by Dawn Perlmutter
"We will bring this plane down."
EgyptAir Flight 804 that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on May 19, 2016 had been tagged two years ago with graffiti that read in Arabic “We will bring this plane down.” The words “traitor” and “murderer” were also written in messages directed at Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Security officials attributed the graffiti to the work of aviation workers at Cairo Airport who were protesting former General el-Sisi after he ousted the elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Details about the graffiti were given anonymously to the New York Times by Cairo Airport officials who said it had been linked to the domestic Egyptian political situation at the time rather than to a militant threat. The New York Times described the graffiti as an “eerie coincidence” and the target of “political vandals.” The paper did not think it was newsworthy to expand on the concept of “political vandals” or to report that President Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. Hence the aviation workers were most likely Muslim Brotherhood supporters clearly increasing the threat.
There is nothing eerie or coincidental about the airplane’s graffiti. Jihadists have tagged numerous planes with graffiti both celebrating and threatening terrorist attacks. Less than two weeks after the Paris terrorist attacks and less than a month after Russia’s Metrojet Flight 9268 was brought down by a bomb in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, planes across France were found with Arabic graffiti. EasyJet airliners in different locations across France, including Charles de Gaulle Airport, had Arabic graffiti spray painted on their fuel tanks. Some of the graffiti read “Allahu Akbar”, which translates Allah is Greater, and is often used during Islamist terrorist attacks as a war cry to strike fear in the hearts of non-believers. The phrase is frequently used in graffiti by ISIS supporters. “Allahu Akbar” was sprayed on some of the fuel tanks, the bathroom door of one jet and on an access hatch to the cargo hold on an easyJet plane stationed in Lyon. “Allahu Akbar” sprayed on sections of aircraft that are supposed to be secure and not accessible to the public signifies both a threat and a celebration of the Paris attacks and the Russian airliner bombing. The graffiti was erased prior to any passengers boarding the plane and a spokesman for easyJet said it was not "considered a security problem both by us and by the authorities." A source close to the investigation told La Tribune, that “this has been happening for months on a number of airlines including easyJet.” When it comes to assessing the threat of graffiti on airplanes, the policy seems to be “see no evil”.
The phenomenon of not recognizing the seriousness of jihadist graffiti has been occurring in the U.S. for several years. In February 2015 and February 2014 I wrote articles describing how young Islamists and their sympathizers have been using every genre of graffiti to spread the global jihadist message. The prevalence of Islamic State and other jihadist graffiti has increased significantly in the past year and is often immediately relegated to kids joking around or designated as no credible threat.
On March 30, 2016 in Grand rapids, Michigan “ISIS IS Here” was written on the side of a home. In the same neighborhood “ISIS will Rise” and “ISIS We R Here” was sprayed on a utility box. There were two incidents in Tucson, Arizona this year. On March 23 the word “ISIS” had been spray painted on the side of a woman’s car. On February 8, 2016 at least 3 cars were tagged with ISIS in black paint and five walls in one neighborhood had anti-government, anti-police and ISIS graffiti. Some of the graffiti read: “ISIS is Here 2 Kill”, “Kill Kops”, “Islamic State”, “Your not Safe” and “Kill Everyone”. The phrase “ISIS is here” and “ISIS will Rise” may be a reference to the groups motto “Remaining and Expanding”.
In 2015 ISIS graffiti appeared in several cities. On July 19 in Colorado Springs, CO, “ISIS” was written on a I-25 CDOT highway sponsor sign. On July 26 “ISIS” appeared in multiple places along the Pueblo Riverwalk in Pueblo, Colorado. On June 6 “ISIS” was spray painted on a concrete wall near U.S. Route 1 in Boynton Beach, Florida. On May 11 “Allah Akbar” with an image of a bomb and “LBK, TX” was painted at a Scurry County Texas rest area off Highway 84 North. The graffiti was noticed on May 11, one week after a failed terrorist attack in Garland, TX where two men were killed by police while they attempted to wage jihad on the Prophet Muhammad cartoon-drawing contest. ISIS took credit for the attack.
