Speculations abound as the cause of a Russian plane crash in Egypt’s North Sinai on Saturday, which killed the 217 passengers and seven crew members on board, remains unknown.
A statement purportedly released by the Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, the Province of Sinai, claimed that the group had shot down the plane, which they said was carrying “over 220 Russian crusaders.”
The statement described the incident as a message to the Russians and their allies indicating that they are not safe in Muslim lands, and that the “attack” on the plane was to avenge the death of “dozens of Syrians on a daily basis by [Russian] air missiles.”
Doubt have been cast, however, on the group’s capacity to attack the commercial aircraft.
Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal told the Reuters-run Aswat Masriya website that the plane fell from an altitude of over 31,000 feet, making it impossible for an anti-aircraft missile to have attacked it. Any conclusive findings about the cause of the incident will not be revealed before investigations are completed, Kamal added.
A video, allegedly published by the Province of Sinai, shows the plane as it descends, but Mada Masr could not authenticate its authenticity. The video may be an attempt by the Province of Sinai to indicate that the plane was attacked using Man-Portable Air Defense Systems or MANPADS, surface-to-air missiles that can be carried by one person or more and used to target aircraft.
The Province of Sinai used a similar missile in an attack on an Egyptian army helicopter on January 25, 2014, killing all military officers on board. The group released a video of two of its members carrying MANPADS and targeting the helicopter.
Issandr al-Amrani, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, believes that the attack on the helicopter last year actually discredits the current Province of Sinai narrative. Amrani adds that the reason behind the crash cannot be determined until the records of the aircraft’s black box are examined.
The video purportedly released by the Province of Sinai only shows the falling aircraft, as opposed to its previous footage, which showed members of the group carrying out the attack, Amrani explained.
According to a report by the US State Department, around 40 civilian aircraft have been targeted by MANPADS since the 1970s.
“Because MANPADS are easy to transport, conceal, and use – and because a single successful attack against an airliner would have serious consequences for the international civilian aviation industry – they are particularly attractive weapons to terrorists and criminals. Keeping MANPADS out of their hands is thus a major priority for the US government,” the report said.
Amrani added that MANPADS have a range of approximately 15,000 feet, too short to have targeted the Russian plane.
“[Province of Sinai] may simply be using this event to take credit and create the impression it has the capacity to attack civilian aircraft,” Amrani suggested.
A source from the Sharm el-Shiekh International Airport, where the Russian plane took off, also dismissed the militant group’s claims in an interview with Mada Masr.
The source, who was in close contact with the plane’s cabin crew, explained that technical difficulties caused the crash, alleging that this plane in particular had experienced a number of malfunctions in the past. He explained that the aircraft has witnessed technical difficulties on the runway before takeoff several times before, some of which led to flight cancellations.
The source added that many aircraft companies, including Russian operator Kogalymavia, do not conduct periodic checkups required by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) because they are costly, adding that the aircraft rarely adhered to maintenance procedures.
The Russia Today website reported that that Kogalymavia airline is known among Russian tourists who visit Egypt. A spokesperson from the airline company defended its pilot, Russia Today added.
“The captain was Velary Nemov, who has 12,000 flight hours under his belt, so he is definitely an experienced man,” the spokesperson said. “Of those, some 3,800 hours he spent piloting Airbus 320s. So we don’t have any reason to suspect human error from the crew.”
Conflicting reports also emerged Saturday regarding communication with the aircraft’s pilot. Egypt’s Aviation Minister said communication between the pilot and the control tower was ongoing before the crash, alleging the pilot did not request help or declare an emergency, situation, but suddenly went off the radar. However, earlier reports citing Egyptian officials claimed that the pilot had reported technical difficulties and requested to make an emergency landing.