Investigators pored over the deepening mystery Monday surrounding the Russian passenger jet that crashed Saturday on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as representatives from the company that owned the aircraft claimed it could only have been brought down by “external factors” — but U.S. intelligence officials said there was not yet any “direct evidence” of a terrorist attack.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said that while a Sinai-based affiliate of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, claimed responsibility for the attack, U.S. officials “really don’t know” what caused the Russian plane to crash after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board.
Russian and Egyptian officials echoed the assessment, arguing that it was premature to accept the terrorist claim of responsibility before a closer examination of the plane’s black boxes, which were retrieved over the weekend but were still being analyzed on Monday.
The prospect of terrorist involvement has cast an uncertain specter over the incident, particularly because of the geopolitical implications likely to come with such a finding.
Should the Islamic State be found responsible, Egypt, which is engaged in a bloody campaign to contain the spread of the extremist group’s main affiliate in the area — the so-called “Sinai Province” — may be tempted to draw Russia in as an ally in the effort.
Moscow, which has recently opened a bombing campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad against Islamic State’s core branch in that nation, may well be eager to expand the campaign into North Africa.
Such a development would come as the Obama administration has faced criticism for not doing enough to respond over the past year to Egyptian requests for beefed-up U.S. support against the extremists.
Washington turned a blind eye when the Egyptian air force pounded Islamic State targets in neighboring Libya following the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach in February.
But the White House has been wary about backing any expansion of Egypt’s campaign against the extremists. The Obama administration, for instance, offered little response when four U.S. soldiers were wounded in separate bomb blasts on the Sinai Peninsula in September.
The soldiers were part of a small group of American troops stationed on the Sinai as part of a long-standing international peacekeeping force overseeing the terms of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. It was unclear at the time whether the Islamic State-aligned Sinai Province group was responsible for the blasts.
Mr. Clapper described the group Monday as being “very aggressive,” and said he could not rule out the possibility that they have the capability to take down planes flying high over the Sinai.
Speaking during a live interview at a national security conference hosted in Washington by the publication Defense One, Mr. Clapper said he was aware Islamic State had claimed responsibility on Twitter for taking down the Russian plane over the weekend.
But he said it was better to wait for definitive evidence. “I think once the black boxes have been analyzed, perhaps we’ll know more,” he said.
While U.S. officials say there is little question that operatives within the Islamic State-affiliated Sinai Province group have access to explosives that may have been planted on the plane, Mr. Clapper’s assessment fueled speculation that the Russian plane could have been brought down by a surface-to-air missile system (SAMS).
The chartered Airbus A321-200 was flying at 31,000 feet over the Sinai when it suddenly came down, just 23 minutes after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh en route to St. Petersburg, Russia.
Some analysts asserted that the plane had reached an altitude well beyond the range of any missiles that the Sinai Province group or other extremists in the area are believed to have in their arsenal.
The Islamic State-aligned group is said to possess shoulder-fired missiles, known as “MANPADs,” likely from Libyan stockpiles that were scattered throughout the region following the 2011 ouster of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Militants in the Sinai have used a MANPAD on at least one occasion over the past two years, downing an Egyptian military helicopter in January 2014.
But MANPADs have a maximum range of only about 20,000 feet, and it is unclear whether the militants possess anything with longer range — such as a much-bulkier SAMS that could have sent a missile significantly higher than 31,000 feet.
British military analyst Paul Beaver said he believes the crash was more likely caused by a bomb on board the plane, asserting that the Islamic State does not possess a missile system capable of hitting a plane at high altitude.
“I’m pretty convinced that [Islamic State] doesn’t have a ‘double-digit’ SAM that is necessary to go up as far as 31,000 feet,” Mr. Beaver told The Associated Press. “That’s a very serious piece of equipment, and I don’t think they have that sophistication.”
He also said the Sinai desert is watched continually by intelligence agencies, so a missile system would have been seen.
Representatives from Metrojet, the private Russian company that was operating the charter flight, said Monday that only an external impact could have caused the plane to dive into the Egyptian desert.
At a news conference in Moscow, a top Metrojet official told reporters that the company had ruled “out a technical fault of the plane or a pilot error.”
Some reports on Monday pointed to past problems of safety and mismanagement at Metrojet. Russian news agencies reported that the company had not paid its staff in more than two months, according to London’s The Telegraph, which also reported there were a host of malfunctions involving charter jets belonging to Metrojet’s parent company, Kogalymavia, in recent years.
In 2010, one of Kogalymavia’s planes leased to an Iranian carrier made a hard landing and broke up and caught fire, injuring 46 passengers, the newspaper reported. In 2011 three people died after one of its planes caught fire on the runway in Russia.