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Did Terrorism Take Down EgyptAir Flight 804?

EgyptAir Flight 804 took off from Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris at 11:09 PM Wednesday, May 18, 2016 with 56 passengers and 10 crew members, including 3 security personnel aboard on the final leg of a journey scheduled to arrive in Cairo at 3:15 am local time. During May 18th Flight 804 flew from Asmara, Eritrea to Cairo and then onto to Tunis before arriving in Paris.  The aircraft may have been cleaned, catered and refueled at stops in Asmara and Tunis.  At Charles de Gaulle it went through a security sweep.

After takeoff, Flight 804 reached a cruising altitude of 37,000 feet. It checked in with Athens air traffic control (ATC) at 1:24 AM, Thursday, May 19th.  At 2:27 AM it failed to check in with Athens ATC as it was transiting into Cairo air traffic control.  It catastrophically dropped from its cruising altitude of 37,000 feet plunging into the Mediterranean with all 66 passengers and crew aboard approximately 173 miles from Egypt.

The Airbus A320-200 is a workhorse for major international airlines. The EgyptAir version used on Flight 804 was fairly well maintained. Most importantly it uses a computerized fly by wire system, not susceptible to manipulation from the flight deck. Moreover, both the flight captain and co pilot had 6,000 and 4,000 hours of flight experience, respectively; 2000 of which were on the A-320.  Hence the violent swerving motions alleged caught by Athens ATC on radar were either due to mechanical failure or a bomb exploding on board.  Flight accident experts contend that only a small amount of explosives at that altitude could lead to breakup of the aircraft.

The hunt is on with U.S. Navy P-3 Orion air craft, Egyptian C-130’s and naval vessels, Greek Air Force and Navy frigates, and UK Royal Navy vessels combing the vicinity of the target area of the Flight 804 crash in the Eastern Mediterranean.  They are searching for wreckage, passenger effects and most importantly the audio signals of the pinging locator identifying the flight recorder black boxes.  The latter may be a daunting task as the Mediterranean is more than a mile deep in the crash area.   Egyptair is in the midst of receiving the relatives of French, Egyptian and other nationalities among the passengers on board. They were flown to Cairo for briefings on Friday before an official press conference.

Early on both the U.S. and later Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority officials speculated that information they have received suggest that it may not have been mechanical failure, but likely terrorism.

In the meantime, neither suspected terrorist groups ISIS or Al Qaeda have claimed responsibility.  You may recall just after the downing of the Russian MetroJet A321 with 224 passengers  and crew aboard  in the Sinai Peninsula on October 31, 2015, ISIS claimed responsibility for what allegedly was a soda can bomb placed in a baggage hold.  Terrorism experts speculate that  master bomb maker Saudi Ibrahim al-Asiri of Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula has been heavily involved in development of unique explosives barely detectable.   As one example the laptop that exploded aboard a flight in Somalia last summer that blew a hole in the aircraft skin killing the terrorist using the device.

U.S. intelligence has shared watch list information with the French and Egyptian services.  Passenger manifests on each segment of Flight 804 will be reviewed to check out the relatives of passengers aboard.  Perhaps there are also data transmissions from the INMARSAT systems might be reviewed. Data from the INMARSAT tracking system, you may recall were retrieved following the downing of Malaysian Air MH-370.   Mary Schiavo, aviation safety expert nd former Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation,  indicated in a CNN interview that in 2014 the US implemented so-called enhanced safety inspection system on international flights to the US. These entailed checking aircraft baggage holds, washroom and catering waste disposal bins.  A spokesperson for Egyptair queried by CNN on the sweep conducted at Charles de Gaulle airport indicated that cockpit, air service and security teams were screened as well as inspection of the aircraft baggage hold, disposal and storage bins.

Knowledgeable counterterrorism sources have suggested that it might have been an inside job, meaning aircraft cleaners, caterers and fuelers who  had access to the aircraft during intermediate landings.  The issue at Charles de Gaulle is acute.  French authorities have been  airport workers at Charles de Gaulle after revelations about Paris ISIS massacre perpetrators.  The authorities  withdrew credentials from more than 70 airport workers engaged in radical Islamic activities.  The other possibility is that there may not have been security sweeps conducted at intermediate flight destinations in Asmara, Eritrea and Tunis.

This is a concern that was discussed  on  Lisa Benson Radio programs  last fall with Ambassador R. James Woolsey alerting listeners and social media about domestic and international airport insecurity.

Listen to the PODCAST: Is it Safe to Fly?:

Investigations by the National Security Task Force of America at more than 13 U.S. airports revealed non competitive contracts for maintenance, baggage handling and aircraft cleaning and refueling. Many of the contractors employed refugee émigrés. A major international maintenance contractor with contracts in 70 municipalities and airports has hired over 500,000 refugee émigrés, globally.  An ISIS fighter killed in Syria was a Somali émigré employed with a cleaning and fueling contractor at the Twin Cities airport in Minneapolis.  He had complete access to the airport tarmac with his SIDE badge. The Atlanta Hartsfield airport reported the theft of dozens of these SIDE badges.  Further, the US Department of Homeland Security revealed that 73 TSA screeners were found on no fly lists. Investigations by the French Interior Ministry revealed that one of the Paris massacre perpetrators in November 2015 was employed as an airport maintenance worker at Charles de Gaulle airport. Then there was the evidence from the March 2016 Brussels airport bombing, that one of the ISIS perpetrators was  a returning fighter. He had been employed at both the airport and the European Parliament building adjacent to the subway bombing site in Brussels.

Thus, while we wait for further developments on the mysterious downing of EgyptAir 804, we might express concerns to Congress requesting them to hold hearings on airport security including the clearance of maintenance, aircraft cleaning, baggage handling and fueling contractors.

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EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Nat Sec Daily Brief. The featured image is of an EgyptAir Airbus A320 taking off from Vienna International Airport. Photo: Thomas Ranner/Associated Press