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Ten days ago, a Russian plane leaving the Egyptian resort city of a Sharm el-Sheikh crashed over the Sinai Peninsula. What caused the mid-air explosion is still under investigation but this hasn’t stopped leaders of various countries from putting forth conflicting theories. Officials in the U.K. have suggested the cause was terrorism. President Obama said it may have been a bomb. As speculation surrounds the possible of involvement of ISIS, Egyptian and Russian authorities are downplaying any possibility of terrorism. Guest host Tom Gjelten discusses the latest on the Russian plane crash, ISIS and what the incident means for air travel and security.
- Peter Bergen CNN's national security analyst; a vice president and director of the international security program at New America; author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden - From 9/11 to Abbottabad."
- Paul Pillar Non-resident senior fellow, Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University; former CIA National Intelligence officer
- Chad Wolf Vice president, Wexler|Walker; former assistant administrator for security policy, Transportation Security Administration.
- Mervat Hatem Political science professor at Howard University.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back tomorrow. At a press conference over the weekend, the Egyptian official leading the investigation into the Russian plane crash in the Sinai said it's still too early to say what happened, but British and American officials are suggesting a bomb may have been planted on the plane.
MR. TOM GJELTENFor the latest on the investigation, the possible involvement of ISIS and the air travel and security implications, I'm joined in the studio by Peter Bergen of New America, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, Mervat Hatem of Howard University and Chad Wolf of the consulting firm, Wexler/Walker. I'm sure you have a ton of questions about the crash. I know I do.
MR. TOM GJELTENYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send in your comments or questions via Facebook or Twitter. Thanks to all of you for coming in.
MR. PAUL PILLARThank you, Tom.
GJELTENPeter Bergen, what's the latest on the investigation? What have we learned over the weekend? What security officials here and elsewhere already know about what happened?
MR. PETER BERGENWell, I think the biggest story on the weekend was the Reuters reporter quoting an Egyptian investigator who said there was a 90 percent chance of it being a bomb on the plane because we've had a wealth of American and British officials saying that it, you know, looks like a bomb or somebody telling CNN, for instance, US intelligence official, there was a 99.9 percent likelihood it was a bomb.
MR. PETER BERGENBut for member of the Egyptian team to concede at least privately that there was a bomb on the plane, I think, shows that there was a bomb on the plane.
GJELTENAnd Paul, as Peter just said, the Egyptians are not seeming to be open to this possibility. What about the Russians? We were talking before, the Russians have now, like the UK, suspended flights from Sharm El Sheikh. What does that tell you about what the Russians think?
PILLARThe suspension of the flights certainly says a lot about what the Russians think, that they would agree that it was likely sabotage and likely a bomb. They are not talking in those terms explicitly, partly because they do not want to draw attention to the possibility that this would've been terrorist retaliation for anything they're doing in Syria. So I expect Mr. Putin and his advisors in the Kremlin are still thinking long and hard about what the public posture is going to be.
PILLARBut in terms of their private conclusions, I think the cancellation of the Russian flights speaks a lot.
GJELTENYeah. Chad Wolf, you used to work at the Transportation Security Administration. If this had been an incident where a US aircraft or a US airport had been involved, would we know more about what had happened than we know now?
MR. CHAD WOLFI think so 'cause you're going to have a different set of folks involved in the investigation. This is happening overseas so US is getting information secondhand in some cases. So if this were to happen here domestically, you know, you have a different set of officials, both at TSA and the law enforcement community. So, yeah, I think we would know -- they would get a little bit better firsthand knowledge.
GJELTENAnd what would be some of the things that investigators would be looking at?
WOLFYeah. From TSA's perspective, they're going to be interested in a couple of different things. On, if it was a bomb, how was this loaded onto the aircraft? Is this an insider threat? Is this an airport worker getting access to the cargo hold? Is it in checked baggage? Did it come through the checkpoint? These are all questions that TSA needs to understand so that they can make any changes if they need to.
WOLFSecondly, they're going to be extremely interested in what type of explosive is involved here and can their systems here in the US detect that explosive. So we have equipment across the airports here in the US that are looking for very specific things based on intelligence. And so TSA is going to be driven by what comes out of the investigation to see if they need to make any changes here domestically.
GJELTENMervat Hatem, Peter mentioned that Egyptian officials are now talking about the possibility of this being a bomb. How significant is that and how much of a change is that from what Egyptian officials were saying in the beginning.
