The latest U.S. intelligence suggests that the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 was most likely caused by a bomb on the plane planted by ISIS or an ISIS affiliate, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.
“There is a definite feeling it was an explosive device planted in luggage or somewhere on the plane,” the official said, stressing that no formal conclusion had been reached by the U.S. intelligence community.
The assessment was reached, the official said, by looking back at intelligence reports that had been gathered before Saturday’s plane crash and intelligence gathered since then. The United States did not have credible or verified intelligence of a specific threat before the crash. However, the official said, “there had been additional activity in Sinai that had caught our attention.”
Another U.S. official said the intelligence regarding ISIS is in part based on monitoring of internal messages of the terrorist group. Those messages are separate from public ISIS claims of responsibility, that official said.
The Russian passenger jet crashed Saturday in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula after breaking apart in midair, killing all 224 people on board.
News of the U.S. intelligence analysis comes hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said a bomb may have caused the crash.
“While the investigation is still ongoing, we cannot say categorically why the Russian jet crashed,” the Prime Minister’s office said. “But as more information has come to light, we have become concerned that the plane may well have been brought down by an explosive device.”
Flights due to leave Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the United Kingdom were being delayed his office said, as a precautionary measure to allow British aviation experts to assess security arrangements at the city’s airport, Cameron’s office said in its statement.
Ireland also said Wednesday that it was suspending all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh until further notice, according to a statement from the Irish Aviation Authority.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called the British decision to suspend flights “somewhat premature,” as the investigation is not complete.
“We can appreciate, of course, the sense of responsibility and desire to provide protection to UK citizens. This is a desire that we equally share,” he told CNN shortly after the British government’s announcement. “But I think it is somewhat premature to make declarations related to what might or might not have happened to the aircraft before the investigation is completed and before there is a definitive cause for this crash.”
No data has been recovered so far from the flight recorders, according to an official familiar with the investigation underway by the French Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA).
Responding to a CNN question about the British government’s concern that an explosive device brought down the plane, the French official said “the teams are still working on the CVR and FDR, this information from the British government could not have come from a technical investigation. Nothing so far came out of the flight recorders.”
The CVR, the cockpit voice recorder, and the FDR, the flight data recorder, are sometimes colloquially known as “black boxes.”
The BEA is the French entity responsible for investigating aviation incidents. It’s involved in the investigation of the Metrojet crash because the plane was a French-built Airbus.
Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said earlier Wednesday that the cockpit voice recorder had been damaged and that the contents of the flight data recorder has been “extracted and validated.”
Russia’s privately owned Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source in Cairo as saying the plane’s cockpit voice recorder had captured uncharacteristic sounds the moment before the flight disappeared.
It cited the source as saying that an “unexpected’ and “nonstandard (emergency)” occurred “instantly,” which was why the pilots failed to send an emergency or alarm signal.
Repair from previous flight
The plane’s tail was found about five kilometers (three miles) from the rest of the aircraft wreckage, the Russian state broadcaster Russia 24 reported.
The distance from the tail to the rest of the debris could be important — especially because the tail was previously damaged, CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo said.
“To me, it says (the tail) exited the plane before (an) explosive event and before the fire engulfed the plane,” she said.
On a previous flight, the same plane’s tail struck a runway while landing in Cairo in 2001 and required repair, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aircraft incidents. At the time, the aircraft was registered to the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines, registration records show.
Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said something could have gone wrong with the repair work after the tail strike. She said she once worked on a crash where a tail strike that had not been repaired well brought down a plane almost two decades later.
“A bad repair is like a ticking time bomb, because once it’s on the plane, it stays with the plane forever,” she said.
Airline company spokesman Andrei Averyanov said the plane had been damaged in 2001 but had most recently been thoroughly checked for cracks in 2013. Not enough time had passed for major cracks to develop to a critical size since then, he said.
The Airbus A321-200 was built in 1997. It had clocked around 56,000 flight hours over the course of nearly 21,000 flights, the plane maker said.
Officials have said all its inspections were in order.
The possibility of an explosion
Forensic experts trying to identify victims have divided the types of trauma into two categories: injuries from the fall, and injuries that align with an explosion — such as metal pieces in bodies, the St. Petersburg news outlet Fontanka reported.
But the experts said it’s too early to say what actually caused the plane to crash.
Russia’s state-run Tass news agency reported that Russian and Egyptian experts had not found any blast-related trauma during their preliminary examination of the bodies, citing a Russian source within the investigation.
Most of the bodies retrieved at the crash site are intact, a medical source in Sinai told CNN.
That doesn’t eliminate the possibility that an explosion occurred, said CNN safety analyst David Soucie, a former accident investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration.
“A blast would not have to be very large … to rupture the hull of that aircraft,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Russian Emergency Situation Ministry said the search zone in Egypt had expanded to 40 square kilometers. Previously, Egyptian authorities said the search zone spanned 20 square kilometers.
Data and satellite information
Air traffic controllers apparently didn’t receive any distress calls.
The website Flightradar24, which tracks aircraft around the world, said it had received data from the Russian plane suggesting sharp changes in altitude and a dramatic decrease in ground speed before the signal was lost.
A U.S. military satellite detected a midair heat flash from the Russian airliner before it crashed Saturday, a U.S. official told CNN.
Intelligence analysis has ruled out that the Russian commercial airplane was struck by a missile, but the new information suggests that there was a catastrophic in-flight event — including possibly a bomb, though experts are considering other explanations, according to U.S. officials.
Analysts say heat flashes could be tied to a range of possibilities, including a bomb blast, a malfunctioning engine exploding or a structural problem causing a fire on the plane.