One of the reasons American and British intelligence agencies suspect an ISIS-linked terrorist attack brought down the Russian Metrojet passenger plane over Egypt is the volume of online chatter between ISIS militants, who appear genuinely convinced their operatives bombed the plane. The Internet has proven useful for spreading both claims of such foul deeds and the knowledge needed to perpetrate them.
ISIS social media accounts were swift to claim responsibility for downing the plane. It is true that ISIS and its supporters love to take credit for many deaths and disasters they had nothing to do with, but this particular claim of responsibility included a reminder that the crash occurred on the anniversary of the “Sinai Province” terror gang swearing fealty to the Islamic State.
More troubling was the high volume of internal chatter between ISIS militants. The UK Daily Mail reports British intelligence intercepting communications that “pointed to an ISIS mole smuggling a bomb into the hold of the doomed Russian jet,” leading them to conclude there is a “high probability” terrorist action destroyed the plane.
An American official told CNN the “specificity” of this chatter and the “specific nature of the discussion” between militants online, including known associates of the Sinai Province group, led U.S. intelligence to concur with the British that these conversations “did not appear to be false bragging but rather a discussion of the crash that had to be taken seriously.”
These officials said there was elevated chatter suggesting increased confidence and growing terrorist capability from ISIS affiliates in Egypt before the crash, but nothing that specifically suggested an airline bombing could be imminent.
The Daily Mail describes joint U.S. and U.K. efforts to follow up on these leads as “the largest counter-terror operation between the two powers since the September 11 attacks.”
The Wall Street Journal notes that security officials are increasingly concerned by the ready availability of bomb-making tips in online journals and chat rooms. Peter Neffenger of the TSA referred to it as “effectively crowdsourcing terrorism.”
The ability to bomb a passenger plane is seen as a “leap in operational ability” for the Sinai Province group, as British counter-terrorism expert Richard Barrett put it, but that might not be a difficult leap to make any more. These insurgents are said to have been well-positioned to make trouble, seeding the Egyptian heartland with sleeper cells ahead of the “Arab Spring” and recruiting heavily after the military coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government. The human resources for terrorism were in place, along with plenty of munitions seized from the Egyptian army. Bombing expertise was just a few mouse clicks away.
“U.S. and British government officials are increasingly concerned about bomb-making efforts involving sophisticated designs to fool even the most modern screening tools,” the WSJ writes. “That includes bombs built with chemical triggers that avoid use of metallic components and powerful explosives such as PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a white powder that can deliver a powerful blast.”
Once terrorists have perfected such techniques, there is very little stopping them from disseminating the information across the Web, especially if they use “dark net” sites that are difficult for law enforcement to detect, or social media platforms that can be rebuilt as quickly as the authorities tear them down.