Metrojet bombing is the worst aviation security attack since 9/11

It was reminiscent of the 1985 attack on Air India’s 'Emperor Kanishka' which killed 329 people.

 |  3-minute read |   17-11-2015
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Russia’s head of security service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov confirmed that a “terrorist bomb” brought down the Metrojet Airbus A321 passenger jet over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. The St Petersburg-bound aircraft crashed on the Sinai peninsula on October 31 after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, killing all 224 passengers on board. The Islamic State's (ISIS) affiliate in the Sinai peninsula, through a statement, claimed to have downed the aircraft, though the group did not reveal its modus operandi. The ISIS claimed that the aircraft was downed in revenge for Russia’s bombing campaign against the ISIS which began on September 30.

It is still not clear whether the explosive was carried by a suicide bomber or in baggage checked into the aircraft. Reports on November 17 that Egyptian authorities had arrested two Sharm El-Shiekh airport employees points to the latter possibility.

This is the worst breach of aviation security since the September 11, 2001, or "9/11" terrorist attacks, in which 18 al-Qaeda hijackers commandeered passenger jets and flew them into US landmarks including the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon, killing 2,977 people.

The suspected modus operandi in the Metrojet bombing is in fact reminiscent of the June 23, 1985 bombing of Air India’s "Emperor Kanishka" which killed 329 people. The bomb planted onboard the aircraft by Babbar Khalsa militants in Toronto, exploded when the Delhi-bound jet was off the coast of Ireland. It was the worst terrorist strike in aviation history until the 9/11 attacks.

The ISIS’ claim of downing the Russian jet has now been corroborated by a Russian investigation where forensic scientists discovered traces of explosives in the aircraft wreckage. Bortnikov says a homemade explosive device weighing approximately 1 kg of TNT broke the aircraft up in midair and caused the debris to be scattered over a wide area.

Aviation security has seen an unprecedented surge after 9/11 with countries focusing on scanning passengers for explosives or weapons and also rehearsing scenarios for fighter jets to shoot down commandeered aircraft to prevent them from being used as flying missiles.

Attempts by terrorists to bring down airliners — prized as high-visibility targets — have continued. Until now, all of them were foiled. In December 2001, passengers overpowered "shoe bomber" Richard Reid as he attempted to light an explosive-packed shoe over an airliner. Attempts by al Qaeda terrorists to down an Israeli Boeing 757 chartered aircraft over Mombasa when the two Russian-built SA-7 "Strela" Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) missed the target. On December 25, 2009, alert passengers on an Amsterdam-Detroit flight overpowered Nigerian national Umar Farook Abdulmutallab, 24, as he attempted to light plastic explosives stuffed in his underwear. In November 2010, security offcials intercepted a colour printer rigged with explosives in the UK, bound on a trans-Atlantic cargo jet headed for the US.

Experts ruled out the possibility of Russian Metrojet aircraft being downed by a surface-to-air missile. The aircraft was flying at 30,000 feet well beyond the ceiling of most MANPADS available to terrorist groups.

Earlier, on November 2, US officials released infra-red satellite images to NBC News which showed a flash on the jet leading to speculation that it had been brought down by a bomb. The November 13, Paris attacks which killed 139 people has revived the spectre of highly coordinated Mumbai-style gun-and-bomb attacks. The downing of Russia’s Metrojet revives an older yet equally nefarious security threat.


Sandeep Unnithan Sandeep Unnithan @sandeepunnithan

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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