A British intelligence agency overheard UK accents among Sinai Peninsula jihadists who were celebrating the downing of a Russian airliner that killed all 224 passengers and crew aboard.
The overheard accents imply “a definite and strong link” between British jihadis and the crash of the A321 airliner belonging to the Metrojet airline shortly after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh airport on October 31, the British newspaper Sunday Express reported Sunday.
GCHQ, the British secret service comparable to America’s NSA and responsible for signals intelligence, picked up “chatter” by Sinai- and Egypt-based fighters with the Islamic State affiliate in the country that included English-speakers with accents hailing from UK cities London and Birmingham.
UK intelligence believes the British-born Islamists may have been a key part in planning what they describe as a sophisticated operation to plant a bomb on the plane, which carried mostly Russian tourists.
The very fact that the British-born fighters were present in the ranks of Sinai’s IS affiliate, which before swearing allegiance to the Iraq- and Syria-based group was known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, suggests there is more to its declared allegiance than mere rhetoric. The jihadists were said to have been trained in bomb-making in Syria, and British intelligence services fear their next target may be British airliners.
“Jihadis in the Sinai area of Egypt could be heard celebrating,” a source told Sunday Express on Saturday.
“A closer analysis of that material has identified London and Birmingham accents among those numerous voices. There has also been some internet traffic suggesting that there was British involvement in the attack. This was a very sophisticated, carefully planned operation involving many moving parts,” the source said.
According to sources cited by the paper, “We know there are British jihadis in Egypt fighting with members of Islamic State. They were trained in Syria and are now hardened terrorists. Some of the Britons have an electronics background and have been developing some very sophisticated bombs. They have been experimenting with different-sized charges and different types of explosives but there was nothing prior to this attack to suggest that they were going after airlines.”
The attack on a Russian airliner may have been linked to Russia’s launch last month of an aerial bombardment campaign in Syria in defense of embattled strongman Bashar Assad, attacks that have targeted positions of the Islamic State group, among other rebels.
Nearly 2,000 British vacationers who were stranded in the Sharm el-Sheikh resort after the attack boarded planes home Saturday.
Britain also suspended flights to the Red Sea resort on Wednesday, saying it feared a bomb like the one that likely brought down the Russian jet, and due to concerns about security at the airport.
Nine flights carrying 1,945 people were coming back to Britain on Saturday, according to transport officials — two easyJet, two Monarch, two Thomson, two Thomas Cook and one British Airways.
But the British government warned that some tourists may have to stay on longer in the resort before they can be flown home.
“With a limited number of flights able to leave Sharm el-Sheikh each day for the UK, it is likely that tour operators or airlines will advise some people to extend their stay at their resort,” a government spokesman said.
“We understand that tour operators and airlines are working to ensure that, where people need to extend their stay at their resort, necessary costs will be covered.”
There were estimated to be as many as 20,000 Britons in Sharm el-Sheikh when the jet crashed on October 31, and the repatriation process could take days.
Russia has halted flights to Sharm el-Sheikh but Egypt Saturday pushed back against suspicions that the plane was bombed, saying the disaster probe had yet to establish a hypothesis.
AFP contributed to this report.