MS. MERVAT HATEMI mean, publically, they continue to maintain that this is a premature judgment and that we need to wait until a resolution is made by the committee that is looking at it, largely because the regime has presented itself to the general public and also the world as one that is capable of delivering security and they have also made the comparison between their ability to control Sinai, basically, the rise of a variety of different groups that are not only against the government of President Sisi, but also identified with IS.
MS. MERVAT HATEMAnd therefore, I mean, it's very interesting that, of course, I'm not of the mind that the Egyptians were not taking seriously security concerns at that airport, even though it is a small airport and simply deals with basically tourists. I think that they wanted very much to be able to present themselves as having controlled the activities, the hostile activities by many of these groups in Sinai and all of this happened while President Sisi was visiting the UK.
MS. MERVAT HATEMAnd he thought of this as a state visit in which he is going to present himself as the granter of security in an important country. And, of course, the fact that the crash happened on that day meant that that particular scenario was not going to be presented to the British public and then the world as a whole.
GJELTENIt must have been really embarrassing for him to have to deal with this and the UK cancelling flights from Egypt, from Sharm El Sheikh as he was in London.
HATEMExactly. And that they were not consulted. Egyptians were not really consulted when Prime Minister Cameron said that it was likely the result of a terrorist operation and that from then on, they were no longer in control of basically the conversation about what happened and what role they played or did not play in this.
GJELTENPeter, let's just review, before we go on, what the intelligence is about this. There's been talk about -- there is -- of course, they do have the -- because this happened over land, they were able to go directly to the crash site and see all of the equipment and so forth. What have they been able to recover and what have they learned from the equipment and the black boxes and so forth that they have recovered?
BERGENWell, I think the main thing they've learned from the black box is that there was an explosion 24 minutes into the flight and the, you know, that's what the, you know, there's not -- there was no mechanical failure that proceeded that explosion and there was no call of distress from the cockpit. So clearly, it was a very, very, very, you know, intense explosion that happened very quickly, and suddenly the plane blew up. And that's what's leading people to the bomb. That's the most important part.
BERGENAnd then, of course, there's also some, you know, there's been a fair amount of discussion about ISIS chatter. You know, some of that can be discounted as, you know, gossip about stuff, but I mean, I think the reason that Cameron was able to come out and say so definitively so quickly that they thought it was a bomb was probably because of some ISIS communications that had been interrupted by either the Israelis, the Americans or the British or all of the above, that brought them to that conclusion, in addition to the fact that later, you've for this kind of -- that the investigation leading you there as well.
GJELTENPaul Pillar, you spent many years at the Central Intelligence Agency. When the president of the United States comes out and says, it may have been a bomb, that seems obvious and yet, for the president to say that, what would be behind that? What would be suggested by him saying that?
PILLARYou know, before we go any further, and relevant to that, Tom, we ought to -- despite all the indications and talk that it's a bomb, we -- until an investigation's complete, we really can't come to closure on this. And the case that really sticks in my mind is the explosion of TWA flight 800 in 1996 off Long Island, which at this point, you know, several days after the incident, was widely regarded as an act of sabotage and it was only much later, after an exhaustive investigation, that it was determined to be an electrical short that ignited an explosion in the fuel tank.
PILLARSo we do have to -- it's not just acquiescence to Sisi and the Egyptians to say we ought not to come to closure to this. So I expect that President Obama's statement recognizes that possibility, does not want to -- even if, in the back of his mind, he's even more certain than 99.9 percent that it was a bomb and sabotage, he does not want to appear to be prejudging or short circuiting whatever investigations the Egyptians and the Russians will be doing, but that for all the reasons that Peter just mentioned, it's likely that that is what happened.
GJELTENIn your view, it's likely that it was an act of terrorism.
PILLARMost likely, but, you know, I am not going to bet my mortgage on it until we have a final determination.
GJELTENSo Peter, what does this indicate? If it, in fact, were an act of terrorism, what does it indicate about what ISIS intends to do if it were ISIS or if it was Al-Qaida? What does this indicate going forward?
BERGENWell, I mean, I think the assumption is ISIS or the ISIS affiliate in Sinai, which is pretty much one and the same thing at this point because it's pledged allegiance to ISIS Central, I mean, I don't think this was necessarily a particularly complicated thing to do. I mean, Sharm El Sheikh, I've talked to British officials who looked at the assessments of the security there and they use words like inconsistent, poorly supervised.
