Is Egypt’s Al-Sisi Now Putting His Terror Crisis onto Airplanes?

Is Egypt’s Al-Sisi Now Putting His Terror Crisis onto Airplanes?

REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

We won’t know for some time just what caused EgyptAir Flight 804 to plunge abruptly into the Mediterranean shortly after midnight last Thursday. But weekend reports suggest that a detonated explosive device is one of two probable causes.

If it is eventually confirmed that the Paris-to-Cairo flight was yet another victim of a terror attack in a vicious season of them, we face one new reality and one big question.

Related: EgyptAir Jet Sent Smoke-Alarm Warnings Before Crash

First, it’s time to acknowledge that all recent terror incidents are targeted. This is a clear pattern now. It shapes up as eye-for-an-eye, the “law of retaliation” as found in the Quran and the Old Testament alike.

In other words, what governments do or are seen by jihadist organizations to do could have consequences anytime, anywhere. EgyptAir 804, which went down shortly after it entered Egyptian airspace and 165 miles from its coast, regrettably fits the pattern.

Second, we have to ask whether Egypt is now exporting the nearly rampant terrorist activity that has long plagued the nation and worsened markedly since Abdel al-Sisi, an army general, deposed Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first legitimately elected president, in a coup endorsed by the Obama White House three years ago.

Al-Sisi immediately launched a bloody campaign against Islamic groups of many persuasions—violent and nonviolent alike—and continues to fight armed militias active in the Sinai Peninsula.

Related: EgyptAir Mechanic Suspected In Russian Plane Crash

Is the downing of Egypt 804 retaliation? Is al-Sisi’s war against domestic terror—and more or less all political adversaries, too—spreading across the Mediterranean?

So far, we have predictably confusing accounts of what happened prior to the flight's abrupt disappearance from radar devices. The presence of smoke in the cabin, first reported on French television over the weekend, brings the causes of the crash down to a probable two. Officials in Paris say that either equipment failure ignited an electrical fire or an explosive device detonated. 

But Greek aviation sources have indicated that Flight 804 swerved erratically before losing altitude and speculated that a faulty “thrust reverser” may have accidentally activated. This was the cause of a similar crash in Thailand back in the early-1990s.

Now Mike Vivian, formerly a senior official with Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, suggests the last-minute gyrations could indicate a struggle in the cockpit.

There are few certainties, but there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence, and the burden of it suggests that EgyptAir has just logged another terrorist incident -- this one killing 56 passengers and 10 crew.

Related: French PM Says Nothing Ruled Out on Missing Egyptair Flight

In the background, there are the coordinated attacks in Paris last autumn, in which 130 were killed and more than a 100 wounded. The more recent attacks in Brussels were originally planned as a second assault on the French capital.

The violence in Paris occurred November 13. France flew its first airstrikes against the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility, six weeks earlier.

Last October 31, a Russian charter jet flying home from an Egyptian resort was downed over the Sinai Peninsula by a terrorist’s device, Russia’s security service concluded after investigating; 224 people were killed. SIs

Russian jets had begun bombing sorties against the Islamic State in Syria a month earlier.

The law of retaliation?

Related: Sisi Stirs Uproar on Free Speech After Egypt Transfers Islands

We do not yet know whether France or Egypt may have been the target of the EgyptAir 804 attack, if it turns out to be one. But the weight of evidence suggests that the al-Sisi dictatorship was the likely target this time.

In effect, al-Sisi’s aggressive hunt for homegrown Islamists may be metastasizing the nation’s deep divisions across the nation’s borders. Among other things, we have to ask: Was it possible for Egyptian nationals living in France and/or working at the airport to sabotage EgyptAir 804 in response to al-Sisi’s indiscriminate repression?

Let’s consider the gradually accumulating evidence.

On the operational side, we know the pilot and co-pilot of EgyptAir 804 had lengthy records of top-tier service. The Airbus A320 they flew, in service since 2003, had no history of mechanical problems and an unmarred safety record.

On the circumstantial side, we now know Egyptian airport employees had scrawled, “We will bring this plane down” on the underside of its fuselage roughly two years ago. The New York Times reported this Sunday as “an eerie coincidence,” but there’s much to suggest this was eerie but no coincidence.

Related: Egypt's Sisi Vows to Defeat Terrorism at Launch of New Suez Canal

It was a year prior to the graffiti incident that al-Sisi seized power. The blood began to flow immediately, the arrests have ever since mounted, and Islamist militias active in Sinai have grown more lethal.

Since then, EgyptAir has fired numerous of its airport and flight staff because of their political convictions, initiated crew searches prior to flights, and stationed security guards on its flights. Fine: Safety measures always are.

But look at this as if in a mirror and you see a nation that may be putting deepening political and terror crises onto airplanes. What’s going on inside EgyptAir that makes these measures necessary?

Egypt, where the Arab Spring flowered five years ago, is now radically polarized. The general-turned-president rules on a knife’s edge and Egyptians now question how long his dictatorial regime can last.

Are we watching a once-great Middle Eastern power in slow-motion collapse? Are airline passengers departing from European capitals now caught in the crossfire as al-Sisi fights to survive?