The claim of an attack is a critical moment for the communicative activity of a terrorist organisation. However, terrorist violence does not always produce the consequences desired by its perpetrators. Some of these attacks are irrelevant or reflect a negative image of their capacities and skills. At other times, the effects are counterproductive because they affect unwanted victims or generate a reaction of social rejection that the terrorists were unable to anticipate. It is in such contexts that terrorist disinformation often appears.
Terrorists have clear incentives to magnify the damage caused by their attacks. Casualty figures are commonly inflated, as is the amount of material damage and the effect on enemy morale. The chaos that follows some attacks makes sifting fact from fiction difficult, and this is the information gap that terrorists exploit to try to control public perceptions and memory of the attack. Sometimes these lies are never uncovered at all; at other times, the full details of events only become public years later when everyone has stopped paying attention. This means that the popularly-believed history of terrorist events can often be shaped by the terrorists themselves.
Myth-making about the history of the terrorist group itself is also common, especially for those that begin as—or continue to be—criminal enterprises. The pasts of such groups will be airbrushed so it does not contrast with the present.
Another common rewriting of history by jihadist groups is shifting blame to the victims when they make the tactical error of killing people who are considered innocent even to the terrorist group’s social support base. Jihadism has developed a complete doctrine to religiously justify the murder of certain categories of people and “collateral” deaths, but sometimes they go too far even on these grounds. In such cases, the terrorists tend to extend guilt to the victims—labelling them spies, collaborators, or sinners—and to reframe even an accidental attack as deliberate punishment of people.
There are occasions when the effects of an attack are so damaging to a terrorist group that the group does not even try to reinterpret an uncomfortable truth and chooses not to claim the attack or denies its participation in it.
The way in which jihadist terrorist groups are structured organisationally has encouraged these omissions. Attacks are not only designed by the leaderships; the cells of the organisations have wide autonomy and can interpret general guidelines from “the centre” in markedly different ways than the leadership intended. The leadership is sometimes legitimately unaware of the where, when, and how of an attack—and would never have sanctioned it—but this creates a problem in making the organisation look incoherent. As such, simply ignoring or denying the attack is the safest route.
In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that by some estimates less than half of the terrorist attacks in recent decades have been claimed. The unattributed attacks tend to concentrate in two categories: the most outrageous international incidents with the highest number of fatalities, and the most ineffective in terms of victims and material damage.
Another form of this disinformation is when terrorist groups appropriate attacks carried out by other actors, as well as accidents and other “acts of God”. The purpose of such claims is to convey a distorted image of strength and resilience. This type of lie can be useful to feed the morale of an organisation’s followers, especially when they are in the midst of a difficult period.
Usurping the terrorist attacks of others is a risky strategy because evidence might surface to contradict a claim, as happened when the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed the October 2017 mass-shooting in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock, or the perpetrators themselves might have the facility to prove a false claim. When an attack is usurped by one group in collaboration with the perpetrators, however, things can be very different. A case in point is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) carrying out cross-border terrorist attacks against Turkey that were actually organised by the secret police of the Assad regime.
Less risky for a terrorist group is to present a series of events that have nothing to do with terrorism as if they are orchestrated the group. These groups generally operate in an environment where conspiracy theories and thinking predominates, so, for example, official denials by state authorities that a terrorist incident occurred can actually help ratify a terrorist group’s claim.
The deterrent to using lies in building a terrorist group’s brand is the same as any advertising strategy: if it becomes clear that untruths are common in the messaging of an organization, then the reputation of the organization suffers. This issue is handled by terrorist groups in various ways.
One way to deflect blame from an attack that a terrorist group does not wish to be associated with is to claim it in the name of a fictitious organisation, often created ad hoc for one or several attacks. Possibly the most infamous example in this category is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) utilizing the name “Black September” to carry out the torture, mutilation, and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich in September 1972.
A phenomenon that has occurred more in recent years with the proliferation of “media platforms” on the internet that support ISIS is what one might call the deniable claim. Some of these media platforms have gained enormous audiences by exploiting the ambiguity about their relationship to ISIS. These pro-ISIS media platforms will spread unfounded claims and threats, and disseminate photo montages and other propaganda that is stylistically in-line with ISIS. While such propaganda is often of a much lower technical quality that that produced by the “official” ISIS media outlets, and often is a mere reiteration or pastiche of pre-existing propaganda, it has two advantages for ISIS. It engages the audience of ISIS sympathisers, who are spending time creating free content for the terrorists and forming online communities where it is shared. And such content still gains Western media attention, despite not being ISIS “proper”, as do the claims and threats, because everyone understands that these platforms are at a minimum inspired by ISIS and in many cases have links of various kinds. For ISIS, this is the best of all worlds. It gets attention for their movement, and terror and panic can be sown among their enemies. But because these channels are “unofficial”, the exposure of the fraudulence of these claims and threats does not damage ISIS itself. In short, ISIS found a way to inflate the image and sense of threat posed by the organisation, while being immune to the reputational costs of spreading disinformation.
The final variant of this kind of misinformation is when a group, rather than claiming an attack that is not theirs, blames another actor for an attack that is theirs. An illustrative example is the destruction of the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul in 2017. ISIS levelled this iconic building from which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had proclaimed the restoration of the caliphate in his first public appearance three years earlier to avoid the symbolic defeat of seeing ISIS expelled from the area and the mosque occupied by the Iraqi army. However, Al-Baghdadi did not wish to assume responsibility for having destroyed one of the most important mosques in the Sunni world, so ISIS claimed the mosque was destroyed by an American airstrike. In this case, the disinformation operation failed: the coalition drones produced real-time images of the explosion, demonstrating that the detonation came from inside the building.