Pando

The War Nerd: That Russian airliner... bomb or loose screw?

By Gary Brecher , written on November 5, 2015

From The War Desk

As soon as I heard a Russian charter plane had crashed on its way back from Sharm-el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, I started trying to guess the odds.

Because there are two very good possibilities here: either it was a bomb planted by Islamists angry at Russia’s intervention in Syria, or…well, to understand the second possibility, you have to have taken one of these winter charter flights from Moscow to Sharm.

I did. Three times, in fact. When I was living in Moscow in the early 2000s, you could get package deals for about $300 that included return airfare, with a week and two meals a day (good meals, too) in one of the very glitzy, mostly empty hotels along the shoreline of Sharm. Those hotels were built in the expectation that wealthy North Europeans would book them to capacity every winter. It didn’t happen, at least not then.

Too many scary things were happening to tourists in Egypt. The cautious Germans, British, and Swedes went to safer places, like Thailand or Crete. Only Russians and Ukrainians would still book winter breaks in Sharm, because Eastern Slavs don’t scare easily. And since most Russians didn’t have the kind of money that Germans and Danes can casually throw away on a week in the sun, prices for these hotels dropped, until they were such a bargain that even expat Muscovites like us abandoned our Anglo caution and paid our $300.  

And we had a great time. There are still reefs in the Red Sea, not dead yet. To see coral reefs is something like a moral duty, if only so that someone can tell future generations what they were like. We floated over lionfish, brain coral, swarms of damselfish, then trooped uphill to the giant buffets to gorge ourselves. I shouted the triumphant cry of every fat buffet-warrior: “Whoa, they lost money on me!” I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t gourmet or whatever, but it tasted great and there was a lot of it. The rooms were air-conditioned and had nice soft beds. And the reefs were a few meters offshore. What more could a sane person want?

That’s not to say that Sharm was ever a safe place, even if you survived the flight from Moscow. Egypt has never been a safe place. For that matter, no Middle Eastern city is a safe place. It’s not terrorism you have to fear, most of the time. It’s the traffic that will kill you. Last year, two tour buses full of Ukrainians and Yemenis crashed into each other, killing 33 tourists and injuring many more. As the BBC noted,

“Egypt’s roads and railways have a notoriously poor safety record.”

To get anywhere from Sharm, which is way out on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, you have to get in a minibus. These are the same sheet-metal shells they used to call “Gazelki” in Moscow, where they’re used as cheap mass transit. They crash in Moscow too, so often that the Russian tabloids had a running research project trying to figure out which seat was the most lethal of all. But that research project wouldn’t even make sense on the desert roads out of Sharm, where your driver – who’s also your waiter, and a veteran video-game player – is trying to see if he can push your minibus over 100km/hr in time to pass a truck on a blind curve.

Then there are the bugs. Those buffets are feeding more than one species, and many of the others are just as happy in your guts as on an unrefrigerated tray of hummus. I remember one preview of Hell, when a certain friend who shall be nameless, except his name is Mark D. Ames, had the bright idea of touring St. Catherine’s monastery, deep in the dry hills of Sinai. My stomach was already making some interesting industrial music, but I piled into the minibus with Mark, Nastya, and Katherine (the secular Katherine), and off we zoomed. Our driver was trying to scare us, as is the custom. He failed; we’d been taking taxis in Moscow, and very little could scare us. But those sudden dodges when a truck zoomed past us on hairpin turns were stirring the viral stew in my innards. A few miles inland, I needed a toilet badly. And we were still 40 km from that monastery. I hated that monastery before I even saw it. Why can’t these Salafists be a little more thorough? What the Hell is an Orthodox monastery doing here in the khilafa?

It’s 211 kilometers from Sharm to that monastery. Three hours without traffic, over winding mountain roads. Quite a little jaunt when you’re trying to keep your intestines from flooding the entire minibus. I don’t think I’ve ever hated this planet as much as I did when we finally came in sight of this monument to stubborn obscurantism, and I piled out, walked stiffly down a gauntlet of huge, stinking, cud-chewing camels, and saw the even more noisome pit toilet awaiting me. I’m told I was delirious that night, they had to get a doctor, but I don’t remember anything except the heroic, silent (well, mostly silent) struggle to keep my innards on the inside, all those 211 km back to our hotel.

Alongside these banal, non-ideological threats to your life, there are the bombs. There have been lots of bombs in Sharm, as you’d expect when large numbers of kuffar come into the very middle of the Middle East. Who lays out the food at those buffets? Some guy from a lower Egyptian town like Luxor, where they don’t hold with bikinis, or single women, or booze, or pretty much anything associated with swarms of Muscovite tourists. This guy makes Egyptian wages, which is to say nothing; he wants money and a car, but he also wants the usual mix of revenge, vindication and mayhem in general, like most 20-year old males.

