Teenage pranksters are likely behind a recent spate of Twitter bomb threats targeting passenger planes, according to U.S. officials and airline employees.
At least 20 planes have been targeted since Saturday, NBC News reported, and commercial flight industry insiders told The Daily Beast a regular industry meeting Tuesday attended by the FBI, TSA, and airlines focused on the threats. One key topic of discussion was criteria for distinguishing between credible threats and hoaxes, an issue over the past week as the airlines found themselves trying to maintain passenger safety without being forced to shut down flights over anonymous social-media posts.
The FBI is “actively investigating a number of threats to aircraft,” said spokesman Paul Bresson. “The investigation is ongoing and we haven’t determined whether it’s an individual or group of individuals that is responsible.”
There’s no evidence that the people recently tweeting at airlines about bombs took any actions outside social media, but some of their threats were initially deemed serious.
“I have a bomb on one of your planes, but I forgot which one when I left the airport. Can you help me find it?” a user named King Zortic tweeted at Delta Air Lines’ official account on Saturday. The account tweeted at Southwest Airlines the same day: “A bomb was placed on SWA2492. It will be detonated at a random time of my choosing.”
Hours after the tweets were posted, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) scrambled F-16 fighter jets to escort two planes in for an abrupt landing in Atlanta.
King Zortic’s Twitter was shut down the day after his posts, as have other accounts tweeting threats.
More warnings to airlines and bomb mentions have been posted in the following days, and while none have led to fighter jets being deployed, planes have been delayed and rerouted. Bomb sweeps conducted on targeted planes have turned up nothing.
“These threats are causing more of an inconvenience to the airlines and travelers,” a senior U.S. official said. Passengers whose planes are targeted “are being delayed and missing connecting flights.”
While the impact so far has been more inconvenience than physical danger, law enforcement is actively investigating the threats.
“All threats to aviation are reported to the FBI for further investigation,” the senior U.S. official told The Daily Beast.
The FBI’s Bresson said the uptick in threats “is not unusual… We have seen in the past that threats come in bunches whether it’s to airlines or white powder letters.”
Some of the Twitter posts have mentioned ISIS, but so far no evidence links the messages to organized terrorist networks. Privately, U.S. officials say the most likely culprit is young people who get a thrill out of hoaxes.
This kind of prank has a pedigree, especially in certain corners of the online video gaming community. Some officials compare the airline threats to “swatting,” which involves calling in hostage or bomb threats so police send in specialized SWAT teams to storm the house of an unlucky (and innocent) victim.
Illustrating the connection, the Michigan news station WZZM13+ reported that some of the recent airline threats came from a 15-year-old British boy who claimed he was also involved in swatting. The teen is also connected to recent bomb scares called into a number of Michigan schools.
Young RansomTheThug, the Twitter handle of the teen who claimed responsibility for the threats, told the news station that he perpetrates such hoaxes because he thinks it’s funny. His Twitter account is now suspended.
With swatting, the payoff for the perpetrators is often the spectacle it creates and the attention it draws. That has led some law-enforcement agencies to refuse to comment on or publicize the incidents.
Publicity is driving the Twitter threats, too, government and airline security officials told The Daily Beast. “The increase in the number of social-media threats has been the direct result of media attention, which has encouraged copycat behavior,” said one senior U.S. official. Asked how the threats could be curbed without a media blackout, the official said the key is aggressive enforcement.
“We take these threats seriously,” the FBI’s Bresson said, “and obviously they are subject to criminal prosecution.”