Terrorist groups have no problem using lies as a strategy to achieve their goals. Lying can help them to magnify their achievements, minimize their losses, conceal damaging information, or deny responsibility for actions that result in counterproductive consequences.
However, terrorists are also aware that being perceived as truthful is advantageous. Credibility gives greater resonance to their exploitation of attacks for propaganda, increases the coercive power of threats, and contributes to eroding an enemy’s authority.
When it was ascendant, the self-styled Islamic State managed to gain the perception of credibility in its propaganda operations. In order to achieve this, it avoided claiming responsibility for violent incidents lacking terrorist intent and attacks carried out by individuals or groups without an effective connection with the group.
However, maintaining that reputation requires more than will. This group’s terrorism has not been limited to attacks it controls or directly supervises and there is plenty of violence with weaker links to the group. In the latter category, control over information is much more difficult and Islamic State has not limited itself to using open sources for deciding whether or not to claim an attack. This is a slippery slope where a reputation built up for years can be squandered in an instant.
The nature of terrorism today is an important factor. Some low-cost and unsophisticated attacks, such as hit-and-run incidents or stabbings, are a priori difficult to distinguish from other incidents where the motivating forces are psychological pathologies, common criminality, or mere accidents.
In spite of these obstacles, Islamic State has been able to claim responsibility relatively quickly for certain attacks. This has been made possible by a verification infrastructure. But the system has been degraded by the international offensive that has ejected the group from its territories and disrupted its networks in the West.
One of the episodes that contributed the most to this decline was a counter-terrorist operation in Germany in June 2017. Police arrested a 23-year-old Syrian named Mohammed G, who had arrived in the country two years earlier with a wave of refugees. Mohammed was an Islamic State militant who came to Europe with a specific mission: to serve as a link between Amaq and terrorists who performed attacks outside the caliphate’s territory.
Mohammed was not only in charge of verifying information on the ground. He was also responsible for contacting some of the potential attackers and asking them to provide graphic material that could be used to verify a claim after the attack.
The loss of verifiers precipitated errors, where the group claimed actions unrelated to jihadist terrorism.
The most notorious case was the shooting at an open-air music concert in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017. In the attack, the U.S. citizen Stephen Paddock used the window of his hotel room to shoot indiscriminately with multiple firearms, killing 58 people and wounding nearly 1,000 in the bloodiest massacre by a single shooter in U.S. history.
Islamic State claimed the attack without offering any evidence as to what led this alcoholic gambler to follow the organization’s lead, simply issuing a written statement: “The attacker from Las Vegas converted to Islam a few months ago”. In a subsequent statement, the group provided his alleged kunya: “Abu Abdul-Barr al-Amriki”. However, the police and intelligence investigations were not able to find any data that might suggest a jihadist motive in these murders.
Several hypotheses have been put forward. The first, and most unlikely, is that the attack in Las Vegas was indeed a genuine jihadist attack, but the authorities have been unable to trace this link.
The second hypothesis is that Islamic State erroneously claimed responsibility. This mistake could be linked to the group’s difficulties in replacing qualified militants who were previously able to verify information or establish connections with attackers. Their sources of information have lost quality or been neglected.
The third scenario posits a group that opportunistically claims the attack, even though they know it was not their attack. This hypothesis represents a turning point for the group – it abandons its previous policy of credibility and decides to satisfy its supporters with false but comforting information.
Either by mistake or in a deliberate manipulation effort, the group has continued to reiterate its claims to attacks like this in multiple propaganda products.
Although police and military pressure has had a direct impact on its propaganda efforts, especially on the quality of its activists, Islamic State has proved to be a resilient entity, capable of quickly compensating for disruptions caused by its enemy.
Thus, for example, at the end of April 2018, EUROPOL announced the coordination of an important international police operation directed against the propaganda infrastructure of Islamic State, and particularly against its “news agency” Amaq. However, this operation only slightly affected its productivity.
Nonetheless, progress has been made. Despite the remaining operational challenges, in the collapse of the caliphate project Islamic State has also lost its reputation as an actor that does not need to exaggerate or lie about its achievements.
 ABRAHMS, Max & CONRAD, Justin. “The Strategic Logic of Credit Claiming: A New Theory for Anonymous Terrorist Attacks”, Security Studies, 26:2 (2017), pp. 279-304.
 DEARDEN, Lizzie. “Isis propagandist who communicated terrorists’ claims of responsibility arrested in Germany”, The Independent, 9 June 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/isis-amaq-agency-claim-responsibility-attacks-member-arrested-germany-mohammed-g-syrian-latest-a7782586.html
 AMARASINGAM, Amarnath; PARKER, Jade & WINTER, Charlie. “ISIS’s Vegas Claim Tells Us More about the Group Than About the Attacker”, Just Security, 17 October, 2017. https://www.justsecurity.org/45994/isiss-vegas-claim-tells-group-attacker/
 EUROPOL. “Islamic State propaganda machine hit by law enforcement in coordinated takedown action”, EUROPOL Press Release, 27 April 2018. https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/islamic-state-propaganda-machine-hit-law-enforcement-in-coordinated-takedown-action
 AL-LAMI, Mina. “Analysis: Was IS media machine ‘compromised’ by Europol action?”, BBC Monitoring, 28 April 2018. https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c1dp4omd ; BINDNER, Laurence & GLUCK, Raphael. “Assessing Europol’s Operation Against ISIS’ Propaganda: Approach and Impact”, ICCT Publications, 18 June 2018. https://icct.nl/publication/assessing-europols-operation-against-isis-propaganda-approach-and-impact/