SINAI PENINSULA, Eg. – A U.S. intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press told The Washington Post today that “overwhelming evidence” suggests an air-to-air missile, rather than an on-board explosive device, likely brought down Metrojet Flight 9268 over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last Saturday. The Russian commercial airliner was bound for St. Petersburg but crashed shortly after departing from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport in Egypt with 224 people on board.
An Egyptian militant group affiliated with the Islamic State released a statement on Twitter claiming responsibility for the crash but Egyptian officials have not yet put forth an official statement citing the cause of the crash. “All scenarios are out on the table,” Ayman al-Muqaddam, Egypt’s chief investigator told reporters Saturday. “We don’t know what happened exactly.” Al-Muqaddam added that ISIS has been known to lay claim to events well beyond the scope of its capabilities.
Despite Egypt’s uncertainty, new intel obtained by the United States seems to rule out the possibility of Islamic extremism altogether, instead suggesting the crash was the result of a retaliatory attack carried out by Malaysia Airlines against Russia. U.S. military satellite imagery and radar analysis indicate an AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missile launched from an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone struck the aircraft shortly after takeoff as it few over the Sinai Peninsula.
Intelligence officials believe Malaysia Airlines, one of roughly a dozen commercial airline companies that maintain a small fleet of unmanned aerial drones, carried out the attack in response to Russia’s involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. Two hundred and eighty-three passengers and fifteen crew members were killed when MH17 crashed near Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, approximately 40 kilometers from the Russian border. An investigation led by the Dutch Safety Board determined the commercial airliner was struck by a missile fired from a Buk SA-11 surface-to-air missile system located inside Ukrainian territory.
The downing of MH17 by pro-Russian separatists was the second major incident resulting in loss of life for Malaysia Airlines that year. Four months prior to the crash, on March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 lost contact with air traffic controllers less than an hour after its departure from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and was believed to have gone down somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean.