Terrorists Have Not Claimed Responsibility for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Does That Mean It Wasn’t a Terrorist Attack?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 10 2014 6:12 PM

Do Terrorists Usually Claim Responsibility for Their Attacks?

What to make of the silence surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

A crew member looks out the window of a search aircraft during search operations for missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 over the southern seas off Vietnam on March 9, 2014.
A crew member looks out the window of a search aircraft trying to find signs of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over the southern seas off Vietnam on March 9, 2014.

Photo by Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

If the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on Saturday was an act of terrorism, the perpetrators remain unknown. Authorities have dismissed the only claim of responsibility: an email from an obscure group called the Chinese Martyrs’ Brigade. How many acts of terrorism go unclaimed?

Most of them. Credible perpetrators claimed responsibility for only 14 percent of the more than 45,000 terrorist acts that have occurred since 1998, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. (The database defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a nonstate actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”) Even the majority of attacks on airports and airplanes appear to have gone unclaimed.

There are several reasons a terrorist group might not publicly admit involvement in an act of violence, although none of them apply particularly well to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In some cases, violence alone accomplishes a goal. Detonating explosives around polling places in the run-up to an election, for example, keeps people from voting. There were at least 11 attacks on polling stations immediately before and during the March 2010 elections in Iraq, and no group claimed responsibility for any of them. There have been at least 38 attacks on polling stations in India since 1998. Indian police have named suspects in most of those incidents, from small groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland–Isak-Muivah to the internationally known Lashkar-e-Taiba, but there were no claims of responsibility.

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Sometimes terrorist groups do not claim responsibility because they want to maintain plausible deniability, even if everyone knows they did it. Hezbollah is believed to be responsible for 92 terrorist attacks since 1998, but the group claimed responsibility in fewer than half of those incidents. The group often admits to involvement in attacks against the Israeli Defense Forces, which plays well among its vehemently anti-Israel base. Hezbollah remained quiet, however, after a series of explosions rocked Bahrain in 2012. Claiming responsibility would have complicated diplomacy for the group’s government sponsors. The Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba denied responsibility for the 2008 attacks that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai, India, for similar reasons. The only attacker who was captured admitted membership in the group, and there is reason to believe that Pakistani security services were also involved. Admitting as much publicly, however, would have brought enormous pressure on both LeT and the Pakistani government.

Smaller terrorist groups decline to publicize their activities because they don’t know how to communicate safely with the public. They may lack the technical expertise and confidence to make a video without giving away too much information about the members’ whereabouts or identities. Or they may not have good contacts at news outlets. The claim of responsibility from the so-called Chinese Martyrs’ Brigade for the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was widely dismissed in part because it was delivered in an email blast to many different journalists in China. Since none of the reporters had any prior contact with the group and the email apparently contained no information about the plane’s fate, no one has taken it seriously. (In fact, most terrorism experts admit no familiarity with the Chinese Martyrs’ Brigade.)

Claims of responsibility sometimes come weeks or months after an attack. If Malaysia Airlines suffered a hijacking on Saturday, the attackers may be biding their time. But there’s no evidence of a terrorist attack—or much evidence of any kind, at this point—so the disappearance may well have been the result of an accident. 

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks William Braniff of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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