BERGENSo this was, you know, this is not like a getting a bomb into a plane at Heathrow or Frankfort or take your pick of some major Western airport. This was relatively simple to do, if indeed it is a bomb. And so, you know, it does show that ISIS is expanding its targets there and, you know, I don't think that's particularly surprising. They've attacked in Brussels last year so, you know, this is part of a pattern we'll continue to see.
GJELTENPeter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst. He's also a vice president director of International Security Program at New America Foundation. We're talking about the plane crash over the Sinai and speculating about what it might mean. Stay tuned. We're going to take a short break.
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the plane crash over the Sinai that happened 10 days ago. I have a distinguished panel here in the studio. Peter Bergen, who is CNN's national security analyst. He's also the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Also Paul Pillar, the non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA National Intelligence officer. Mervat Hatem is political science professor at Howard University.
GJELTENAnd Chad Wolf, who is vice president of the consulting firm Wexler/Walker. He used to be an assistant administrator for security policy at the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration. And Chad, you wanted to make a point about aviation security. Tell us, again, what can the TSA or any U.S. government agency do about security procedure at other airports or undertaken by other airlines?
WOLFYeah. Well, I think that the incident demonstrates that, you know, the bad guys are still very much interested in aviation as a target, and airlines specifically. And so, obviously, we saw that after 9/11. But as time grows after 9/11, and the urgency of that turns into complacency -- I think a lot of people have talked about that lately, as you've seen TSA in the news about covert test failure rates, things of that nature -- is there a complacency feeling here, at least domestically, when we talk about aviation security? Do people think that we have that solved and we need to move onto other areas?
WOLFAnd so I think this just demonstrates that the bad guys are still very much interested in aviation as a target. And that's something that, you know, we need to think about as we move forward. But, you know, TSA's ability to influence security procedures at airports overseas is limited, frankly. They don't regulate those airports. And so it becomes almost a relationship with that country that has jurisdiction over that airport. And so they have to work any issues that they may have or any concerns that they may have with security at that airport -- becomes a government to government relationship. And so that takes time. And there's other issues involved with that.
GJELTENWell, Paul Pillar, if there's been complacency about the security of air travel, it may have something to do with the fact that explosions -- deliberate explosions onboard aircraft have really been very rare in recent years. There was one in 2004, two planes flying out of Moscow were hit by a pair of apparently female Chechen suicide bombers. But, before that, you have to go back all the way to the 1980s, to Lockerbie and the Korean Air flight that blew up, to find other examples.
PILLARYeah. This is all part of a larger cycle that, what Chad said, fits into. That is to say, there is a tension not just by the terrorists but by us, the public, on particular types of targets and particular vulnerabilities. An incident or a set of incidents or, as you just described, a whole series of incidents take place. And certainly civil aviation, for certain inherent reasons, has always been a very tempting, juicy target for terrorism. And once that occurs, then countermeasures come into place. And, of course, we had -- especially after 9/11 in this country -- a great ramping up of those countermeasures. And that's when terrorists looking to commit mass casualty attacks look someplace else.
PILLARAnd there may be, you know, some other cycle having to do with public places or sports arenas or what have you. Civil aviation will always be attractive, but it's just one of the kinds of targets that go through these sorts of cycles of attraction, attack, and then countermeasures.
GJELTENMervat Hatem, tell us a little bit -- I'm sure that you have been at Sharm el-Sheikh. Tell us, if you can, about that airport and the resort, who goes there and what procedures are like at that airport. What has been your impression?
HATEMI mean, you know, it's a small airport that caters largely to tourists who are headed to Southern Sinai, which is a very attractive and popular tourist destination. I can't imagine that somehow Egyptian officials at that airport have been lax. Some of the reporting -- especially at the time, during the last couple of days -- seems to indicate that there were signs, that there were problems there. But apparently, during his visit to the U.K., President Sisi also indicated that the British -- the British government has been assisting with the security precautions at that particular airport and that the Egyptian government has complied with all of their recommendations.
HATEMYou have to remember, as a result of the 2011 uprising, I mean, the Egyptian economy has been in a downward spiral as a result of the instability that resulted from this. And therefore, tourism, as a source of income to the country, is very important. And therefore, it sounds -- it doesn't sound very logical for them not to pay attention to security in that particular airport. In fact, I mean, given the fact that they have been concerned about the economic performance of the country, the government has been more than willing to work with other international partners to guarantee that there will be this secure source of revenue for the country.
HATEMThe Russians are the largest group of tourists who still flock to Egypt, even during the very unstable years from 2011 to 2013. And apparently, the next largest group are the Brits.
