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Terrorism Or Mechanical Failure? Here Are The Clues Investigators Look For

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've just heard, no concrete evidence of terrorism or even a claim of responsibility. Well, officials have said they are not ruling out any possible cause. I think it's fair to say that many people assume that the downing of EgyptAir Flight 804 was due to a terrorist act.

We were wondering how investigators might actually be able to figure that out, so we called Juan Zarate. He's a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's a former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism during the George W. Bush administration. And he's with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JUAN ZARATE: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So as investigators look over the wreckage and the items that have been found from the flight, what are the signs that they'll be looking for to try to figure out whether this was or was not linked to terrorism, as opposed to some accidental mechanical failure or some other possible cause?

ZARATE: Well, investigators and intelligence officials are going to be looking at a full range of evidence. They're going to be looking at the type of debris, how scattered it is. They're going to be looking for markings and fragmentation that comes perhaps from an explosive device, as well as residue. And they're also obviously looking at any intelligence information they may have missed or that may be in the system that could shed light on what happened.

MARTIN: Now, as we understand it, as we are speaking now, we understand that there has been no credible claim of responsibility for the crash. So two questions I have about that. How do you determine what's a credible claim? And what do we make of the fact that there does not appear to have been one in this case?

ZARATE: Well, it is unusual that you don't have a claim of responsibility if this actually was an organized, directed terrorist event. Terrorist organizations like to lay claim to these types of attacks. Recall that ISIS, in bringing down the Metrojet Russian airliner out of Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai, was fairly quick in laying claim, and then later provided additional evidence in Dabiq, their online magazine, to show exactly how they brought down the plane.

And so for propaganda value, for purposes of disseminating messages and information about the bombs, these groups will tend to be fairly quick in attributing these attacks to their activities.

MARTIN: And so they want to give evidence that it's credible?

ZARATE: Absolutely. And they certainly want to inspire others to try to do the same. Now, there are legitimate sources of communication from terrorist organizations. We know what kinds of websites they use.

And then there's often hoaxes. We saw this even yesterday, where there was stuff on Twitter that seemed to suggest that there was a claim from ISIS but turned out not to be true. So authorities have to look very closely at the credibility of any claims.

But the fact that you haven't had one yet is suggestive that maybe the terrorist groups themselves are trying to figure out what's happening, or if they were behind it, maybe trying to pick the right moment to have maximum propaganda value.

MARTIN: It's been reported that three air marshals were aboard this flight. Is that indicative of something? I mean, you have to assume that the concerns about terrorism are high in Paris these days, for obvious reasons - and in Egypt. Is there anything to be drawn from the fact that there appear to have been three air marshals on that flight?

ZARATE: Absolutely. I think the Egyptians know quite clearly that they're under attack and at war with numerous groups, to include ISIS and al-Qaida. And having three of their security personnel on the flight was, frankly, not unusual.

And we've got to keep in mind the context of terrorism here, which is why, I think, the Egyptian authorities were so quick to claim that this was more likely terrorism than not. They are facing attacks not just to aircraft but also to naval vessels from ISIS. And we've seen recent statements from ISIS pledging further support for the Sinai branch. And so the theory that this is a crash caused by terrorism has really been animated by this context of the terrorist threat in the region.

MARTIN: That's Juan Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies with us from Alexandria, Va. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZARATE: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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