The Cable

U.S. Intel Chief: Too Soon to Say if Islamic State Downed Russian Jetliner

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the United States doesn’t have any “direct evidence” that terrorists downed a Russian airliner in Egypt Saturday, but said he couldn’t conclusively rule out that the Islamic State had the capability to shoot down such a craft.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 02: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper speaks about threats to the US during the Defense One annual Summit November 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Clapper spoke about what should be a priority to the US in the ageÊevolving threats.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 02: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper speaks about threats to the US during the Defense One annual Summit November 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. Clapper spoke about what should be a priority to the US in the ageÊevolving threats. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the United States doesn’t have any “direct evidence” that terrorists downed a Russian airliner in Egypt Saturday, but said he couldn’t conclusively rule out that the Islamic State had the capability to shoot down such a craft.

“There is a very aggressive ISIL chapter in the Sinai, but we really don’t know,” Clapper told a conference in Washington organized by the online publication Defense One, using an acronym for the terrorist group. “I think once the black boxes have been analyzed … perhaps we’ll know more.”

Confusion over the downing of the jet, which killed 224 people and stands as one of the worst aviation tragedies in Russia’s history, continued on Monday after a top executive of the Russian airline, Kogalymavia, insisted that his company didn’t bear responsibility for the crash.

“We completely rule out a technical defect of the aircraft or an error by the pilots,” Alexander Smirnov, deputy chief executive of Kogalymavia, said at a press conference in Moscow. In remarks that raised more questions than answers, Smirnov said: “The only explicable cause … could be mechanical impact on the aircraft.” It was not immediately clear what he was referring to or what evidence he was basing his information on.

The comments were at odds with those of Natalya Trukhacheva, the wife of co-pilot Sergei Trukachev. According to the Associated Press, she told Russian state-controlled NTV that her husband telephoned her before the crash to say that “the technical condition of the aircraft left much to be desired.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been uncharacteristically quiet since the plane went down. On Monday, in his first comments since the crash, he described it as “enormous tragedy.” Putin and other top Russian officials have yet to say whether they think the plane was taken down by the Islamic State or other militants.

At the moment, Cairo is leading the investigation into the crash of the flight, which was heading to St. Petersburg from the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. The black boxes are currently being analyzed by Egyptian officials, though French, Russian, German, and Irish experts are aiding the investigation.

Although security experts have long warned about the dangers of the Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai acquiring sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, many aviation experts are skeptical that the extremist group has equipment capable of shooting down a plane flying at an estimated 33,000 feet.

Clapper noted that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the crash on Twitter, but he said that it was “unlikely” that the group had the ability to carry out the attack.

In a separate discussion about Russia at the same conference, Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, reiterated the Pentagon’s hawkish rhetoric toward Moscow. “Russia is the only country on earth that … [has the] capability to destroy the United States,” said Milley, referring to Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. He noted that he views Russia “as aggressive, not just assertive.” At the same time, he defended the administration’s efforts to engage diplomatically with Putin.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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