Five days after a Russian plane went down in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian government is scrambling to defend its airport security procedures, even as the US and the UK are suggesting that a bomb is to blame for the crash.
On Thursday, Egypt quietly removed the chief of the Sharm El-Sheikh airport — the resort city from which the Russian airplane took off on Saturday — but the Egyptians are still batting aside suggestions that the crash was the result of a security failure.
"All Egyptian airports apply international standards in airport security measures," the Ministry of Civil Aviation said in an emailed statement. "The hypothesis of detonating the Russian aircraft is not based on facts, the investigation team does not have yet any evidence or data confirming this hypothesis."
When VICE News asked Egypt's civil aviation authority about the removal of the Sharm El-Sheikh airport chief, the response was that Abdel-Wahab Ali had been "promoted" to deputy chief of the Egyptian Airports Company for operations — and that the move was "planned for some time."
On Wednesday, the Islamic State's Sinai affiliate — Ansar Bait al-Maqdis — took credit for taking down the plane killing all 224 passengers, but provided few details of the plot. The plane disappeared from radar just 20 minutes after taking off last Saturday morning. Debris from the plane was later discovered strewn across the central Sinai desert.
Since the Islamic State does not possess the surface-to-air missiles necessary to shoot a jetliner at cruising altitude out of the air, investigators are focusing their attention on the possibility of an on-board bomb.
The tightly controlled Egyptian press has barely reported on the claims made by the Islamic State. In fact, that news did not make the front page of a single major Egyptian outlet on Thursday. One of Egypt's biggest daiiies, Al-Masry Al-Youm led with a story about flooding.
VICE News spoke to several travelers who had passed through the Sharm El-Sheikh airport in recent weeks, and all reported lax security measures. "When I went through , two guys were talking next to the machine and nobody was looking at the monitor," one traveler who wished not to be identified said. "People were just walking straight through with liquid, they weren't stopping anyone."
This state of of affairs was confirmed by an anonymous source at the airport, who told the Guardian on Thursday that British authorities had already raised questions about security measures at the airport last year. "The system was the problem. The British complained then that they weren't checking people enough," an anonymous official told the Guardian."We should have done more. The security could have been improved by putting another scanner outside and updating the others."
The UK has sent a team of investigators to Sharm El-Sheikh to evaluate security measures, and suspended all flights between the resort town and the UK in the meantime. "Intelligence and information we had that gave us the concern that it was more likely than not a terrorist bomb," Prime Minister David Cameron said on Thursday, adding that "there's still an investigation taking place in Egypt. We need to see the results of that investigation."
US officials had also hinted on Wednesday that the evidence suggested the plane was bombed.
If true, that scenario would prove quite embarrassing to Egypt and its President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, a former general whose political persona is largely staked on his security bonafides. El-Sissi is currently on an official visit in the UK, where he has said any suggestion that the Russian plane was bombed is "propaganda."
The Russian government, which is engaged in a bombing campaign against the Islamic Stae in Syria, also urged caution. "Any sort of version of what happened and the reasons for what happened can only be put forward by the investigation and we have not heard any announcements from the investigation yet," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. "Any other proposed explanations seem like unverified information or some sort of speculation."
The investigation on the ground is being carried out by the Russians and the Egyptians, but US and European officials have revealed that the plane's black box shows a sudden break in the recording — a strong indication of an in-flight disturbance. American military officials have said that satellite imagery shows a flash of light just as the plane broke apart in mid air.
But the Egyptian instinct to downplay the terrorist scenario is understandable: tourism comprises nearly 10 percent of the country's economy, and Sharm El-Sheikh is one of Egypt's most popular destinations.
Mohamad Ezz contributed reporting from Cairo for this story.