000 Britons in the Red Sea resort, including 1,000 residents. Extra UK consular staff have been drafted in to Sharm el-Sheikh aiport while a Ministry of Defense source has disclosed that a small team of UK military personnel are in the resort in order to advise Foreign Office officials and Department of Transport officials on logistics and security.
If a bomb did kill 224 passengers and crew aboard the Airbus A321, that would almost certainly undermine Egypt’s tourism industry, which is still recovering from years of political turmoil. On Thursday, security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport appeared to have been tightened, with security forces patrolling the terminals and not allowing drivers, tour agents or others to loiter while awaiting tourist arrivals.
Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has indicated that claims, put forth by militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) group that they brought down a Russian airliner, are “propaganda.” The Egyptian president however noted that it is too early to say what caused the crash of the Airbus 321.
On Wednesday, in an audio message posted on a Twitter account used by the group, IS’ Egyptian affiliate dismissed doubts that it had downed the Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, stating that it would tell the world how it did so in its own time. In the message, the speaker stated, “we say to the deniers and the doubters: Die from your frustration. We, with God’s grace, are the ones who brought it down, and we are not obliged to disclose the mechanism of its demise…So go to your wreckage, search, bring your black boxes and analyse, give us the summary of your research and the product of your expertise and prove that we did not bring it down or how it came down,” adding, “we will disclose the mechanism of its demise at the time that we want and in the way that we want.”
The Russian-operated Airbus A321M crashed Saturday just 23 minutes after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh on its way to St Petersburg. All 224 people on board, most of whom were Russian citizens, were killed. The plane’s flight recorders have been found and have been sent for analysis. Meanwhile, Russian rescue teams have extended the search for bodies and wreckage from the plane to a 40 sq-km (15 sq-km) area, with officials disclosing that drones are being used in order to scan the sandy and hilly terrain.
Sinai Province, which is an Egyptian group that has pledged loyalty to IS, had earlier released a statement, on the same day as the crash, that it had brought down the airliner “in response to Russian airstrikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land.” The claim however has been dismissed by both Egyptian and Russian officials. Security experts and investigators have disclosed that the plane is unlikely to have been struck from the outside and that Sinai-based militants are not believed to possess the technology to shoot down a jet from a cruising altitude above 30,000 feet. Russian officials have disclosed that the plane probably broke up in the air, a theory that has opened the prospect of some kind of explosion on board.
On Monday, the airline Kogalymavia, which has just renamed itself Metrojet, blamed “external influence” for the crash, stating that it has ruled out a technical fault or pilot error. According to Alexander Smirnov, “the only (explanation) for the plane to have been destroyed in mid-air can be specific impact, purely mechanical, physical influence on the aircraft,” adding that “there is no such combination of failures of systems which could have led to the plane disintegrating in the air.” He further indicated that the plane lost speed and began descending rapidly, adding that the crew made no attempt to get in contact and report about the situation on board. The head of Russia’s Federal Aviation Agency, Aleksandr Neradko, however has told Russian TV that such talk was premature and “not based on any proper facts.” Egyptian President Sisi has also warned against jumping to conclusions, stating, “all those interested in the matter are welcome to participate in the investigation.” He further stated that “when there is propaganda that it crashed because of ISIS (IS), this is one way to damage the stability and security of Egypt and the image of Egypt. Believe me, the situation in Sinai – especially in this limited area – is under our full control.” The US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has also indicated that there is no “direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet,” noting, “its unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
In 2011, militants launched an insurgency in the Sinai following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The increased their attacks after the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi in mid-2013. A year ago, the insurgents renamed their movement Sinai Province and pledged alliance to the Islamic State. Since then, hundreds of police and soldiers operating in the region have been killed.
On 30 September, Russia, which is an ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, launched air raids against opposition groups in Syria, including IS. The hardline group however has called for war against both Russia and the United States in response to their air strikes in Syria. On Tuesday, IS backers in Iraq issued a video congratulating their Egyptian colleagues and warning Russian President Vladimir Putin that more was to come.
The Islamic State (IS) group has claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that targeted the Italian consulate in central Cairo on Saturday. The attack has demonstrated a further escalation of violence, which suggests that militants may be opening a new front against foreigners in Egypt.
According to Egypt’s health ministry, at least one person was killed after an explosion that targeted the Italian consulate in the centre of Cairo. Security officials in the area reported Saturday that the force of the blast, which officials have indicated was caused by a car bomb, shook the building in the downtown area of the country’s capital city. A spokesman for the health ministry confirmed that one person was killed and ten others were wounded, including two policemen.
Witnesses near the area reported that the explosion caused widespread damage to the building, with a security source disclosing that preliminary investigations have indicated that the attackers placed a bomb underneath a car and remotely detonated it. While the consulate was closed at the time of the attack, the building is located at one of the busiest intersections in Cairo, a major road that connects Ramsis Square to the heart of the city.
Just hours after the attack, IS militants claimed responsibility. In a statement that was carried on a jihadist website, the group indicated “through God’s blessing, Islamic State soldiers were able to detonate a parked car bomb carrying 450 kg of explosive material on the headquarters of the Italian consulate in central Cairo.” The statement further warned “we recommend that Muslims stay clear of these security dens because they are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen’s strikes.”
Until now, IS supporters in Egypt had targeted security forces in the country, however the militant group appears to be expanding its targets. Just last month, it carried out a suicide bombing near the ancient Karnak temple in Luxor. IS’ Egyptian affiliate, which is based in Sinai, remains resilient despite increasing pressure from the country’s military. Recently, militants operating in the Sinai Peninsula have escalated bombing and shooting attacks, targeting soldiers and police officers. Two weeks ago, a car bomb killed Egypt’s top public prosecutor while militants affiliated to IS attacked several military checkpoints in North Sinai, in what was the fiercest fighting in the region in years. At the time, the army reported that seventeen soldiers and more then 100 militants were killed in those clashes. Saturday’s attack on the Italian consulate in Egypt has also highlighted IS’ expanding reach. After the militant group seized large areas of Iraq and Syria last year, they have increasingly begun to expand into Egypt’s neighbour Libya, and more recently have claimed responsibility for high-profile attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia.
On 5 August, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi announced the nation’s plan to build a new Suez Canal. The new canal will be built alongside the 145-year-old historic waterway in a goal increase income to the Egyptian economy by expanding trade between Europe and Asia.
Egypt has suffered a severe blow to its economy since the 2011 revolution which ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. With the severe downturn in the tourism industry and a slowing of foreign investment, the bulk of the nation’s revenue now comes from the Suez, which earns Egypt approximately US $5 billion. Investors and Egyptians are hoping to establish a major international industrial and logistics trade hub and raise Egypt’s international profile. The country has, for years, had plans to develop 29,000 square miles for this endeavour. In January, Egypt invited 14 consortia to bid for project.
The new canal will run parallel to the existing canal, and span approximately 45 miles. The project is expected to cost $8 billion and create over one million jobs. Estimates suggest it will take five years to complete, although the Egyptian government has set a completion goal of three years. During a press conference in Ismailia, President Al-Sisi declared that the project would be completed within just one year, but it is unlikely that such a large project can be completed in this truncated timeline.
President Al Sisi has put the Egyptian Armed Forces in charge of the project, primarily citing security reasons. As many as twenty Egyptian firms are likely to be involved in development of the canal, but will work under military supervision. The canal has been targeted by militant groups in the Sinai on more than one occasion, including the firing of a missile at the Cosco Asia, a merchant vessel that was traversing the canal in September 2013. The group that claimed responsibility, Al Furqan Brigade, hoped to create fear in shipping companies, causing them to reroute away from the Suez Canal, and thereby weaken the Egyptian economy. The Egyptian military has since put in place increased security measures, including additional security troops and fencing off areas around the Canal Zone.
The Egyptian military is more than a national security force. The Egyptian military owns a minimum of 35 factories, where it produces a range of products including bottled water, food items, flat-screen televisions, refrigerators, cars and more. The military also owns a series of restaurants, football grounds, petrol stations, and a great deal of real estate. The Egyptian military has also been involved in joint ventures to build infrastructure and resorts. However, the business aspect of Egypt’s military is opaque; their budgets are secret, and their industrial investments are neither audited nor taxed. It is estimated by some that the Egyptian military holds a 40% stake in Egypt’s economy, however it is near impossible to verify. Sisi has stated the actual number is closer to 2%. Egypt’s military will likely be responsible for managing the first stage of the project, which will be the “dry digging” of the new canal.
In an additional effort to boost the nation’s slowing economy, Egypt is seeking US $1.5 billion in loans to repay debts owed to foreign oil companies operating in the nation. The move is another part of the scheme to revive the economy and gain interest in foreign investment. The government is avoiding borrowing money from the nation’s central bank in order to avoid putting strain on the national reserves. Simultaneously, Egypt is attempting to woo foreign oil investors into increase exploration and production. Current production rate for gas is approximately 5.1 billion cubic feet per day, and oil production is approximately 675,000 barrels of oil per day.
Egypt has been troubled by the decline in gas production in the face of the worst energy crisis in a generation. Later in August, the Egyptian government will seek bids to import gas to support the nearly 85,000,000 population. Much of the energy bills that Egypt accrues have been in the form of energy subsidies to the poor. However, shortly after Sisi’s election, those subsidies were slashed, spiking energy prices by over 70 percent.
In addition to the nation’s economic woes, Egypt is struggling to control a wave of violence that has hit since the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in August of last year. Morsi’s removal sparked clashes between those supporting and opposing the Morsi’s organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), as well as sectarian clashes between supposed MB supporters and Christians. On 5 August, sectarian clashes broke out in Minya, reportedly after news was released that Coptic Christians were planning to build a church. However it has been revealed that the clashes were actually ignited by a feud between rivalling Christian and Muslim families, and spread rapidly. Over a dozen people were arrested. Currently the situation is stable. Minya, with its high Coptic Christian population, has seen some of the worst sectarian violence since the ouster of Morsi. The court in Minya is also responsible for a series of mass death sentence punishments against Muslim Brotherhood members for clashes that occurred last year.
Egypt is also struggling to maintain national security as it is faced with threats on all of its land borders. To the west, Egypt has increased security and closed its borders with Libya as the threat of violence in their neighbouring nation threatens to spill over. To the south, Egypt is battling human trafficking that is filtering up from Eritrea and Sudan, the latter of which has been fighting an escalated war with recently separated South Sudan. To the east, the Egyptian border with Gaza has been closed after a breakdown of relation with Hamas in 2013, and in particular since the escalation of fighting between Palestine and Israel. Egypt is also targeting radicalised bases in the restive Sinai Peninsula, and attempting to protect the nation from home-grown radicalism that has grown through the chaos of building a new government in the nation.