Egypt’s inquiry into the 31 October 2015 airplane crash in the Sinai Peninsula is nearly complete. Metrojet flight 9268, a Russian A321 civilian aircraft, crashed shortly after departing from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh airport for St. Petersburg. All 224 passengers and crew members were killed. In recent weeks, the Egyptian investigative committee looking into the incident visited Russia to revitalise tourism by sharing its latest conclusions. The problem for Egypt is that tourists stopped coming not because they do not know what caused the crash but because they fear it will happen again.
The committee is looking into the cause of the crash, which is sure to be anti-climactic: the Russian government publicly called the incident a “terror attack” fewer than three weeks later. At the time, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov reported “traces of foreign explosives” found at the crash site. All Russian flights to Egypt were suspended a week after the crash: two days after Britain suspended flights to and from Sharm. Egypt officially continued to insist there was no evidence of a bomb long after international intelligence services were pointing to the contrary. However, four months after the attack, even Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged that it was a terrorist attack.
As it is already widely accepted that a bomb took down flight 9268, confirmation of this in the official investigative report will do little to assuage international concerns about aviation security in Egypt. An analysis of the A321’s black boxes could tell investigators where in the aircraft a bomb was placed, the immediate impact of the explosion, and how the blast took down the plane. However, of more concern to U.K. and Russian officials and airlines — which still suspend flights nine months after the attack — are issues related to the security gaps that permitted an explosive device to be planted onboard and what measures Egyptian authorities have since taken to address such issues at Sharm el-Sheikh, Cairo, and other national airports.
The Metrojet bombing in Sharm el-Sheikh was the first sign of the so-called “Islamic State’s” (IS) interest in taking advantage of airport vulnerabilities, seen again in Brussels and Istanbul. The Sinai Province of the self-declared Caliphate claimed responsibility for downing the flight hours after it crashed. The IS featured the Metrojet incident in a November 2015 issue of its English-language online magazine Dabiq. The article revealed the original intention of targeting an unspecified member of the coalition of nations fighting the IS in Iraq and Syria — the United Kingdom, according to U.S. congressman Michael McCaul. The group then settled on a Russian flight because of that country’s policy of supporting the Syrian regime. Dabiq also published photos of the alleged explosive device, masked in a Schweppes Gold can.
The desire and ability of the so-called IS, al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups to attack the aviation sector, and the known IS affiliate and other active cells in Egypt increase Cairo’s need to prove its airports are as secure as possible. The second worst-case scenario for Egypt — immediately after the Metrojet crash—was that the incident was not a terrorist attack but close scrutiny would reveal lax security at its airports such that a terrorist attack would be possible.
This is exactly what happened: even before experts concluded that flight 9268 was downed by a bomb, international security services and airlines recognised vulnerabilities in Egypt’s aviation security system. After its initial defensiveness, Egypt hired Control Risks, a U.K. security company, to assess Cairo, Marsa Alam, and Sharm el-Sheikh airports. When U.K. airlines saw the results — which have not been publicly released — six months after the Metrojet bombing they extended their suspensions of flights to Sharm.
Egypt’s initial response to the Metrojet crash, in a failed — and flawed — gambit to limit the impact on tourism, contradicted this need to actively show that it has both recognised and is filling security gaps. Worse still, stonewalling by Egyptian aviation and security officials impacts diplomatic and public trust. It is no wonder, that many jumped to conclusions about terrorism in recent EgyptAir incidents. Potential holidaymakers may still have some ways to go before feeling safe visiting Egypt. At the same time, bilateral relationships are also being stunted by Cairo’s foot-dragging on improving airport security. The day after suspending flights, Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke with President al-Sisi about resuming flights quickly, once Egypt fulfilled a number of Russian security requests.
Since that time, Russia has stuck to this talking point: Russia will review Egypt’s aviation sector, once its requirements are met in full, before renewing flights. In response to this consistent, clear, and encouraging message, over past months Egyptian officials have trotted to Moscow both admitting the country has not completed Russia’s requests yet requesting Russian officials inspect progress and resume flights anyway. Given the impact of the Metrojet disaster on Egypt’s tourism sector, and the importance of Russian tourists in reversing losses, Cairo’s delays in addressing security concerns are self-defeating. Further, Egypt risks permanently losing the market as Russian tourists seek out alternative destinations during the ongoing Egypt ban.
Recent airport attacks in Brussels and Istanbul displayed a reality: even facilities considered highly secure have exploitable vulnerabilities. Worldwide, aviation and transportation authorities must both minimise those weaknesses and manage the fear of the traveling public, who need to believe that a determined terrorist threat will be detected and disrupted. Nine months after the downing of Metrojet flight 9268, Egyptian authorities still need to address these challenges.
Photo Credit: Voice of America/Russian Emergency Ministry