Michael Lavery: If Islamic State ARE responsible for Egypt plane crash, a nightmare scenario for global aviation will unfold
Published 31/10/2015 | 16:09
The claim by an Islamic State affiliate group to have downed the Russian airliner - if proven - is a nightmare scenario which truly has global aviation security implications.
Jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which operates in northern Sinai, last year successfully shot down an Egyptian Air Force Mil Mi-17 helicopter, killing five on board, using a MANPAD, or Man Portable Air Defence system.
MANPADS are shoulder fired anti aircraft missiles which typically home in on the engine heat of an airplane or helicopter.
Experts believe Islamic State, and its derivatives, have dozens, if not hundreds of the deadly missiles.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an IS affiliate, also shot reportedly down an Egyptian Apache helicopter gunship during fighting between Egyptian forces and militants in the Sinai during the past year.
If the claim of responsibility for the Russian Airbus crash carried on an Islamist website is true, it opens up a new dimension of truly horrific possibilities when considering the capabilities of IS and the threat it poses to the West.
Ironically, if the French-built Airbus was shot down using a MANPAD, it was almost certainly Russian in origin.
In June, a Geneva based think tank, the Small Arms Survey, warned that the possible acquisition of MANPADS by Islamic State represented a "particularly acute threat to aviation security."
"Shooting down a commercial airliner would be consistent with the group's use of increasingly brutal acts to heighten its international profile," it said.
When the Egyptian Mi-17 helicopter was shot down last year, at least one European airline stopped using Sharm-al-Sheik as a destination precisely because of the threat of shoulder fired anti aircraft missiles used by the jihadis.
If the Russian Airbus A321 was brought down, either by a MANPAD or a bomb on board, it represents a huge propeganda coup for IS - and a warning that it is targetting international airlines.
Read more here: Egypt Plane Crash: What We Know So Far
When Ghaddafi's regime was ousted in Libya, one of the major concerns of the United States, and indeed Russia, was the reprorted stock of around 20,000 shoulder fired anti aircraft missiles held in his arsenals.
A US team in Libya managed to corral many of them, but the presence of Libyan MANPADS has been reported, if not totally confirmed in almost a dozen African and Middle Eastern countries.
Many of them were older SA-7 Strela missiles, some of which even reached the IRA in Ireland in Libyan arms shipments. A Strela is thought to have brought down the Egyptian Mil helicopter.
Jihadis also used a Strela in Kenya in 2003 when they tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner as it took off. The missile missed its target.
The missiles typically have a "best by" date when they become dysfunctional, ie, their batteries wears out.
However, if the civil war in Syria has shown anything it is that armed groups are highly experienced at making improvised weapons.
This includes being able to revive the time expired batteries of Strela missiles.
Read more here: Airbus statement following Flight 7K-9268 plane crash in Egypt
Groups like IS have also benefitted from the theft of missiles from Syrian Army installations they have taken over and also from international arms trafficking.
Pictures have emerged from Libya of sophisticated Chinese FN-6 MANPADS - which were never exported to Libya in the first place.
Third generation Chinese and Russian missiles, like the later Igla models, have made their appearance in Syria and, in the hands of jihadis, pose a distinct threat to Allied aircraft and now, commercial airliners.
The Russian Igla missile, which superseded the Strela in the early 1980s, has a proven track record of being to hit high performance fighter jets flying at altitude.
A slow moving commerical airliner would present a much easier target.
The newest model, with a NATO code name of "Grinch," is said to be able to hit aircraft at five kiliometres range.
This is a major "improvement" on the older Strela, which had a vertical range of about 2,000 metres.
The fact that extremist groups are able to get their hands on such sophisticated weapons poses a major headache for aviation security worldwide.
The Israelis, whose commercial aircraft have been under threat since the 1970s, routinely fit even their commericial airlines with sophisticated self defence measures against missiles like the Stela.
Will commercial airlines now have to consider similiar measures? The cost implications of altering aircraft to carry such systems would be massive.
The Airbus involved in today's incident is manufactured in Toulouse and has an excellent safety record. Some 7,000 are in service with airlines worldwide, including Aer Lingus.
Investigators have recovered "black boxes" from the downed plane and these will be crucial in determining if indeed the airline was brought down by a missile or a bomb.
IS have successfully shot down Syrian Air Force aircraft, like fast SU-24 Fencer jets and slower helicopters, using a mix of traditional Anti Aircraft Artillery - guns - as well as using missiles like the Strela.
In Afghanistan, the Russians control of the sky was successfully challenged during their 10 year war there when the Americans supplied Stinger shoulder fired missiles to the Islamic fighters.
The Stinger, on its own, changed the whole character of the war and eventually the Russians were forced to withdraw.
If Jihadis did carry out an attack on the plane, an obvious motive is Vladimir Putin's intervention in the Syrian war by basing a fleet of Russian Air Force attack planes in Latakia and launching cruise missile strikes from 1,000 miles away in the Caspian Sea.
The Americans, remembering the effect of the Stinger in Afghanistan, have so far been reluctent to supply sophisticated MANPADS to rebel groups in Syria.
They have delivered TOW anti tank missiles which have taken out dozens of Syrian Army tanks in recent days.
Other Middle Eastern and perhaps African states, may have supplied advanced Russian and Chinese MANPADS to rebel groups fighting the Assad regime.
If one of these, or one smuggled into Sinai, was used to bring down the Airbus, then the genie is truly out of the bottle.
In 1973, Israeli Phantom fighter planes shot down a Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 with the loss of 100 lives when it strayed into the Sinai peninsula.
Now over, 40 years later, there may again be a Libyan connection if a Strela missile from Ghadaffi's stockpiles has been used to shoot down the Russian Airbus with the loss of 224 souls.