FP Explainer

Who Decides If Terrorist Claims of Responsibility Are Real?

The U.S. government.


Soon after Saturday’s attempted bombing in New York’s Times Square, a Pakistani Taliban faction released a series of videos seeming to claim responsibility for the failed attack and promising further violence against the United States. U.S. authorities quickly downplayed the statements, and though a Pakistani-American suspect has been arrested, officials have yet to find any proven links between him and the Taliban. So who gets to make that call?

These guys.The Worldwide Incidents Team at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) tracks terrorist attacks and attempted attacks around the world as well as terrorist claims of responsibility. Although it is generally assumed that terrorist groups have actually done the things they say they have done, it’s not unheard of for groups to take credit for attacks they didn’t commit.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the mysterious Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades — known for talking a big game on the Internet — claimed responsibility in a letter to a London newspaper. The group — which also took credit for the 2003 U.S. blackout, calling it "Operation Quick Lightning in the Land of the Tyrant of This Generation" — was later determined to be just seeking attention. Palestinian militant groups are also notorious for issuing competing claims of responsibility for attacks on Israel.

The NCTC evaluates claims based on what is known about the groups’ competence, track record, and operating methods and assigns their statements one of five levels of credibility: likely, plausible, unknown, unlikely, and inferred. "Inferred" refers to attacks in which there is no claim but a particular group’s responsibility can be assumed based on the "attack signature" — factors such as timing, location, and methods used.

The NCTC generally only releases more credible claims to the public, but keeps all of them in a classified record — even the most dubious — in case new information comes to light that prompts a re-evaluation.

After all, today’s bigmouths could be tomorrow’s bad guys.

Thanks to the National Counterterrorism Center.


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