ISIS claims of responsibility for Toronto shooting raise questions of credibility

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadly mass shooting in Toronto's Greektown, questions were immediately raised about the validity of those claims and whether the shooter did, indeed, have ties to the extremist group.

'The probability has become much less certain about what a claim means at this point,' one expert says

Police officers enter a coffee shop damaged by gunfire after Sunday's mass shooting along Toronto's Danforth Avenue. Two people were killed and 13 more injured. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the deadly mass shooting in Toronto's Greektown, questions were immediately raised about the validity of those claims and whether the shooter did, indeed, have ties to the extremist group.

In the past, such claims by ISIS — in which the group linked itself to an attack against civilians — were often considered quite credible, say some experts.

Yet the most recent statements by ISIS about the 29-year-old gunman who opened fire on people as he walked down a busy street of shops, bars and restaurants in the city's east end last Sunday, killing two and injuring 13, are being met with more skepticism.

"The probability has become much less certain about what a claim means at this point, because they may be monitoring the news and trying to latch onto whatever they can see," said counterterrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn.

In a statement released by ISIS's own AMAQ news agency, the group said the gunman, Faisal Hussain, "was a soldier of the Islamic State and carried out the attack in response to calls to target the citizens of the coalition countries."

But no other details were provided. Toronto's Police Chief Mark Saunders flatly stated that there is no evidence to support a connection so far, and, just a day earlier, a spokesperson for federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said "there is no national security nexus to the shooter."

Shifting structures

According to Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks global terror networks, the statement released by ISIS was "typical wording used for ISIS-inspired attacks."

She tweeted that ISIS is eager to embrace any loosely applicable attack in the West in the wake of its losses in Iraq and Syria, and that its embrace of Hussain was "questionable."

From 2014 to about 2017, ISIS seemed to have a fairly straightforward process at play in terms of how they claimed attacks, said Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a prominent Canadian anti-extremist researcher.

ISIS has been losing capacity and the ability to maintain some of its networks since mid-2017, after a series of arrests and the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq. (Stringer/Reuters)

ISIS had trusted individuals around the world. When people were inspired to launch attacks, the attackers could reach out to give these individuals proof of support by sending them videos or oaths of allegiance, Amarasingam said.

But sometime in mid-2017, things changed for the terror group, he said. Many of its trusted individuals were arrested, and they lost the ability to maintain these networks in Syria and Iraq as coalition forces took back major ISIS-controlled cities. 

"A lot of this chain of transmission — from attack to claim — started to fall apart, and they started to get sloppy, and they started to claim quite bizarre attacks that were quite obviously not terrorism-related."

One of the attacks they took credit for was the Las Vegas shooting, in which Stephen Paddock opened fire at concertgoers from a room at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500.

Authorities have so far said there has been no evidence to link Paddock to ISIS. 

Joscelyn, who is also senior editor of the Long War Journal, agreed that up to around 2017, there was a "very high probability" that if ISIS claimed some sort of connection to an individual terrorist or small group of terrorists, then there was often something to the claim.

That's why any claim has to be compared with other data or other evidence, he said.

"What we need to find out is [if] this guy had any sort of digital ties, or any other sort of connections, that put him into the types of case that we've seen in the past," he said. "Thus far, I haven't seen anything like that."

Online ties

In most cases, a claim of responsibility from ISIS will not mean it orchestrated the attack. Instead, many of the deadly incidents — including the Florida Pulse nightclub shooting and the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, Calif. — are said to be "inspired" by ISIS.

"What it means is somebody who has sworn allegiance to them online, or has had some sort of digital tie to them or some other sort of connection," said Joscelyn.

Erin Miller, program manager of the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, said the phrase "soldier of of the Islamic State" is often translated as a claim of responsibility.

"It's actually giving a lot of credit to Islamic State where it's not clear that credit is due in terms of the operational responsibility for the attack."

And it is possible, she said, that in the case of Hussain, ISIS claimed him as a soldier based on news reports that he may have been a supporter — without any other evidence to back it up.

Faisal Hussain, 29, is pictured here in a photo from approximately two years ago. (Supplied)

That would be a change from recent years, said Amarasingam, when media reports would not be enough for ISIS.

In the past, there would have been evidence that the attacker had been talking to somebody in Syria or had exchanged messages online with an ISIS affiliate, he said.

"They always had to have some evidence of real connection," he said. "I think, these days, the threshold for a claim is much lower for them.

"I don't think they have the same kind of evidence they used to. Things are getting a bit more chaotic, and they're making mistakes." 

Pictures of Toronto shooting victim Reese Fallon are left with candles at a makeshift memorial remembering the victims of Sunday's mass shooting on Danforth Avenue. Fallon, 18, was killed, as was 10-year-old Julianna Kozis. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Terrorism analyst Michael S. Smith II said it would not be without precedent that the group has claimed responsibility for an attack in the West and no information emerges to support that claim.

However, he said, "it is rare for Islamic State to claim responsibility for an attack in the West and for information to not subsequently emerge that supports that claim."

As of today, Amarasingam said, there doesn't seem to be any connection between Hussain and anybody from ISIS, but that could change.

"It's not to say, in a week's time or a of couple days, they won't find information on his phone or information on his computer that he was talking to someone in Syria, or talking to somebody in ISIS central, or talking to a supporter somewhere around the world."


With files from CBC's Nicole Ireland and Reuters

About the Author

Mark Gollom

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Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.