Russian family members grieve

Sharm el-Sheikh and airport screening

Yassamine Mather looks beyond the criticisms of the Egyptian authorities following the downing of Metrojet flight 9268

Despite a number of denials by both Egyptian and Russian officials that it was a bomb that caused the Russian Airbus 321 carrying 224 people to crash over the Sinai desert on October 31, by November 6 the analysis of the plane’s two flight recorders had prompted investigators to say that it could not have been an accident. The sound of an explosion was recorded by the cockpit voice recorder of flight 9268 and none of the black boxes showed any sign of mechanical failure before the plane crashed.

Last week the British government claimed that GCHQ had recorded groups close to Islamic State discussing the crash. According to The Sunday Telegraph,

The ‘chatter’ picked up by intelligence agencies appears to include a series of communications between the Sinai terrorist group, affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and its leadership based in Syria. Prior to the explosion last Saturday, US intelligence agencies also intercepted a message from the terrorists in Sinai that warned of “something big in the area”. It is understood that details about how the plane was brought down were also intercepted, but the officials have refused to go into detail.1

Nevertheless, Russia and Egypt kept up their denials. If indeed IS was involved, for Russia it would be reminiscent of the risks faced during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the consequences of the war in Chechnya. During the Afghan war, jihadists, who were at the time supported by the CIA, were responsible for deadly attacks on Soviet forces, but, of course, there were not many Russian tourists holidaying abroad in the late 1970s and 80s.

The Egyptian authorities’ concern is also understandable. Here is a government led by the military, arresting anyone expressing criticisms, and falsely accusing intellectuals and journalists of sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood. All this to keep the country ‘safe from Islamists’. Yet the very same military state was incapable of detecting the fact that a bomb was stowed on a plane carrying 224 passengers. In other words, the incident has disastrous consequences for the reputation of Egypt’s security forces and their ability to combat Islamist ‘terrorism’.

The tourist industry is in serious trouble - Sharm el-Sheikh is the only part of the country where heavy security has facilitated large numbers of tourists. So it is not just the country’s reputation in the battle against jihadism that is at stake: Egypt’s income from tourism, vital for any hope of reviving a struggling economy, is threatened.

Earlier in the week, Egypt’s president, former army chief and general Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, expressed anger when journalists called into question his government’s control of its territory: “It is under our full control, of course. We will never accept that we do not have full control over our country.”2

The militant group, Sinai Province, pledged its allegiance to IS in November 2014, and in the summer of 2015 staged a series of attacks against the Egyptian army. The aim is to take full control of the Sinai peninsula and create an Islamist province in the region. In 2015 Egyptian security officials claimed that the group’s leader, Abu Osama al-Masri, and some of his close allies had been killed in a government operation. However, he later appeared in a video reaffirming his allegiance to the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

For all its denials, the Egyptian state has taken claims of the group’s involvement in the crash seriously. The country’s ministry of interior announced on November 10 that a senior figure of the group, Ashraf Ali Hassanein al Gharabli, was killed during a shoot-out with police in Cairo.3 The Egyptian government claims that al Gharabli had been involved in a number of terrorist attacks, including a car bombing outside the Italian consulate in Cairo in July and the beheading of a Croatian man in August.

Passenger safety

The bombing of the Russian Airbus will have major implications for air travel, far beyond Egypt and the countries where, according to security officials, IS has ‘active cells’. After all, many of its recruits come from European and east Asian countries. Many aviation experts have argued that the bombing of the Russian airliner will fundamentally change the way the authorities look at airport security in general and airport staff in particular.

Remember the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, a British convert to Islam, who tried and failed to detonate explosives packed into his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. Passengers suspicious of his behaviour managed to foil his plan and he was arrested. Unlike in Egypt, no-one was killed as a result of this incident, yet it dramatically changed airport security to include the scanning and inspection of passengers’ shoes, thus considerably slowing down security checks.

Both passengers and staff - baggage handlers, ground workers and air crews - can smuggle an explosive device onto a plane. However, according to Norman Shanks, former head of group security at BAA, “particularly on the staff side, things are patchy ... how can anyone ensure airport security operations aren’t infiltrated by terrorists?”4

In all European airports staff have to go through checks, but often they leave and re-enter secure areas, in exactly the same way as passengers. It should also be noted that, when it comes to airport security, most countries do not trust the private sector! In the United States, prior to September 11 2001 airport screening was provided by private companies contracted by the airline or airport. But within a couple of months of 9/11 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was introduced to take over all security functions. Since then considerable investment has gone into new technologies for scanners, iris recognition devices and so on.