The biggest Sharm-el-Sheikh bombing was in 2005, a year after our last visit. It was a typical multi-bomb attack, with the last and biggest bomb a truck-borne monster that killed at least 45 people.

Long before those bombs went off, Islamists in Luxor slaughtered 60 foreign tourists visiting the Temple of Hatshephut in Luxor. (It’s an interesting touch, though probably just a coincidence, that these tourists were making a kind of kuffar pilgrimage to the one female pharaoh of the polytheistic ancient regime.) That one was particularly nasty: the attackers killed the security guards and killed the foreigners with AKs, knives, and hatchets, mutilating the corpses if they had time.

Then there were the sharks. As if to remind us tourist lemmings that Sharm was not a safe place, a half-dozen waders and swimmers at Sharm were maimed, one of them fatally, in 2010, in “a series of unprecedented attacks.” It had the feel of a Ballard novel, a world suddenly determined to get rid of us. No one could make much sense of the attacks, though one theory, linking up to the Salafist wave, said that ships carrying sheep to feed pilgrims making hijra had dumped dead sheep in the Red Sea off Sharm, drawing the sharks.

But these were minor risks, compared to the problem of getting there in the first place. You had a good chance of living through your cheap, gluttonous week in Sharm—provided you survived the flight from Moscow. And then, of course, there was the problem of the flight back.

One of the reasons your week in Sharm was so cheap is that the Moscow tourist agencies rent Siberian charter planes. Now, a Siberian charter plane is going to have an interesting history. It will have been the property of the Soviet state once. After that, it would have been privatized by some local gangsters, then sold on to some other, smoother gangster who invested in a new logo, called his fleet an airline, and passed it on to whichever Moscow entrepreneur had made a deal with the big, empty hotels along the Sharm beaches.

And nowhere in this process would any maintenance have occurred. Maintenance costs money, and this was a tight operation. You need to cut costs, when you’re selling people air fare, a week in quite a luxurious hotel and two meals a day for about $300. One good place to save money is aircraft maintenance.

I don’t remember the names of the “airlines” on whose rickety, broken planes we flew to and from Sharm. They weren’t airlines you’d ever see at a hub, or ever see advertising their smiling attendants on TV. They seemed to have the syllables “Sibir-“ most of the time, suggesting they’d done time out in the far reaches of the Russian world, where the passengers really, really mean it when they applaud a successful landing. You pay your money and you take your chance.

“Metrojet,” the so-called airline flying the plane that crashed in Sinai, has a very typical history for this sort of Russian Sharm charter:

“Metrojet changed its trade name after a 2011 accident in which one of its planes, a Soviet-made Tu-154, caught fire while taxiing out before takeoff, killing three people and injuring more than 40 others.

“The airline, previously called Kogalymavia, was founded in 1993, when the Soviet state monopoly, Aeroflot, split into hundreds of small airlines, some of them with just one or two planes. Kogalymavia, which drew its name from the city of Kogalym in the oil-rich western Siberia, has run a network of domestic flights and later extended its operations to charter flights abroad.

“In 2010, one of its Tu-154 jets chartered by an Iranian carrier but operated by Kogalymavia's crew, made a rough landing in deep fog in Iran, injuring more than 40 people.

In 2012, the airline rebranded itself and ditched its fleet of aging Soviet-built airliners to acquire seven Airbus A321-200s and a few other planes.

“Metrojet, the trade name for the company which is still registered as Kogalymavia, is part of a commercial holding that also includes Brisco tourist company. The airline has been widely used by Brisco and other Russian tourist companies for charter flights to Egypt and other popular tourist destinations.”

Every time a plane like that makes it into the air without burning, crashing, or otherwise making you regret your decision to trade low price for high risk, its passengers start celebrating. By which I mean, getting very drunk on Konyak. That’s “Konyak,” with two “k”s, no “c’”s. It comes from Armenia, or so it claims, though some have suggested “the pits of Hell,” or “Mount Doom” as more likely distilleries. I tried some once, with vobla, dried fish. This is apparently the combination preferred by “authentic” working-class Russians. In which case, authentic Russians are insane. I had to get the taxi to stop so I could lean out and vomit it up. Never again.

So, for our first trip to Sharm, we thought ahead and bought a bottle of nice clean vodka at the Duty Free at Domodedevo. Our fellow passengers, vile gopniki to a man (and woman), had stuffed their pockets with konyak. But they saw us buy the vodka. That was our mistake.

About halfway through the flight, as the noise from the back of the plane went from drunken shrieks to hungover mumbles, a delegation of our fellow passengers came forward to talk. They squatted in the aisle, breathing on me—Konyak! I recognized that perfume, all right—and they asked me my name.

