The Meaning of Jihadist Silence on the EgyptAir Crash
As the investigation into the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804 continues and searchers begin to find evidence, the jihadist world has been strangely silent. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the aircraft early May 19, and we are now nearly outside the time frame in which jihadist groups ordinarily take credit for attacks. The one obvious explanation for this is that a catastrophic mechanical or electrical failure brought down the aircraft rather than a bomb, but given all of the indications that point to an attack, it is worth exploring the lack of a claim of responsibility and what that means for attributing the cause of the crash.
The primary jihadist actors with the capability and willingness to bring down Flight 804, the Islamic State and al Qaeda, both have sophisticated public relations and media outlets that they can use to quickly claim responsibility for attacks. Looking back to the last air disaster, Russian Metrojet Flight 9268, which went down over the Sinai Peninsula in 2015, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack the same day. The Islamic State also claimed other recent attacks in Brussels, Jakarta and Paris within a day. Similarly, al Qaeda affiliates behind the series of attacks against West African hotels claimed those the same or the following day. The San Bernardino attackers attributed their actions to the Islamic State just before carrying them out, but it took the group's central media arm three days to praise the attack — likely because it was conducted by a grassroots jihadist acting in the group's name.
Judging by the pattern of previous claims, if the Islamic State, al Qaeda or a regional affiliate were behind this attack, we would have expected to see a claim of responsibility by now. The lack of a claim, however, does not rule out terrorism in the EgyptAir incident. The Islamic State and al Qaeda are most powerful when it comes to their ideology, and their propaganda is more useful at inspiring grassroots jihadists to conduct their own attacks than in providing quality instruction on how to carry out an attack. If this were a grassroots attack, carried out independently by a cell in France, Tunisia or Eritrea (all locations where the aircraft had been over the 24-hour period before it crashed), then jihadist leaders and their media wings would be scrambling along with the rest of us to figure out what happened. As in the San Bernardino attack, it might take a few days for the jihadist propaganda arms to formulate a response.
The more sinister but less likely explanation is that a terrorist group has figured out a novel way to attack aircraft and is concealing its involvement in order to replicate the attack elsewhere. We saw this kind of covert activity in the 1995 Bojinka plot. The bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434 in December 1994 was not claimed because the planners hoped to use an improved version of the same device in a larger attack targeting 10 trans-Pacific airliners.
While authorities were quick to respond to the 2001 shoe bomb and the 2009 underwear bombs, if those devices had functioned as designed and destroyed the aircraft (especially over water), it may have taken months or years for investigators to determine the cause. This would have given the bombers a large window to replicate it. In a worst-case scenario, we may have a competent bombmaker on the loose with knowledge of how to get a bomb onto a plane, and the authorities have no idea what method he is using.
That EgyptAir Flight 804 went down over water makes the investigation much more difficult than past investigations over land, some of which took years to solve, such as Pan Am Flight 103. It has been over two years since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, and investigators have only recently even recovered portions of the aircraft, much less determined the cause. Air France Flight 447 similarly crashed over the Atlantic in 2009. It took over three years to determine that technical problems caused that crash, plenty of time for terrorists to replicate tactics had it been an attack. Flight 804's crash site is much closer to land and not subject to the same currents that have wreaked havoc on the MH370 investigation. Still, the crash occurred in waters that can be more than 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) deep, making recovery of debris or the black box on the seafloor very complicated.
Judging by recent air disasters that have occurred over water, we will not likely have conclusive forensic results on what downed Flight 804 for months or years to come — if ever — leaving the all-important "how" question unanswered. Land-based investigations into ground crew, cabin crew, passengers and satellite reconnaissance are more likely to yield results before evidence from the crash site, but they may not provide the full story of what happened. Complicating the already herculean task is the cooperation required between Egypt, Greece, France and any other countries that get involved in the investigation. International turf battles can cause delays over who is in charge, including the thorough and timely processing of evidence. The absence of claims of responsibility might alleviate fears of a terrorist attack, but in a worst-case scenario, it could also be a sign of more attacks to come.