The jihadi group claimed responsibility for the three recent attacks in the UK, but its direct involvement remains uncertain.
The day after the deadly London Bridge attack, ISIS claimed responsibility for a third assault in the UK in ten weeks. But to what extent, if at all, has ISIS really struck the UK? Or are these opportunistic claims from a jihadi group losing ground in its Levant heartlands?
ISIS said that a "soldier of the Islamic State" carried out the attack in Westminster in March. It then took responsibility for the suicide bombing in Manchester in May, and most recently, said that a "detachment of Islamic State fighters" killed eight in the vehicle and knife assault at London Bridge. Amid ongoing police investigations, authorities are yet to confirm whether ISIS had any direct involvement in the planning or execution of these.
The Mechanics of an ISIS Claim
The jihadi group usually asserts responsibility for violence via its affiliated Amaq News Agency or the group's Nashir Media Foundation. Many claims materialise quickly, often within one day, while others can take longer. The group quickly said it was behind the twin assaults on Iran's parliament and Khomeini shrine in Tehran on 7 June. By also releasing an accompanying video, showing victims and gunmen inside one of the targets, ISIS seemed to corroborate its first attack on Iran. In other cases, ISIS has waited to claim responsibility via its magazines and publications.
How ISIS decides to claim some incidents and not others is unclear. ISIS has stayed silent regarding some incidents in which it is widely believed to have been involved. Assaults in Turkey, Russia and even some in the West – police said April's Stockholm truck attack was inspired by ISIS – have gone unclaimed.
ISIS has in the past provided detailed accounts of attacks in the West, releasing evidence that indicated prior knowledge and a direct link. After the November 2015 attacks in Paris, which killed 130, the jihadi group said it had "accurately chosen" targets in "the capital of prostitution and obscenity." Its statement included details of how the armed "brothers," wearing suicide vests, had run out of bullets at the Bataclan and detonated.
After Anis Amri drove a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, ISIS claimed responsibility and released a video of the attacker pledging allegiance to the so-called 'caliphate' and calling for revenge against "crusaders" in Europe. The assault was 'low-tech,' requiring little direction, but ISIS' claim and the subsequent footage of Amri backed up the assertion.
Opportunism or Actual Involvement?
But claims made by the group following the recent attacks in the UK have been vague. They have not offered any detailed information regarding the assailants, the planning, the coordination, or the execution of the assaults. There have been no additional details provided that could validate ISIS' involvement. They seem to regurgitate details already circulating in the mainstream media, indicating no prior knowledge or communication.
Elsewhere, recent ISIS claims have been similarly ambiguous. The group said the assailant who took an alleged escort hostage and killed a man in Melbourne was a "soldier of the Islamic State," despite authorities swiftly stressing that no evidence of links to or involvement had been established. Likewise, in the Philippines police have dismissed ISIS' statement that a gunman who carried out an attack in a Manila casino was one of the group's "soldiers," rather an unstable gambling addict.
As ISIS continues to lose ground in its territorial heartlands in Iraq and Syria, it is clear the group is keen to project a strong image of itself around the world. A lack of corroborating evidence in recent claims suggests the group is using the 'success' of those inspired by its brand and ideology for propaganda purposes.
Some ISIS claims can be dismissed as opportunistic, tenuous, and are even mocked online for their frequency. However, ISIS' propaganda machine still encourages attacks by those who subscribe to its ideology. Whether ISIS can say it is responsible for that conviction, or whether it is developed by other jihadi groups, fostered online, or created in face-to-face interactions in smaller networks at home, its presence online remains and its ability to inspire violence should not be underestimated.