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Terrorists Strategically Avoid Credit for Attacks

terrorism and lying story

Terrorist groups avoid truthfully claiming responsibility for attacks for strategic reasons, argue researchers at the School of Public Affairs in a paper published last month in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

“The conventional wisdom is that individuals use terrorism to pursue goals and to broadcast a message,” said Joseph Young, a co-author of the paper, “Lying About Terrorism,” and associate professor of justice, law and criminology. “While we know why groups want credit for attacks, the conventional wisdom cannot explain why groups lie. We offer strategic reasons for this behavior.”

Though lying about terrorism is not a recent phenomenon, the increasing number of unclaimed attacks indicates that terrorism is not always a clear signal, or message to an attacker’s enemy. Despite the conventional wisdom that terrorism is about coercion, many terrorist attacks go unclaimed.

From 1998 to 2011, only 12.4 percent of terrorist attacks were claimed, according to the Global Terrorism Database. In addition, the percentage of claimed attacks has dropped from 61 percent in the 1970s to 14.5 percent from the late 1990s through 2004. “Credit is no longer taken for many of the most deadly attacks,” said Erin Kearns, a co-author and a Ph.D. student in the School of Public Affairs.

The researchers identify four lies that terrorist groups tell for their own purposes. A group may claim responsibility for an attack that they did not perpetrate; commit “false flag terrorism” by carrying out an attack and then blaming it on a rival organization; lie by blaming an attack that it did not commit on a rival group, called the “hot-potato problem”; and lie by omission by perpetrating an attack, but neither claiming responsibility nor blaming another group.

Groups claiming credit for an act they didn’t commit try to convince their enemies that they are a credible threat, could lack the power they are attempting to display, or claim credit to prevent another group from demonstrating its power.

“Attrition as a strategic logic of terrorism is used when a group’s power to make good on its threats is questioned,” said Brendan Conlon, a co-author of the paper and a graduate of the School of Public Affairs.

Blaming violence on others has a long history. The term false flag likely originated in naval combat, where ships would fly an innocuous flag prior to violent engagement. The researchers claim that it is difficult to identify incidents of false flag terrorism because of the secret and deceptive nature of such attacks.

Young said claims of terrorist attacks should be treated with a degree of skepticism from both an academic and a policy standpoint. “In order to fully understand terrorism, it is important to appreciate the environment in which an attack takes place and the potential repercussions for the group that is publicly deemed responsible for an attack,” he said. “Terrorism occurs in environments where errors, disorder and stigmatizations are key elements, and where costly signaling is only one of the potential explanations.”