OSINT: Open Source Intelligence. The digital age has made OSINT a critical tool of any journalist. After all, with some background knowledge or experience, it’s possible to search through online news reports and social media to find location-specific reports or firsthand tweets. These sources can then be cross-checked to allow for tentative conclusions.
For example, consider OSINT in terms of various reports released over the past couple of days regarding Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 that was lost over the Egyptian Sinai desert Saturday. First off, consider Tuesday’s NBC News report that U.S intelligence detected a high-altitude heat flash — suggestive of an explosion — at Flight 9268’s location. Next, consider the British government press release yesterday morning that, as I tweeted, suggested intelligence sourcing for the belief that a deliberate explosion destroyed Flight 9268. This conclusion receives further confidence in light of the late-Wednesday comments by the U.K. foreign secretary to the BBC: “We have concluded that there is a significant possibility that the crash was caused by an explosive device onboard the aircraft.” Here, we should read medium/high-confidence assessment by the U.K. intelligence community — the U.K.’s CIA and NSA equivalents report directly to the U.K. foreign secretary. Next, consider what U.S. intelligence officials also said to CNN yesterday. Two quotes stand out from Barbara Starr’s report: First, a U.S. official’s statement that “there is a definite feeling it was an explosive device planted in luggage or somewhere on the plane.” This suggests a high-confidence intelligence assessment. Second, CNN offers a different U.S. official’s statement that “ . . . there is intelligence suggesting an assist from someone at [Sharm el-Sheikh] airport.” Now (stay with me!) consider those remarks in the context of an AP-reported quote from a U.S. official briefed by U.S intelligence that “intercepted communications played a role in the tentative conclusion that the Islamic State’s (IS) Sinai affiliate planted an explosive device on the plane.” This quote is an especially big deal because whoever that source is, they’re senior enough to have been told the deriving source of the intelligence: communications intelligence and at least one target of the intelligence: Sinai IS.*
#share#Judged collectively, I would say that this information allows us to assume with high confidence that A) Flight 9268 suffered a catastrophic explosion in the air, and B) with medium-high confidence that Flight 9268 was destroyed by an onboard explosive device. The key to further answers will be the findings of Egyptian security/intelligence forces in relation to explosive residue on the plane wreckage. Perhaps that residue has already been found — if so, (B) becomes high confidence. Either way, that residue information is likely to come out in the next couple of days. After all, Egypt’s primary intelligence service has very close links with its U.S. counterparts. Indeed, although Russia and the U.S. profoundly disagree over broader issues in the Syrian civil war, their intelligence cooperation on this seeming counterterrorism issue is also likely to be close. One side note here, as Observer columnist and ex-NSA officer John Schindler put it to me, in relation to the possibility of IS responsibility: “Expect the Kremlin to be as unforgiving as they have been with Chechen renegades. Perhaps harsher. Putin’s war against ISIS, at least rhetorically, has been proclaimed as holy by the influential Russian Orthodox Church. Moderation is not the sentiment of the day in Moscow.”
#related#Unfortunately, this is a deadly serious matter. And not just for the Russians and Egyptians. Ultimately there are broader strategic concerns raised by what we’ve learned. First, as I noted last November, IS has shown a consistently escalating interest in attacking the West (including the United States). Moreover, I have long feared IS would attack airliners to challenge al-Qaeda for the throne of transnational jihadism. Conclusion: This threat requires a decisive response. President Obama has clear authority as commander-in-chief to confront the Islamic State, and he should do so with expediency. If not, IS will continue spreading its depraved Salafi-jihadist banner across the planet with more innocent blood.
* There are other conclusions that can be inferred, but in the interests of the investigation, I will defer from publicizing them. Regardless, expect U.S. intelligence officials to be furious about this leak.