Russian plane crash: ISIS chatter supports bomb theory, officials say

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Handout pictures taken on November 2, 2015 and released on November 3, 2015 by Russia's Emergency Ministry shows Russian emergency services personnel and Egyptian servicemen working at the crash site of a A321 Russian airliner in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Russian airline Kogalymavia's flight 9268 crashed en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg on October 31, killing all 224 people on board, the vast majority of them Russian tourists.

CAIRO — ISIS’ affiliate in Egypt says it brought down Metrojet Flight 9268. And U.S. officials are more confident that terrorists bombed the Russian plane.

Yet key questions remain: If terrorists did plant a bomb, how did they do it? And what could prevent that from happening again?

Metrojet Flight 9268 was ascending on autopilot when it apparently broke up in midair about 23 minutes after takeoff, said the head of Egypt’s investigation, Ayman al-Muqaddam, pointing to information gleaned from the plane’s recorders. It was flying at about 281 knots (323 mph) at the time.

Here’s the latest on what we know about the disaster that killed 224 people:

The bomb theory

Several senior U.S. intelligence, military and national security officials have told CNN about the growing confidence that the plane was bombed by terrorists.

One official said it was “99.9% certain.” Another said it was “likely.”

The plane was headed from the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 31. But not long after takeoff, it disintegrated midair and crashed in the Sinai Peninsula.

Egyptian officials, who are leading the main crash investigation, haven’t expressed as much confidence in the bomb theory.

“All the scenarios” are still on the table, said Ayman al-Muqaddam, the head of the investigation.

“We don’t know what happened exactly,” he said.

The Egyptians aren’t the only ones involved. Experts from Russia, France, Germany and Ireland — countries that are connected in various ways to the Airbus A321-200 that crashed — are also investigating.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed to reporters Monday that the UK had provided Russia with data on the downing of the jet.

Meanwhile, talks between U.S., Russian and Egyptian officials about the potential scope of American assistance in the investigation are ongoing. U.S. law enforcement officials told CNN that the FBI is already offering limited support but has no plans at present to send a team to the region.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Monday that Russian experts may receive the first forensic analysis data potentially revealing traces of explosive substances on the wreckage as early as Thursday. But more definitive conclusions could take longer, according to the report.

Sources: Israel provided intercepts

At least some of the intelligence intercepts being used to assess what happened to the jetliner came from Israeli intelligence, according to a U.S. official briefed on the intelligence as well as a diplomatic source.

The communications were captured by Israeli intelligence focused on the Sinai and passed along to the United States and Britain, the sources said.

Israeli officials would not comment on the claims.

Muqaddam said Egypt had not been provided any information or evidence tied to reports suggesting that a bomb took down the flight, and he urged the sources of the reports to pass along related evidence to Egyptian investigators.

ISIS chatter analyzed

The belief that a bomb was most likely to blame centers, to a large extent, on British and U.S. intercepts of communications after the crash from the Islamic militant group ISIS’ affiliate in Sinai to ISIS operatives in Syria, officials said.

The Sinai affiliate has publicly claimed responsibility for downing the plane, but so far hasn’t explained how it was done. That’s prompted questions about the claim among some observers, considering ISIS’ tendency to often publicize its acts for propaganda value.

The ISIS messages monitored by British and American intelligence agencies are separate from the group’s public claims, a U.S. official has said.

The two Western countries have been analyzing the specific language in the chatter to determine to what extent the operatives were talking about the type of bomb and detonator used, and whether that language was a true representation of what happened, one official told CNN.

Several officials said it’s the specificity of the chatter that has contributed to the U.S. and British view that a bomb was most likely used.

Mysterious noise

European investigators who analyzed the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder say the crash was not an accident, CNN affiliate France 2 reported.

The investigators said the cockpit voice recorder indicates an explosion, and the flight data recorder shows the blast was not accidental, the affiliate said.

But Muqaddam, the head of the investigation, did not echo those details.

He confirmed a noise was heard in the final second of the cockpit recording as the aircraft was on autopilot and ascending. But he offered no description of the sound, saying a specialized analysis would be carried out to identify it.

The crash might have been caused by a lithium battery or a mechanical issue, Muqaddam said.

He also said that bad weather has hampered the investigation.

More victims identified

The remains of more than 100 victims have been identified through DNA testing, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets said, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

The vast majority of the passengers were Russian. The others were of Ukrainian, Belarusian or unconfirmed citizenship.

Russian media said the disaster created many orphans, as many parents left their children with relatives as they went on vacation to Sharm el-Sheikh.