Reports that EgyptAir Flight 804 performed erratic turns and descended rapidly before going radio silent and disappearing from radar cannot conclusively confirm that the flight’s downing was a terrorist act.
However, add to the flight’s frenzied last moments eyewitness reports of a flaming plane and ISIS’s established ability to bring down airliners, and the outlook becomes grim.
The crash of the plane is not an isolated incident. In fact, this is not the first time that ISIS has been suspected in an Egyptian plane crash.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the downing of Metrojet flight 9268 last Halloween as it left Sharm El Sheikh on the way to St. Petersburg. The group presented video evidence capturing the moment of detonation and released pictures of an improvised explosive device, camouflaged in a soda can, that it said brought down the plane. Though the device was small, it opened a large enough hole in the plane’s fuselage for the plane to tear itself apart in midair.
Since then, ISIS has only doubled down on its rhetoric targeting Western countries and managed to carry out a complex attack in Brussels that involved the bombing of an airport terminal. France, which is part of the coalition fighting ISIS, has been a particular target of the group.
The threat is real and, unlike the immediate denials that accompanied last Halloween’s bombing, Egyptian officials are admitting that this could be a terrorist attack.
But what really happened on Flight 804?
First we must consider whether the crash could be the result of a suicide bomber or a planted bomb on a timer.
Is it possible that an explosive device was able to be passed through French security, which has been tightened several times in the wake of Paris and Brussels and features the latest millimeter wave scanners?
I passed through Paris’ Charles DeGaulle airport just Wednesday and noticed no obvious lapses. On the contrary, security measures were on full display. It would indeed be difficult for a suicide bomber to pass undetected through these checkpoints.
Additionally, as the attack in Brussels showed, ISIS is perfectly happy to have its bombers strike soft, unsecured targets rather than gambling on gaining access to hardened areas.
However, Flight 804 had a full itinerary of flights yesterday.
Before arriving in Paris, the flight passed from Asmara, Eritrea, to Cairo to Tunis and back to Cairo. It is conceivable that instead of a suicide bomber, the group was able to plant a device on the plane at any of these stops. Unfortunately, lower security standards and the susceptibility of airport staff to bribery or threats make this a real possibility.
If it is proven that ISIS brought down this plane, what was the motive?
While attacks like this show the group’s international reach, ISIS is facing a growing problem closer to home in its core territory in Iraq and Syria. As coalition forces shrink the group’s area of control dramatically, ISIS must find a way to turn the tide.
Bombing civilian targets of one of its opponents can do this two ways. First, the loss of civilian life might convince the country to back off its military pressure.
More conceivable in this case is the possibility that the bombing could force France to overreact, potentially by sending in ground troops, an action that would be a huge propaganda and recruiting victory for ISIS, potentially refilling their depleted ranks.
Where does that leave us as individuals and travelers?
For now, it is best to be cautious and aware. We should not jump to conclusions, but we should also have a heightened sense of our surroundings and suspicious behavior. Though “see something say something” may seem an inadequate caution, any complex terrorist attack has many moving parts and can be stopped if spotted in time.
ISIS, and terrorism in general, will not disappear in the near future, but understanding the motives of the group assures that we do not play into its hands.
Robert Pape is the director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. His most recent book is “Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.’’