Air France: Terror Connection Unlikely

U.S. officials are minimizing French media suggestions of possible terrorist involvement in the mid-Atlantic crash 10 days ago of Air France Flight 447, which apparently fell out of the sky while heading into a patch of severe weather en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro.

The Web site of the French newsmagazine L'Express yesterday posted an unsourced item reporting that "French intelligence services" had discovered two names on the flight's passenger list that matched "those of people known for their link to Islamic terrorism." The story indicated that French investigators were unable to conclusively match the passenger names to the known terrorist suspects because they lacked the birth dates of the passengers. The story acknowledged that it is possible the passengers simply had names that were similar to those of terror suspects known to intelligence agencies. (Story continued below...)

Two U.S. officials familiar with the investigation into the flight's disappearance say that French authorities had shared the suspicious names from the airliner's passenger list with U.S. authorities, but that initial inquiries did not substantiate indications of any terror connection to the crash. One of the officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, says that the two passenger names the French focused on were common Middle Eastern names, equivalent in the English-language world to names like John Smith. 

Because the names are so commonplace, and because there is no birth-date information to connect the passengers to any specific terrorist suspect who might be listed in French or other government intelligence databases, there is currently no serious foundation for suggesting that the listed passengers had real terror connections or that there is a serious basis for linking the plane's disappearance to terrorism, U.S. officials say. They say they believe that the French government itself plans to deny publicly that it has been able to make any substantive connection between the passenger names and known terror suspects. 

French and U.S. officials alike have said they cannot completely rule out the possibility that the plane was brought down in midocean by some kind of terror attack. However, officials say there is no evidence, or even significant intelligence—apart from the Middle Eastern names on the passenger list—suggesting a link between the plane's disappearance and terrorism.

News reports

alleged that before Flight 447 left Brazil for France, an Air France flight from Buenos Aires to France had received a bomb threat. However, investigators note that that threat was against a flight from Argentina, not Brazil; a knowledgeable U.S. official has also remarked that both domestic and international airline flights are frequently the targets of bomb threats, the overwhelming proportion of which turn out to be false alarms.

French and Brazilian recovery crews have begun to recover the bodies of passengers known to have been on Air France 447 and some airplane wreckage at a location in the South Atlantic near the spot where the plane's last known communications were transmitted. Investigators and Airbus, the manufacturer of the A330 aircraft, have also acknowledged that before the plane's disappearance, its automated control systems sent out data messages to Air France's maintenance center indicating that the plane's airspeed sensors were producing inconsistent data. 

Based on this limited information, investigators are focusing on a theory that the plane's airspeed sensor system, which includes parts known as pitot tubes, might have gotten clogged with ice as the plane flew into heavy weather, thereby producing incoherent speed data, which led either the flight's human crew or its heavily computerized control systems to make wrong decisions about speeding up or slowing down. Such misinformed decisions could have resulted in the plane charging too quickly into violent, stormy winds, leading to extreme stress on the plane's frame or, at least theoretically, to the plane flying too slowly to stay aloft.

While it hasn't been completely ruled out as a possible cause, despite the suspicious names on the flight manifest, terrorism is currently regarded by most, if not all, official investigators as an unlikely cause of the crash.