HATEMAnd therefore, one can imagine why the Brits would be involved in securing that particular airport as one way of serving the interests of their nationals who go there.
GJELTENBut, Peter Bergen, it may have nothing to do with the security of the airport. I mean, there's been a lot of talk, hasn't there been, of the possible insider, which would be a way to sort of bypass all the -- you know, if an insider at the airport plants a bomb, the security procedures at the checkpoints and so forth really are irrelevant.
BERGENRight. And, in fact, five American citizens charged with serious -- involved in serious terrorist crimes have worked at American airports: one recruited by ISIS was working at Minneapolis airport, two working, who were recruited by Shabbat, also working at Minneapolis, somebody who was working at JFK as a baggage handler came up with a plan to attack the jet fuel lines there, and somebody who was working in the duty-free at LAX was involved in a plot to attack LAX. So we've had it here. And, in fact, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security released a report in June saying that 73 workers at American airports were in a terrorist database of possible terrorists, which TSA doesn't normally have access to because it's classified.
BERGENSo we, in this country, have a potential problem. And the problem is much worse overseas. And British Airways had an employee who was actually conspiring with a leader of al-Qaida in Yemen to bomb an American-bound plane before he was arrested. Somebody at Heathrow was conspiring with a member of al-Qaida, telling him about the security conditions, et cetera, et cetera. And I think, you know, I think this raises a very good kind of -- it's a big vulnerability that people haven't been paying enough attention to. Luckily, on Friday, DHS announced, you know, more measures at Cairo, at Imam, at Kuwait, these other airports where, you know, the staff isn't really being vetted very properly.
BERGENAnd, of course, Chad will have much more to say about this than I can. But I think this is a big vulnerability that this -- whether or not this turns out to be a bomb, and it looks very likely it is, this is something that we haven't really considered, sort of, as the international community enough. That's a real issue, the real vulnerability for civil aviation.
GJELTENNow, Paul Pillar, Peter just laid out a number of examples of where insiders have tried to sabotage an aircraft. We're talking here about Sharm el-Sheikh, which is on the edge of the Sinai Peninsula. Tell us a little bit about what's going on right now in the Sinai Peninsula in terms of terrorist activity.
PILLARWell, the group that now calls itself the Sinai arm of ISIS has actually been operating for the last few years. These problems in the Sinai began after the instability in Egypt that got rolling around 2011. And it really escalated after the military coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi two years ago. and it was just about a year ago that this group, which formerly called itself something else, said it's pledging allegiance to ISIS and, you know, we're the Sinai branch of it. I think we have to bear this in mind when we consider motives for an attack, if this was indeed a bomb attack, and I might differ a bit from Peter here.
PILLARYou know, I would not describe this group in the Sinai as essentially the same thing as ISIS central. It did have its own separate existence. And that figures into the possible motives here. You know, it may not just directed against the Russians, but this was a target of opportunity by a group that -- whose foremost target is still the Egyptian government of Mr. Sisi, and to do attacks like this, to try to damage further that tourist trade and thus the Egyptian economy and thus try to undermine the Egyptian government.
PILLARThis is exactly the overall strategy that was applied by terrorist groups in Egypt in the 1990s, such as the Egyptian-Islamic jihad that was then headed by Zawahiri, who is now the al-Qaida chief, and Gama'a al-Islamiyya. Those were eventually subdued by the Egyptian security forces. But the whole idea was, attack the tourist trade and damage the economy.
GJELTENPaul Pillar is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA officer. I want to remind our listeners, you can call us and join the conversation, 1-800-433-8850 is our phone number. Mervat Hatem, what will this mean for Egypt going forward, in terms of -- I mean, as you have suggested before, Egypt has already suffered some real serious repercussions from prior terrorist activity and the economic situation is bad already -- what is this -- what does this mean for Egypt going forward?
HATEMWell, tourism contributes something like 12 percent to the gross national product. So it's not a primary source of income. But at a time when the economy is going through a downward spiral -- largely because of the absence of any complicated definition of what the development of the country should be all about -- I mean, I think President Sisi has presented like a series of these big projects as somehow able of generating economic development and providing employment to Egyptians. Unemployment, especially among young people, is extremely high: 25 percent, one in four. And therefore, the loss certainly of tourists...
HATEM...who come to the country, is going to very much undercut basically this group that is already suffering. It is also likely to undermine the kind of support that that group also engaged in, in tourism and tourist businesses have been giving the government. So it has implications also for the political -- the internal political support of the government.
