The Terrorist’s Dirty Little Secret

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As the dust settles from the third terror attack on British soil in as many months, we find ourselves in an instructive moment. In these three recent UK incidents there can be little doubt that the perpetrators were Islamist extremists of one degree or another. Khalid Masood, Salman Abedi, and Khuram Shazad Butt were all known to British intelligence agency MI5, though none were thought to pose an imminent threat. It comes as no surprise to anyone, then, that ISIS claimed responsibility for each attack. To the casual observer it may appear as though ISIS’s tentacles reach far and wide.

But appearances can be deceiving. On June 1 a man entered a casino in Manilla, fired his assault rifle, and lit a fire that would eventually kill three dozen people and wound at least 54 others. ISIS wasted no time in taking credit. Donald Trump, in all his customary thoughtfulness, promptly concurred. That would have been reasonable on the part of both, had the incident actually been a jihadist terror attack. In fact, the assailant was an indebted gambling addict whose adventure ended in suicide after his attempted robbery proved less than successful.

So let’s get this straight: ISIS claimed credit for the attack even though it wasn’t responsible. ISIS might be known for some pretty unpleasant shit, but a terrorist organization wouldn’t just straight-up lie . . . would it? Quite the puzzle indeed. Perhaps an ISIS intern mistakenly hit “Enter” instead of “Delete.” After all, we all have our covfefe moments.

The picture came into clearer focus a few days later. On June 5, police in Melbourne were called to a hostage situation in which the gunman proclaimed that “this is for [ISIS], this is for al-Qaida” before being shot dead. Once again ISIS didn’t miss a beat in claiming him as one of its own, even as The Guardian noted that the perpetrator’s own words curiously “appeared to conflict with ISIS’s claim of direct responsibility.” ISIS and al-Qaida are enemies, you see. Why would a shrewd ISIS operative act on behalf of both?

The reality, of course, is that the Melbourne gunman was anything but shrewd, having not even recognized the contradiction in what he was saying. In both cases ISIS got caught with its hand in the cookie jar. The fact that it falsely claimed responsibility for the Manilla incident proves that it will claim responsibility for anything in order to exaggerate the perception of its capabilities. The same goes for its claim on the bumbling hostage-taker. Islamist extremism around the world may be inspired or encouraged by ISIS and its propaganda, but that’s not the same as being directly orchestrated by it.

ISIS’s feeble attempts at self-promotion are obvious to anyone who cares to pay attention. Apparently that does not include tabloids like the New York Post, whose editors evidently decided that giving ISIS the benefit of the doubt outweighed the need for journalistic integrity. Nor does it include Donald Trump Jr., who demonstrated his ignorance on Twitter.

There are Islamist militants operating in the southern Philippines, to be sure, but it’s important to parse the meaning of their relationship with ISIS. The Abu Sayyaf rebel group has been waging an insurgency for decades, and is estimated to count only 400 members. By pledging allegiance to ISIS it gains the notoriety it seeks, and ISIS benefits by being able to point to Abu Sayyaf as one of its “branches” around the world, adding to the narrative that its reach extends globally. The same pattern holds for all ISIS affiliates. As I have written before, terrorists weaponize fear because that’s all they’ve got. The arrangement between ISIS and any affiliate organization makes both appear more dangerous. For terrorists, appearance is everything. Unscrupulous media outlets who parrot that message, like the New York Post in the example mentioned, aid terrorists in magnifying their image, and add to public fear as a result.

Terrorist allegiances and alliances may be fluid and complicated, but the fact remains that their entire enterprise has always been futile. Recognize terrorists for what they are — weak and desperate — instead of playing their game for them. That part, at least, isn’t rocket science.

Originally published at on June 6, 2017.

2018 winner of the Dalton Camp Award for essay-writing. M.A. Political Science. I'll go to the mat for the Oxford comma.

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