In addition to all this, airport authorities, especially in the US, are investing heavily in programmes used to detect unusual behaviour at airports and some of these have been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, as the number of complaints about aspects of these measures has increased. Yet similar measures are being adopted by some airports in the UK. Both critics and supporters of such psychological profiling pose the same question: is it possible to know whether people are being deceptive, or planning hostile acts, just by observing their behaviour in what are stressful circumstances for many?

At London’s Heathrow airport, the UK government is deploying behaviour-detection officers in a trial modelled in part on a programme called ‘Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques’ (Spot) in the US. This was exposed as ridiculous in March 2015, when documents about its methods of detecting a potential terrorist were leaked: the “stress factors” noted by Spot as signs of a “potential threat” while passengers were waiting for security checks included arriving late for your flight, blinking too much, sweating and “excessive yawning”.5

Then there is the programme sponsored by the department of human services using electronic sensors to monitor and evaluate ‘non-verbal behaviours’, and so identify suspected terrorists as they pass along a corridor. This programme has been severely criticised for the “non-scientific method used in such evaluations”. A committee concluded that a similar ‘hit rate’ would be achieved by flipping a coin. So far Spot has cost over a billion dollars and is deployed in most US airports, yet, according to a report by the US Government Accountability Office, it should not have been deployed “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment”.

Between 2006 and 2009 Spot identified over 200,000 passengers as showing ‘signs of suspicious behaviour’ and they were subjected to ‘secondary screening’ - thorough inspection of baggage and extensive testing for signs of explosives. The agency found that in the vast majority of cases nothing was found, although 1,710 people were arrested. As far as the TSA is concerned, this proves the programme is useful - even though the arrests were almost all “for criminal activities, such as outstanding warrants, completely unrelated to terrorism”.6 In fact there is serious doubt whether “the Spot programme has ever resulted in the arrest of anyone who is a terrorist, or who was planning to engage in terrorist-related activity”.7 Meanwhile, around 99% of those identified as suspicious were delayed or inconvenienced for no good reason.

The US authorities have financed a number of other ‘research’ projects on the issue of airport safety, Future Attribute Screening Technology (Fast) is one of many such projects, based on the same principles used by lie detector polygraphs. It assesses psycho-physiological responses to a series of security questions by measuring respiration, heart rate and electrical resistance of the skin. Unlike polygraphs, where sensors are placed against the suspect’s body, Fast uses ‘stand-off’ sensors and thermal cameras to record changes in body temperature and laser technology to monitor heart rates. And now Fast is considering the introduction of ‘psychological profiling’, whereby a suspect will be shown pictures and subjected to sounds and their reaction will be recorded. Unsurprisingly, Fast has come under just as much criticism as Spot. A well trained terrorist or professional hit man can hide signs of stress (which affects many innocent passengers, who may be held for hours).

The ban on carrying weapons and sharp objects is completely understandable, but what about the regulation limiting the carrying of liquids to 100ml containers on flights, which has been in operation since 2006 at British airports? It has been alleged that bombers have been prepared to mix hydrogen peroxide with soft drinks, and use the electric element of a light bulb, with a disposable camera as a power source, in order to cause a mid-air explosion. This ban, which has affected millions of passengers, is widely regarded as virtually useless - for example, liquids, aerosols or gels used for medical purposes or for babies are exempt.

Clearly airport security has its limitations. Many measures currently deployed in airports worldwide are redundant. Yet, in a world where global travel is part of everyday life, there is no such a thing as absolute safety, and the problem of passenger security cannot be resolved through such measures. Ditching those that are a patent waste of time and the cause of untold inconvenience would be a step forward.

This is not to deny the reckless brutality of jihadists such as IS, but their very existence resulted from the even greater recklessness and barbaric destruction wreaked by the imperialists in the Middle East. Over the last 10 days the British government and military have tried to use this latest tragedy to renew calls for military intervention in Syria. Defence secretary Michael Fallon has argued that it is “morally indefensible” for Britain to refuse to join French and American warplanes in bombing IS targets. Given the fact that Russia became an IS target after its own military involvement, the minister’s logic is flawed, to say the least.



1. . www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11981239/Russian-plane-crash-sharm-el-sheikh-stranded-British-tourists-missile-latest-updates.html.

2.. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-34758441.

3.. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/09/middleeast/egypt-kills-terrorist-isis-sinai.

4.. www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34731146.

5. . www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/leaked-us-security-documents-reveal-how-to-spot-a-terrorist-trying-to-board-a-plane-10145842.html.

6.. www.nature.com/news/2010/100526/full/465412a.html.

7.. www.doctorsreview.com/history/face-deceiver.