GJELTENMervat Hatem is political science professor at Howard University. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Chad Wolf, what's going on over at TSA right now -- your former agency -- do you think, or at the Department of Homeland Security. I mean, this has to be raising a lot of new concerns about the safety of global air travel.
WOLFAbsolutely. And I think what we saw is that, you know, the statement last week or over the weekend is really where their focus is on international flights coming into the U.S. So, and when TSA stands back and they look at all the threats since 9/11 -- whether that was the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the printer cartridges -- all of these threats have come from flights coming in from the U.S. It really hasn't been here domestically. And that's, you know, where their focus is and probably where their attention is today, which is what can we do to shore up security on these 200-plus airports that have direct flights here into the U.S. We don't...
GJELTENDo you think there'll be any ramping up of security at U.S. airports?
WOLFIt depends on what the intelligence, you know, what the investigation really says at the end of the day. There could be some changes here, domestically, specifically, once they determine what was the explosive, how was it packaged, how was it, you know put on board? And maybe there are tweaks that TSA needs to do here domestically based off of that. But I think, for the foreseeable future, they're going to be focused on those international flights coming in and what can we do to have a better sense of, you know, that we're taking extra precautions.
GJELTENPeter Bergen, I heard over the weekend that the bomb that brought down the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie weighed just one pound. Is it that easy to blow up a plane in midair? I mean, is the technology of blowing up a plane in midair so simple?
BERGENWell, it's been around for a long time. I mean, Lockerbie is -- was 1988.
BERGENSo, I mean, you know, one thing about, you know, that TSA's already done to take some sort of preemptive action on the insider threat, in June they announced they were going to do more background checks for airport employees in this country. They announced more randomized screening of airport employees. They've also limited access to secure areas. You know, if you're working at the gift shop, you can't suddenly be out, you know, where the planes are. And so I think TSA has already made some sort of preemptive efforts to kind of reduce this insider threat here in the country.
GJELTENPaul Pillar, I'm going to need you throughout this hour to keep bringing us back to the point that we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves on this story. But, you know, it's unnerving. And partly because it seems, in many respects, to be kind of a game changer. I mean, ISIS, we now are very accustomed to seeing as a major threat. But isn't it true that, up until now, they've been really focusing primarily on their own territory, gaining new territory, setting up administration and governance? This sounds much more like something that the old al-Qaida might have done.
PILLARThat's a very important point, Tom. And one important difference of strategy and doctrine between al-Qaida and ISIS. Al-Qaida had the whole idea of hitting the far enemy -- that is to say, us -- as a way of, over the long term, sowing discord between us and our other Arab allies. And sometime, way up on the long term, there would be a caliphate established. ISIS is doing it here and now, establishing their mini state, their so-called caliphate on the ground.
GJELTENThe near enemy, they talk about.
PILLARRight. They're focusing -- and they are very much focused on trying to make a go of this mini state of theirs. I think where the issue of possible attacks against us or against the West or against the Russians or anyone else on the outside comes in, to the extent that it wasn't just a matter -- a side-damage from somebody going after the Egyptian government -- is a matter of revenge and retaliation for what's going on in Syria.
PILLARAnd here, I think, what ought to make us nervous is, if the motivation behind this -- and if it was a bomb -- was to retaliate against what Russians are doing in Syria, we should remember that the Russians, despite what they say, really haven't been attacking ISIS directly very much. And most of their airstrikes have been against other opposition groups, which may actually work to ISIS's advantage in many ways. Whereas, we, the United States, have actually been focusing very much on ISIS. So to the extent that this diverging from concentrating on their caliphate and looking at retaliation for what people are doing to them comes into play, we ought to worry about that.
GJELTENSo a lot of questions here, not just about what this means for ISIS, for the United States, for global air travel. What does it mean for Vladimir Putin and for the Russian government, which as Paul Pillar just said has, until now, been sort of staying out of the fight against ISIS in a sense. We're going to take a short break right now. Remember, our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. After this break, we're going to go back to the phones. Stay tuned.
GJELTENAnd hello again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And we're talking about the plane explosion over the Sinai with Peter Bergen from CNN, where he's the National Security Analyst. Paul Pillar, non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center For Security Studies at Georgetown University. Mervat Hatem Political Science Professor at Howard University, and Chad Wolf, a former Assistant to Administrator for Security Policy at the TSA. And please join us by sending in your emails.