Many incidents of ISIS graffiti have occurred on or near schools. In Youngstown, Ohio on November 23, 2015, ten days after the Paris attacks, a rock located outside the Kilcawley Center at Youngstown State University, was defaced with messages of support for ISIS: “We are coming,” “France Deserves Destruction,” “YSU supports ISIS” and “Jihad over God ISIS”. Imagery included the black ISIS flag and an upside-down Eiffel Tower peace symbol inverting the meaning. Police also discovered Arabic graffiti written on the walls of the men’s bathroom in Cushwa Hall. The rock is an iconic symbol of the school and is located in the very public heart of the university. Although it obviously took some time to paint, there was no surveillance video with a direct view of the rock. University workers immediately painted the rock white without consideration for evidence. The media focused more on how the college community came together to paint over the rock with messages of world peace and the American Flag than on potential threats at the University. Several reports falsely claimed that the Arabic depicted in the image of the Islamic State flag was misspelled and used that to argue that the graffiti was a hoax. Move along, nothing to see here, no Islamic terrorist sympathizers on this college campus.
Another graffiti incident occurred less than two weeks after the Paris attacks in Jacksonville, Florida. On November 24, 2015 a fence that borders Cedar Mills Elementary School was sprayed painted with the word “ISIS” above Arabic writing. It is not known if the local police were aware that the Arabic writing was in the design of the Seal of the Prophet as depicted in the ISIS Flag. The local police probably did not know since in 2011 the administration purged counter-terrorism training materials blinding law enforcement officers to the threat from Islamic terrorism. On May 31, 2015 “ISIL We R here” was spray painted in black on a brick wall beneath a basketball hoop outside Miller Elementary School in Salem, Oregon. The acronym “ISIL” is specific to the U.S. ISIL is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, representing a geographic area and one translation of the group’s former name. The group has not used that name since June 2014 when it declared the creation of a caliphate and shortened its name to “Islamic State” (IS). The most prevalent Islamic State name depicted in graffiti around the world is ISIS using English language characters. Islamic State graffiti continues to appear in countries around the world attesting to their global presence.
Symbolism is a hallmark of jihadist attacks and graffiti is just one form of jihadist symbolism. Jihadist groups often attempt to strike on anniversaries or commemorative dates that hold symbolic meaning to the organization or in Islamic history. Targets, places and dates such as the anniversary of 9/11 and American holidays such as July 4th are also symbolically significant. The bombing of Russia’s Metrojet on October 31, 2015 is an example of a significant date. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, who was responsible for the bombing, formally swore allegiance (Bay’a) to the Islamic State, changing their name to Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai) on the 17th of Muharram 1436 of the Islamic Calendar [10 November 2014]. The bombing of Russia’s Metrojet occurred on the one year anniversary of their oath of allegiance to the Islamic State on the 17th of Muharram 1437 [31 October 2015].
Last year the media inaccurately reported that the first anniversary of the Islamic State was June 29, 2015. The actual anniversary was on the first day of the month of Ramadan which fell on June 18, 2015. Islam has a moveable calendar and celebrates Islamic holidays on the Islamic calendar and American holidays on the Gregorian calendar. The second anniversary of the Islamic State Caliphate is June 5/6, 2016. The month of Ramadan 2016 begins in the evening of June 5 and ends in the evening of July 5 (dates may vary according to geographic location). Many countries raise their threat level during the holy month of Ramadan because it is seen as a time of victory for Muslim armies and a period when those who are martyred have a greater assurance of a place in paradise. Ramadan which encompasses July 4th in combination with the anniversary of the Islamic State Caliphate signifies a higher threat. Western media and Airport authorities need to stop applying Western rational interpretations to Islamist symbolism and start reading the writing on the wall.
Dawn Perlmutter is the Director of the Symbol Intelligence Group and one of the leading subject matter experts (SME) in symbols, symbolic methodologies, unfamiliar customs and ritualistic crimes. She designed and developed Jihad-ID, a symbolic database of the signs, symbols and identifiers of global jihad.
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