ISIS attacks: How are claims of responsibility verified?

The recent wave of attacks, from Turkey to Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia, has raised fears that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is on a rampage — and that's exactly what the group wants, terrorism experts say.

'Grassroots jihadis' create perception ISIS is expanding, breeding panic

A relative cries on Monday after attending the funeral prayer of the victims who were killed in a deadly hostage-taking at a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in June. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The recent wave of attacks, from Turkey to Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia, has raised fears that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is on a rampage — and that's exactly what the group wants, terrorism experts say. 

"ISIS is showcasing its geographic reach," said Kamran Bokhari, a fellow at The George Washington University's extremism program and a senior lecturer at the University of Ottawa.   

Claiming responsibility for the attacks — even if they're carried out by affiliated groups not necessarily directed by ISIS leadership —  is a strategic move, Bokhari said. 

Claiming responsibility for terror attacks that are geographically removed from ISIS's core in Iraq and Syria 'creates the perception that ISIS is expanding, even though it's under attack on multiple fronts,' says Kamran Bokhari, a fellow at The George Washington University's extremism program. (Kamran Bokhari/Facebook)

"It creates the perception that ISIS is expanding, even though it's under attack on multiple fronts in both Iraq and Syria," he said. "That creates this sort of panic and that works to the advantage of ISIS."

"The PR's important," added Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical analysis for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm based in the U.S. "There are two battlefields: you have the physical battlefield and kind of the ideological or the media battlefield."

So if it's in ISIS's interest to claim responsibility, how do authorities know the group isn't putting its stamp on attacks it had nothing to do with?

"Contrary to popular opinion, they don't take credit for attacks they haven't directed themselves," said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism expert at Dalhousie University and also a fellow in the extremism program at The George Washington University. 

Terrorism expert Amarnath Amarasingam doubts the Bangladeshi government's denial that ISIS was behind the bloody attack that killed 20 hostages in a Dhaka restaurant, noting that ISIS media channels posted images of the attackers holding weapons in front of ISIS flags. (Amarnath Amarasingam)

ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 250 people in a Baghdad shopping district last weekend, as well as the execution of 20 hostages at a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the weekend before.

No group has claimed responsibility for three separate bombings in Saudi Arabia on Monday, but ISIS is widely suspected. Terror experts also believe a group affiliated with ISIS is responsible for the Istanbul airport attack in Turkey that killed more than 40 people in June.     

The gunman who killed 49 people at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., last month claimed to be acting on behalf of ISIS. Amarasingam said in ISIS "inspired attacks" like that, the group only takes credit "once they are confident that the attackers have indeed given allegiance."  

The Bangladeshi government denied that ISIS was behind the Dhaka restaurant killings and police said the attackers were part of a domestic group called Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB).

But that doesn't mean they weren't affiliated with ISIS, said all three terror experts interviewed by CBC News. 

"There is a political imperative on the part of the Bangladeshi government to say … 'we don't have ISIS here,'" Bokhari said, noting that ISIS is competing with al-Qaeda for influence in the South Asian country.     

"Bangladesh is a strategic location," Stewart said. "Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda would love to … lay claim to it as, you know, their turf." 

It is vital to recognize the difference between attacks by "grassroots jihadis" and those directed by ISIS's core in Iraq and Syria, Stewart said.

'Islamic State is not necessarily the cohesive organization they would like you to think they are,' says Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical analysis at Stratfor and a former special agent with the U.S. State Department. (Stratfor)

"Islamic State is not necessarily the cohesive organization they would like you to think they are," he said. "A lot of these attacks really aren't very sophisticated." 

"[ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi's not sitting there at a big three-dimensional chess board pulling all these things together." 

'Ripping into the identity' of attackers

Both Stewart and Bokhari said forensic investigations, often conducted by U.S. government agencies when ISIS involvement is suspected, play a big role in verifying claims of responsibility.

"[Investigators] go back and trace the steps of the perpetrators," Bokhari said. They try to determine where the money that funded the attack came from, who trained the attackers, who organized the logistics and comb through cellphone records and internet browsing histories to see "who was talking to whom."  

"You're ripping into the identity of the attackers," said Stewart, who conducted terrorism investigations as a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years. "That's going to let you know basically … who they were working with and for."

Sifting through the rubble in the aftermath of an attack also yields important clues, he said. For example, finding chunks of an explosive device and figuring out how it was constructed can reveal the "signature of the bombmaker."

"Identifying key people in the organization … whether it's a bombmaker, whether it's an operational planner, those are the people that you need to identify and then try to go after," Stewart said.    

About the Author

Nicole Ireland

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Derek Stoffel and The Associated Press