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Conflicting claims still surround Russian airliner crash

Just hours after a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai on October 31, killing more than 220 passengers and crew on board, the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai (Sinai "province") issued a statement online claiming responsibility. Days later, it is uncertain whether the claim is bluster, or if there is something more to it. Investigations into airplane crashes normally require extensive forensic work, which has not yet been finished in this case.

In the meantime, the Islamic State continues to say its jihadists were responsible. Earlier today, the group released an audio message saying it doesn't have to prove how it downed the airliner, but its jihadists were the culprits. The group also said it would release evidence to support its claim at some point in the future. This is at least the third time the jihadists have officially said they destroyed the aircraft.

In its latest message, the Islamic State's Sinai "province" ties its alleged attack on the airliner to the anniversary of its bayat (oath of allegiance) to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-declared "caliph." In November 2014, Baghdadi accepted the fealty of several jihadist groups around the world, including Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM) in the Sinai. ABM was then rebranded as a "province" of the Islamic State. It is this same organization that says it brought down the airliner.

Egyptian and Russian officials quickly rejected the Islamic State's claim out-of-hand. And Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al Sisi insists the Islamic State's statements are merely "propaganda." Russian officials now say it is too early to tell what caused the crash.

America's top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said earlier this week that there is not yet any evidence of terrorist involvement. "It's unlikely but I wouldn't rule it out," Clapper told an audience at the Defense One Summit, according to an account of his appearance. "We don't have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet. ISIL had tweeted claims." ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is the acronym used by the US government for the Islamic State.

Clapper was referring to the message seen at the top of this article, which was tweeted within hours of the crash.

"Soldiers of the Caliphate were able to down a Russian airplane over Sinai province," the statement reads, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. The Islamic State branch continued by threatening the Russians, saying they are not safe "in the lands of Muslims nor in their air." And the "killing [of] dozens everyday" in Syria "by the bombardment of your aircraft" will lead to additional Russian deaths, the jihadists' warned. The Islamic State's statement does not say how it allegedly blew up the plane, only that it was "able to down" it.

As SITE first reported, the Islamic State's al Bayan radio released an audio message containing the same message hours later.

Egyptian prime minister Sharif Ismail has said the claim "cannot be considered accurate." Ismail added, "Experts have affirmed that technically planes at this altitude cannot be shot down, and the black box will be the one that will reveal the reasons for the crash."

The plane is thought to have been flying at an altitude outside the range of shoulder-fired missiles, which the Islamic State is known to possess. Other anti-aircraft missiles have a longer range, but the Islamic State is not known to have such weapons.

However, it is at least possible, although hardly proven, that a bomb was responsible. The airline company that operated the jet says the only reasonable explanation is "an external influence."

US officials, relying on satellite imagery, have ruled out the possibility of a missile striking the plane, according to NBC News. This same imagery reportedly shows "a heat flash at the same time and in the same vicinity over the Sinai where the Russian passenger plane crashed." And US "intelligence analysts believe it could have been some kind of explosion on the aircraft itself, either a fuel tank or a bomb."

While the world awaits a definitive explanation, the Islamic State's Sinai "province" continues to claim the airliner was brought down as part of its anti-Russian jihad.

[Source: By Thomas Joscelyn, The Long War Journal, NJ, 04Nov15]

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