Why Terrorists Do—and Don't—Take Credit for Attacks

Why Terrorists Do—and Don't—Take Credit for Attacks

It’s an important strategic choice.

This latter supposition is dubious, or at the very least changing dramatically. Recent years have witnessed the blending of religious and political goals into the ideology of groups. ISIS is a perfect example: it sees the West and indeed all non-Muslim influence as a cancer among the world, and aims to restore the purity of Sunni Islam by claiming a caliphate, or separate Islamic state, worldwide. This makes the prediction of credit-taking based on ideology much more mixed, as it is both a political and religious extremist group. ISIS has shown no hesitancy in claiming a large number of attacks since its inception, and indeed seems to be growing only more vocal.

Eric Min has a slightly different theory for the relationship between ideology and predilection for claiming responsibility. Using the Global Terrorism database, as well as several other distinct case studies, he determined that groups with limited and specific aims (such as separatist groups) were more likely to have a higher claim rate for terrorist attacks, while groups with sweeping and amorphous objectives had a lower claim rate. While this model looks more at goals than ideology, groups like ISIS continue to offer challenges for blended categories here: it has specific objectives in certain countries (the toppling of the central government in Baghdad and control of Iraqi territory, for example), it has sweeping and amorphous objectives elsewhere (the establishment of a worldwide caliphate).

Suicide terrorism offers a much more clear-cut prediction of whether or not a terrorist group will claim responsibility for an attack. In his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, analyst Robert Pape shows how groups claim suicide attacks almost all the time (within his data set), mainly in coercive ways against perceived occupying powers. A high claim rate makes sense here: terrorist groups cannot use suicide terrorism to leverage governments or other powers successfully without transmitting their demands along with the attack.

Additionally, terrorists may want to claim suicide attacks because they promote the idea of martyrdom; individuals gain advantages in the afterlife, and families can receive financial advantages and notoriety. Adding families’ voices to the terrorist group’s cause only furthers its publicity. Not only that, Min points out that, operationally, claiming a suicide attack “can cause outsiders to believe that the group is highly capable in its ability to recruit individuals willing to die for their cause,” which heightens its ability to further intimidate and recruit.

Min also notes that attacks—suicide or otherwise—with high casualties are likely to prompt credit-taking. As of 2013, these were quite rare. From 1998–2013, more than 75 percent of attacks involved two or fewer dead. Unfortunately, this average has likely changed, given the events of 2016. The point, though, is that mass-casualty events are ideal for attention grabbing and intimidation, making them particularly attractive to claim.

The way governments respond to terrorism also influences whether or not a terror group will claim responsibility for a terrorist act. While experts definitely agree that an influence exists here, they disagree on exactly how this influence plays out. One theory suggests that harsh counterterrorism policies, like military strikes, might deter credit-taking because groups do not want to face such consequences. Another theory suggests that harsh reprisals might do the opposite—encourage credit-taking—because a government’s use of military force may stoke public anger, thus creating an opportunity for the terrorist group to recruit and bolster opposition to the government.

Still another theory suggests that credit-taking varies with government response: infrequent counterstrikes encourage credit-taking because there is little repercussion on groups for doing so; frequent counterstrikes similarly encourage credit-taking because they fan a public anger that terrorist groups can take advantage of (and that make any losses worthwhile); however, counterstrikes of medium frequency reduce credit-taking because they damage the group without mobilizing the public.

Why the Wait?

Frequently, a terrorist group may wait to claim credit for an attack. Osama bin Laden waited almost two months after 9/11 before speaking up for Al Qaeda. Umar Farouk, the infamous “underwear bomber,” attempted his attack on Christmas Day 2009, but Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) didn’t claim responsibility until nearly three days later. Similarly, AQAP waited about two days before taking responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

What factors influence why a group might wait to attach its voice to an attack? Several reasons present themselves. First, the terrorist leadership might not have known that the attack was going to happen. Enterprising and precocious individuals may have chosen to act out on their own—perhaps they were frustrated with the offensive strategy of the group, perhaps they had a personal grievance against the target that went beyond the ideology of the group, or perhaps they were nervous and initiated an attack ahead of schedule. This might be more common in terrorist groups with a loose organizational structure and protocol; a tight hierarchy would seem to retain more control of the timing of an event.

Second, communication delays might slow down a claim of responsibility. If a group is worried that its online or cellular activities are being monitored, then it might use human couriers or other methods to transmit information back to headquarters. The leadership would want details of the attack before initiating a public message. Al Qaeda, for instance, is known to rely on human couriers due to American and French skills at deciphering their codes.

Third, a terrorist group may want time to put together promotional materials to release in coordination with a claim of responsibility. ISIS has become well known for the polish of its web videos—footage of an actual attack built into a slick package becomes an important recruitment and propaganda tool.

Finally, a group may wait in order to ensure human security, either of its leaders or its attackers. If the attackers, as well as any potential in-country facilitators, don’t plan on dying in the attack, they may need a few days to carry out an escape plan. If the group knows that harsh reprisals will come after the attack, it may wish to take the time to properly hide its leaders so that they may continue to successfully direct activities.

Lessons for Policymakers

As the above analysis shows, there are trade-offs to groups taking credit for a terrorist attack. Preserving anonymity can help protect the group from harsh reprisals, can sow fear and discord, and can essentially act as a psychological force multiplier upon a population. Claiming credit, however, can project a power and influence far beyond a group’s actual capabilities, potentially attracting further support and recruits.

Terrorists are indeed strategic when it comes to choosing whether or not to claim responsibility. Understanding this strategy and the context in which is occurs can provide policymakers with some useful counterterrorism options. As Hoffman describes, “credit-taking has the potential to tell observers a great deal about the nature of the threat groups pose and the adequacy of the responses to their attacks.”

For instance, the level of competition in an environment shows just how critical credit-taking is as a signal of strength and legitimacy. Policymakers need to figure out how to better disrupt this communication—if confusion about the motives and source of an attack can proliferate, the persuasive power of the group behind it lessens. Similarly, more data is needed to determine what exactly is the relationship between credit-claiming and governmental response (counterstrikes). This could help indicate what levels of reprisals are most effective in constraining the group.

Meanwhile, the absence of information in anonymous attacks can actually yield some leads. Was a particular goal accomplished simply in the act itself, as in the voting attacks noted above? If so, then what groups might support such a goal? What particular grievance did the attack reveal? What actions can governments and partners take to address that grievance? This could lessen a population’s frustrations with that grievance and thus reduce the attractiveness of terror for bringing attention to it. Is an unclaimed attack shielding a potential terrorist partner? Studying the particular environment in which an unclaimed attack occurs could help in identifying potential political or financial allies of terrorists.

The most important lesson here for policymakers is that the study of credit-taking is underutilized. Terrorist groups have a careful strategy for deciding whether or not to claim responsibility, and understanding this strategy and the environment in which it occurs can only make counterterrorism strategies stronger.

Aftan Snyder is the Assistant Editor of The Washington Quarterly, a global security affairs journal providing diverse perspectives on strategic changes, trends, and relations around the world and their public policy implications. She has also been featured on the podcast Matters of State analyzing international law and the use of force.

Image: An Iraqi bomb disposal company at Camp Taqaddum, Iraq. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps