US intelligence agents overheard Islamic State leaders in Iraq “clearly celebrating” after a Russian passenger plane came down shortly after takeover from Sharm el-Sheikh last weekend, an unnamed US official told NBC on Friday.
The IS members were apparently talking to unidentified individuals in Sinai, boasting about the crash, which killed all 224 people on board.
Reuters also reported Saturday that the US intelligence community intercepted a message from a Sinai group affiliated to Islamic State before the October 31 crash, in which “something big in the area” is discussed.
IS has said it downed the plane in retaliation for Russian air strikes in Syria, but provided no details as to how. If it was behind the attack, it would be the first time the jihadists, who control large areas of Syria and Iraq, have hit a passenger plane. Russia has drawn the group’s ire for its airstrikes in Syria against it.
Black box data from the plane indicates it was hit by a bomb, sources said before an Egypt-led probe into the disaster was set to release its first findings Saturday. Both the flight data and voice recorders failed 24 minutes after the plane took off from the Sharm el-Sheikh resort en route to Saint Petersburg.
US President Barack Obama has said that Washington was “seriously” considering the possibility of a bomb aboard the plane, while British PM David Cameron told reporters this week it was “more likely than not that… a terrorist bomb” caused the crash.
Egypt has beefed up security at airports to “give confidence to the British government, but that does not mean we concur with any scenario,” foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said.
Denmark on Friday became the latest European country to warn against travelling to Sharm el-Sheikh, following France, Belgium and Britain, while several airlines have banned check-in luggage as a precaution.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also ordered flights to the Red Sea resort halted on Friday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told news agencies the measure did not mean Russia believed the crash — the worst aviation disaster in Russia’s history — was due to an attack, and the investigation continued.
The head of Russia’s emergencies ministry said Russian experts had taken samples from the crashed jet and were testing it for any traces of explosives. A source close to the investigation told AFP the black box data “strongly favors” the theory a bomb on board brought down the plane.
Another person close to the case in Paris said the plane had suffered “a violent, sudden” end, saying: “Everything was normal during the flight, absolutely normal, and suddenly there was nothing.”
Egyptian Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal and the head of the Egypt-led investigation into the disaster are due to hold their first news conference at 1500 GMT on Saturday, although the government warned it could be delayed.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s office said he called Putin and they agreed to bolster coordination to “strengthen security measures for Russian planes.”
The US said it would also step up security screenings of US-bound flights from some Middle East airports as a precaution.