“Dzzzhhhon,” they slurred, “You have vodka?” Yes, I had vodka. In the carry-on. It seemed they wanted it. I declined. This offended them. They stopped smiling. They mumbled to each other, too fast and slangy for me to get. But the gist was clear: “Can we kill this guy and get the vodka?” If we’d been in some nice quiet park, I’d have died right there, but a plane—even a charter plane to Sharm—is a little more public. They thought it over, blinking and cursing slowly. They retreated to strategize. A new ambassador came from the back seats to try again. He was their designated charmer, apparently. He failed too, and cursed me to my face. It’s easy to imagine a jet going down via mass-attack on cockpit by the passengers, Flight 93 style, if the lumpen charter passengers had heard a rumor that the pilots were hoarding konyak.

The attendant—there was only one—paid no attention as the threats got more direct. Then we landed, and they settled for cursing us, in detail, head to toe, no feature spared, no critique left unsaid, on the shuttle bus to Egyptian customs.

On another of our Sharm trips, we made the mistake of arriving with rubles, not dollars. Egyptian Customs wouldn’t take them (“The ruble is NOTHING here!”) and none of our hungover, sullen fellow passengers would trade me rubles for dollars, even when I offered ten times the going rate. It gave them far more pleasure to watch our discomfiture. The malice on those faces! I’ll never forget it.

The fat Egyptian Customs man finally let us through, after giving us a stern lecture on the evils of childlessness. That lecture was another reminder of the many unsuspected ways in which your very presence offends the locals. I knew they didn’t like single women, or women in undress, but it hadn’t occurred to me that simply by being there, married without children, we offended their sense of what was right. Until you’ve lived among them for a while, you can’t imagine how many things that you think of as neutral or insignificant trigger the hyperactive indignation reflex of some Sunni Muslim men.

You have to imagine how many times a day, just walking around a place like Sharm, you accidentally enrage all the low-paid locals you encounter. It’s usually not simple rage; there’s almost always an element of envy as well. But envy can be as lethal as simple outrage. Add the profit motive—“How much will you take to let me slip this package into the cargo hold?” and you can see that it’s very, very easy to imagine that an altitude-triggered bomb was quietly stowed in the hold of that Russian plane.

But it’s equally easy to imagine that the maintenance supervisors at Metrojet were on a tight budget, and told their crew to sign off before they did a serious check of the aircraft. It’s happened many times before, and ended with a column of black smoke rising from the taiga.

So at the moment, it’s hard to say which theory works better, bomb or simple sloppiness. And what makes it even harder to guess is the fact that this crash happened after a relentless, sometimes ridiculous, propaganda campaign in the NATO press claiming that Russia would suffer terrible retribution for daring to intervene in Syria.

It’s not hard to find headlines like “Russia Will Pay Price for Syrian Airstrikes, Says US Defence [sic] Secretary” or “US Predicts Russia to Suffer ‘Reprisal Attacks and Casualties’ for Syria Air Strikes” or the ever-popular, idiotic Afghan analogy: “Could Syria Be Putin’s Afghanistan?”

These stories aren’t warnings. You couldn’t even really call them threats. They’re more like prayers: “Please, God, let something bad happen to the Russians for intervening in our intervention.”

And to the mainstream NATO press, this Sinai jet crash is like an answered prayer, at the low cost of 224 lower-middle class Russian lives.

Which is why I’m waiting, this time, until there’s very good, hard evidence that a bomb brought it down. There are too many people cheering for Islamic State here—which is creepy enough—and praying to whatever dark God they worship that this was something more than an ordinary Russian-charter sleaze crash.

There’s one even darker possibility here, if we’re going to talk conspiracy scenarios: that some Western intelligence agency did more than pray for a crash like this. Most Salafist militias are half-full of double agents. And there are agencies, starting with Mossad and the CIA, which are quite capable of taking a proactive stance, rather than simply leaving the crash of a Sharm charter from Russia to time and chance.

Mossad is a particularly interesting possibility here, either with CIA help or acting on its own. Israel has been very oddly quiet about the Russian intervention in Syria, and when Israel is quiet you should worry. Any of the many competing American intelligence agencies is also a possibility. When the US Secretary of Defense says, as he did, that Russia will suffer consequences for its intervention, it’s very possible that one of his subordinates decided to make an impression on the boss by seeing to it that his prediction came true. If we’re going to speculate, why not start there? Those agencies have a much more formidable record than the loose aggregation of pissed-off dullards who call themselves Islamic State.

And in the meantime, try imagining the truly alarming clinks, clanks, thunks, and moans one hears when one of those “Metrojet” style charters takes off. Imagine that, and leave some room in your probability pie charts for a hungover, hurried, underpaid maintenance crew.