GJELTENDrshow@wamu.org or call us, 1-800-433-8850. Chad, I'm going to need you to respond to a tweet from Laura. She says, I purposely carried a pocket knife in my purse every time I would fly, expecting that it would be found by the TSA. On my trip number 70, including many international flights, I gave up. We are completely unprotected.
WOLFYeah, I mean, it's a challenge for TSA. There's a long list of prohibited items that they try to keep off of airplanes. And it's a challenge. And there's a debate on keeping prohibited items off verses, truly, items that can bring down aircraft. And so, when you give screeners a very long list, a very prescriptive list of items to look for, sometimes, and the argument goes, you take their eye off of the bigger fight there of looking for suspicious behavior, looking for other things that are more traditional signs of terrorist behavior. So, it's the constant battle of small pocket knife, or are you looking for something larger?
GJELTENYeah. And Peter Bergen, Rob from Dayton writes, I believe President Putin would like nothing better than to have a good excuse to get into a shooting war in Syria. It distracts people from their domestic woes and gives President Putin an excuse to display international power. Are you convinced by that? I mean, does he really want to get into a major war here?
BERGENI doubt it. I mean, I think he's going to double down, because that's the kind of guy he is, but, you know, the Russian economy is in the, you know, is tanking. The price of oil doesn't help him. And an overseas war is expensive. And you may recall, Tom, that, you know, the White House, in sort of -- was sort of talking maybe, there's a bit of Schadenfreude here at the White House right now. Because the White House was using words like quagmire. And they were, maybe, self- serving perhaps.
BERGENBut they were certainly saying, you know, Putin may have gotten himself into something that he doesn't really, you know, what's the end game here, basically? I mean, I'm sure Putin probably doesn't know either. So, you know, it's a mess. And any time you get into something like a Syrian conflict, you know, it's going to have consequences that you can't, you know, you can't control.
GJELTENAnd Mervat, what, I mean, the Russians, of course, back in the old days, had a very close relationship with the Egyptians and then, lately, under President el-Sisi, President Putin in Russia has been trying to sort of re-engage with Egypt.
HATEMIn fact, President el-Sisi presents himself as a 21st century replica of Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the 1950s, who of course, had very close relations with Russia. And certainly until 1971, and therefore, the Russians are seen as more reliable. There's a great deal of suspicion of western agendas for Egypt. I mean, I think President el-Sisi also seems to encourage these kinds of views. Like, for instance, I mean, since we are talking about the crash of an airplane in Sinai, basically, the Egyptian government has been suggesting that unlike President Mohammad Morsi.
HATEMWho sort of left Sinai open to the Palestinians and Hamas, as well as these other Islamist groups, that he was supported in this by the United States and Israel in their effort to weaken an Egyptian government. That somehow, Western political interest in the Middle East, in ruling over the Middle East, would be facilitated by a weaker Egypt. And the Egyptian government continues to argue, right now, that these accusations about sort of Egypt not being able to protect Egyptian security and security of the region, is part of that agenda of fragmenting Egypt, of weakening the nation state.
HATEMAnd its institutions. And, of course, the military is the group that is governing right now, and therefore, it is easy to conflate their interests with the interest of the state, the Egyptian state.
GJELTENPaul Pillar, we've seen numerous occasions, numerous cases in the past where Russians have sort of, Russian leaders have given into or kind of promoted or fomented a kind of anti-American conspiracy sort of mentality. Do you see something like that possibly developing here, where, you know, sort of the Russians suggest that somehow the CIA or British intelligence might have been behind this in order to make them look bad or weaken Russia, weaken Egypt?
PILLARYou mean the plane incident?
PILLARI wouldn't rule out anything like that, in terms of, at least, you know, spreading rumors that may or may not catch fire. And there may be people in Moscow, in the services, who are hatching those ideas as we speak. And some of them might be thrown out, just for what it's worth, see if it takes hold.
GJELTENLet's go now to Chris, who's on the line from (unintelligible) Maine. Hello, Chris. Thanks for calling The Diane Rehm Show.
CHRISGood morning. Good morning, panel. Great show, by the way.
GJELTENGood. Thank you.
CHRISI have a question. Does anyone know, on the panel, if the wreckage and/or victims, have been chemically analyzed for possible trace elements of explosives and is this a thing that could be done after the dramatic trauma of the plane exploding at so many thousand feet. Would there still be traces of, you know, explosive elements on the victims or the wreckage? And is that an easy job?
