One day following the 2016 Nice attack in France, a firework display went awry, causing a small fire at the Eiffel Tower.
Almost immediately, the Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility, adding that they were also behind the Nice attack itself.
However, French police soon released a statement saying that the claims were false and that the fire was the result of a minor pyrotechnic accident.
While ISIS are no doubt responsibility for some attacks, when they make a claim of responsibility following a mass casualty event, it must be taken with a (very large) pinch of salt.
As Walkley Award-winning Journalist Waleed Aly correctly points out:
“ISIS takes credit for any act of terrorism on Western soil so that they appear bigger and tougher than they actually are. They did the same thing last year with the shooting at Canada’s parliament and when a bloke ran around New York with a hatchet, attacking people.”
Aly continues: “ISIS didn’t control these guys. They were DIY terrorists who recruited themselves, but ISIS doesn’t want you to know what.”
And ISIS admits this.
In October 2016, the group’s monthly magazine stated:
“It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State who have obeyed its leadership. This can easily be done with anonymity. Otherwise, crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings”.
Regardless of this, many mainstream news media organisations print the claims of responsibility on their front pages at every opportunity, even though the claims themselves are unverified or – in the initial example – outright false.
Associate professor of counter-terrorism, Nick O’Brien, from Charles Sturt University, told The Project: “Every time that an attack happens and they do claim it, they’re headline news around the world,” O’Brien said.
For print newspaper, such alarming headlines mean increased sales. Similarly, for online media, it means a greater number of clicks, and thus revenue. For news media in general, it means that this inflated and seemingly omnipresent threat keeps people hanging off their every report on the “all-powerful global terrorist organisation”.
Fortunately, the threat is in fact minimal. The group known as ISIS has been dramatically marginalised.
In 2016, it was revealed that ISIS has lost more than 10,000 of its fighters and a quarter of the territory that they held. Since these reports, the anti-ISIS coalition has dealt further blows, moving on Aleppo and Mosul. Now, they are preparing to recapture ISIS’ last remaining stronghold of Raqqa.
We now begin to see the reason why ISIS are claiming responsibility for attacks they did not do. Without any semblance of a real army left to use on the battlefield, they are resorting to the one weapon they do have: social media-driven fear.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling part of this is that it’s difficult to verify whether the person online claiming responsibility for these random attacks around the world on ISIS’ behalf has any real ties to the group at all.
For example, if there is an axe attack in Berlin and the perpetrator is shot dead, someone using an account set up in the group’s name can claim responsibility. As for the axe-wielding attacker, he is dead and cannot prove otherwise.
So the next time there is an act of mass murder somewhere in the world, you can bet that ISIS will be the first to claim responsibility – even if someone has beat them to it.