GJELTENPeter Bergen, what do you think?
BERGENWell, I think an early report indicated that there had not been -- traces of explosives had not been found on the bodies of some of the passengers that have been recovered. I don't know what to make of that. But, I mean, if a bomb went off, there would be, you know, there would be chemical remnants, so, you know, it may just be too early in the investigation.
GJELTENAnd as we were saying before Chad, if this were the NTSB being involved, we probably, we might very well be further along in this investigation.
WOLFWell, I think we would know a little bit more, a little bit more information might be forthcoming. But, you know, to answer the caller's question, yeah, I think that's a key part of the investigation is the explosive residue, whether it's on the bodies or on the aircraft wreckage itself. Is trying to determine what specifically was used to bring down the aircraft, if it was, in fact, an explosive.
GJELTENAnd Chad, Anthony from Hyattsville, Maryland has another question for you. Anthony, you're on the line on The Diane Rehm Show. Thanks for calling.
ANTHONYYes. I'm glad to call in. I had a question. Everybody wanted to know what happened and we're all going off the technology that last, 20 years, I guess, is going off a voice recorder. Listening to sound. I was wondering how come there aren't any close circuit television or cameras on the planes and how come the data from the black boxes isn't automatically sent to a cloud in case they're damaged or destroyed? I mean, that's done with everyone's cell phone and I don't know why -- there's more cell phones than there are planes, though. I'm sure that can be done.
GJELTENWell Chad, I don't know that a camera would tell you all that much more than a voice recorder, but the second point is actually interesting. Why aren't these data instantly streamed?
WOLFYeah, I know that the FAA and others are taking a look at that, so that the information can be accessed immediately verses the several day, you know, look for the black box. Or, in some cases, weeks and months. I'm not sure exactly what the technology hold ups of doing that. I'm sure there's a cost factor that's heavily involved there. But whether you have close circuit TV or anything else, you know, the data's got to, if the data's on the airplane, it's gotta be retrieved one way or another.
WOLFBut getting it to a cloud or getting it remotely, I think, is a great thing to look at. There's probably going to be some hang ups in doing that, though.
GJELTENPeter Bergen, you've written a lot about Al Qaeda and about ISIS and you and others have suggested that these two terrorist organizations have, in many cases, been rivals. Going back to the question that we were discussing with Paul Pillar earlier, do you see any indications here or, you know, does this bring up, bring to mind, sort of, any scenarios or thoughts about whether Al Qaeda -- ISIS is now adopting Al Qaeda tactics and may even, you know, might we even see some sort of merger of these organizations in the future?
BERGENRight now, yeah, Freud has a wonderful line about the narcissism of minor differences. And, you know, the dispute between ISIS and Al Qaeda is as much about personality as is about, sort of their long term goals, which are essentially the same. Create Taliban style, you know, countries from Indonesia to Morocco and expunge all western influence in the Muslim world. They both have the same angle. But right now, they're locked in a big dispute. But, you know, if indeed this is an ISIS bomb, Al Qaeda is zero for four with trying to get -- bring down planes since 9/11. There was a -- so-called liquid plot to bring down a plane...
BERGEN...that was the underwear bomb, there was the cargo plot, so ISIS has done something...
BERGEN...shoe bomber. Yeah. ISIS has done something that Al Qaeda has been wanting to do, if indeed this turns out to be a bomb. That does put them in the leadership of the global jihadi movement.
GJELTENPaul, do you have any thoughts about that?
PILLARWell, in so far as the retaliation or revenge motive gets ISIS to think more in terms of transnational terrorism and be less narrowly focused on building their caliphate, then I think, in effect, the strategies and doctrines of the two groups merge.
GJELTENIn effect. Let's go now to Pam who's on the line from Lansing, Michigan. Hello, Pam. You have called the Diane Rehm Show.
PAMHello. Hi, thank you very much for taking my call. I'd like to ask Peter Bergen and the rest of your panel, the Israelis have long been considered the gold standard for airport security, and I'd like to know, from their perspective, what are the Israelis doing right that the rest of the world is doing wrong?
BERGENI'll hand it over to Chad, I think. But I mean, you know, the Israelis have -- it's a very small group of people going to Israel, relative to the number of people who fly around the world and they can, you know, if you -- if we did the Israeli solution to all global air travel, we'd all be spending a very, very long time at airports. So, there is a kind of...
GJELTENHow long does it take to get through an Israeli airport checkpoint?
BERGEN...well, I mean, you know...
BERGENYou know, I mean, when I've gone through, it's been, what, I mean, they tell you to be there for like, you know, three hours before the flight.
WOLFI mean, it's an interesting question and it's one that TSA gets a lot of. And you've gotta remember, you know, Israel, for the most part, they are protecting one airport. And they can do that. And there's a different culture than we have here and so, profiling and questions for extended periods of time are commonplace. 450 airports here in the US, different culture requires different procedures.
GJELTENMervat, what's it like, I'm sure you have flown in and out of Egyptian airports many times. What's it like flying in and out of an Egyptian airport as opposed to a US airport, or perhaps an Israeli airport?
HATEMThey're also very meticulous, in terms of more than one checkpoint. Long hours there. They also like have background checks on people who are travelling and therefore it's a very cumbersome process. And I have to say that given the kinds of precautions that they take to make sure that what happened with this particular airplane does not happen makes one wonder what failed in this particular incident.
GJELTENMervat Hatem is Political Science Professor at Howard University. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Mervat, do you remember, I'm sure you do, 1986, the TWA flight 840? That was a flight from Los Angeles to Cairo and it was struck by a bomb beneath a seat, apparently. Was that the incident where the Egyptians were, or was it, where the Egyptians were very reluctant to call this sabotage for a long time?
HATEMHelp me remember. I mean, is this the one in which the pilot was accused of having brought...
GJELTENNo, I think that was a different one.
WOLFThat was Egypt Air 990. It was more recently.
GJELTENAnd, but in that case...
WOLFBut it was the same principle. The Egyptians were extremely reluctant to call cause what it really was, which was a suicidal dive by this one pilot.
GJELTEN...and there was no question about that.
WOLFThere was no question about that. Yeah.
GJELTENWell Mervat, why would the Egyptian authorities be so reluctant to call it terrorism when all the evidence would suggest that it was?
HATEMWhich one are you referring to again?
GJELTENWell, is there a general reluctance here, would you say on the part of -- for all the reasons that you mentioned before, the fear of the repercussions that it would have, the image of Egypt internationally. Is there a reluctance by Egyptian authorities to say terrorism is involved in any of these incidents?
HATEMI mean, given an authoritarian kind of a political system that basically uses force to a very large extent. And presents itself to its own population as well as to the world as being able to control terrorist groups. Clearly, the idea that they would fail in this very important function threatens to undermine the only justification for the way they do business. And they do business through a very high level of force. And therefore, I can see why an authoritarian system of government doesn't really distinguish between instances where it may actually be much better to claim that a mistake was made.
HATEMLike in the case of the particular pilot who might have been responsible for basically that, that airline accident. Yeah.
GJELTENPeter Bergen, Egyptian security forces have confronted jihadi groups in the Sinai repeatedly and at considerable cost. How is there -- how would you evaluate their efforts to combat terrorist groups, particularly in that Sinai Peninsula area?
BERGENI think the Sisi group, the Sisi government is in a process of creating a giant problem that's going to blow up in their faces. Because essentially, they've criminalized the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a movement of millions of people, which was the former government. And therefore, if you are of that sort of view, you're essentially being forced underground. And, you know, the Sisi government is actually worse than the Mubarak government, the previous dictatorship, in terms of the number of people its imprisoned.
BERGENSo yes, they are, you know, in a kind of ham handed way, trying to crack down. But in the long term, their overall strategy, I think, is creating the very environment that produces more of these groups. You know, after all, it was the Egyptian government of the 1990s that incubated the groups that Paul mentioned. The Islamic jihad, which sort of devolved into part of Al Qaeda. So, you know, repression is a reasonable -- it can work to some degree, but it also has longer term consequences if you're just, you know, 80 million people are under the heel of a military dictatorship.
GJELTENWell, as we have tried to emphasize throughout this show, we don't know for sure what happened to that Russian plane over the Sinai. However, the prospect that it was, in fact, an act of terrorism, that in fact, that it might have been ISIS, all of these raise questions that we're going to be looking at for a long time. This could very well be a game changing development in the region. I'd like to thank our guests. Peter Bergen, who is Director of the International Security Program at New America and author of "Manhunt: The 10 Year Search for Bin Laden - From 9/11 to Abbottabad."
GJELTENPaul Pillar, former CIA National Intelligence Officer now at Georgetown University. Mervat Hatem, Political Science Professor at Howard University. And Chad Wolf, former Assistant Administrator for Security Policy at the TSA. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. Thanks for listening.
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