Is ISIS’ Comment on the Manhattan Attack Out of the Ordinary? Not Really.

 ISIS has desired to attack New York City for years, and there is no doubt that ISIS-pledged Manhattan attacker Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov committed his devastating attack in response to the group’s incitements.  

But contrary to reporting by some prominent news outlets, the group didn’t actually take responsibility for Saipov’s attack, and its message regarding the attack was not atypical. ISIS' report about the Manhattan attack, actually, was well in line with those of other ISIS-inspired attacks.

ISIS-Inspired vs. ISIS-Coordinated

To date, ISIS has made only one reference to Saipov and his attack. Thursday night, two days after his attack, ISIS embraced Saipov as a “soldier of the Caliphate” in issue 104 of its official weekly newspaper, al-Naba. The article was entitled, “An Attack by One of the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Downtown Manhattan in America Results in Killing and Wounding More than 60 Crusaders.” It read in part:

On Tuesday, 11 Safar, one of the soldiers of the Islamic State attacked a number of crusaders on a street in New York City, close to the monument for the 9/11 raid, which resulted in killing and wounding more than 60 crusaders, and unto Allah is all praise.

Media agencies reported that the brother struck a number of crusaders in Manhattan with his small truck, killing 8 and wounding more than 12, and unto Allah is all praise.

So if ISIS called Saipov one of its “soldiers,” the group is logically claiming responsibility for the attack, right?

Yes and no.  

ISIS statements for attacks are loaded with subtle elements which indicate its varying degrees of responsibility—whether it be full coordination or having merely inspired a given attack. “Soldier of the Caliphate” is a title ISIS gives to attackers around the world, regardless of whether or not they had coordinated their attacks with the organization. Its logic is that any person who pledged to ISIS and carried an attack in response to its incitements is a “soldier of the Caliphate.” But to that point, naming Saipov as a “soldier of the Caliphate” doesn't indicate that ISIS actually claimed “responsibility,” as some outlets have reported.

For instance, in most of ISIS’ claims for attacks inspired by it, the group has called the attackers “soldier[s] of the Caliphate.” Examples include the following:

  • London stabbing, claimed June 3, 2017 (“Islamic State fighters”)
  • Ohio State University attack, claimed November, 29, 2016 ("soldier of the Islamic State")
  • Marseille, France attack, claimed October 1, 2017 (“from the soldiers of the Islamic State”)
  • Brussels stabbing, claimed August 26, 2017 (from the soldiers of the Islamic State)
  • Malmo, Sweden, claimed October 20, 2016 (“one of the soldiers of the Islamic State”)
  • British Parliament Attack, claimed March 23, 2017 (“a soldier of the Islamic State’)

Note that all of the above claims are issued by ISIS’ ‘Amaq News Agency, not through ISIS’ central media command. This method of issuing statements is in itself another way to distance the group from an attack in which it wasn’t directly involved.

For attacks that are actually coordinated by ISIS—or at least when it wants to claim it was coordinated—the group uses different language. In these cases, attackers are often identified as ISIS “detachments,” or circumstances of their attacks are provided in more detail. For example, ‘Amaq’s September 15 statement for the London Metro bombing reported:

A security source to 'Amaq Agency: The detonation of an explosive device in the metro tunnel in London was executed by a detachment belonging to the Islamic State

However, in addition to the ‘Amaq message, ISIS also issues official communiques from its central media command when it wants to indicate the attack as being coordinated. Note the official communique issued for the London Metro attack, issued shortly after the aforementioned ‘Amaq message.

ISIS communique for the London Metro bombing, which reads: “Seeking guidance from Allah alone, and putting trust in Him the Almighty, the soldiers of the Caliphate were able to plant several explosive devices and detonate one of them amidst a gathering of Crusaders in a metro station, Parsons Green, in London. It resulted in wounded nearly 30 Crusaders, and what is coming is more devastating and bitter, Allah permitting. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.”

Likewise, ISIS’ official communique claim for August’s Barcelona and Cambrils attacks attributed it to two “security detachments.” The English version of the communique read:

Last month, ISIS likewise claimed responsibility for what it claimed was an undetonated “explosive devices” at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. The airport was evacuated on September 17, which French officials soon after stated to be the result of “false reports” of a bomb there. Responding to this in ‘Naba, ISIS attributed the evacuation, and French officials’ subsequent attempt to “cover [it] up,” to a “security detachment,” once more implying a claim of involvement:

A security source told al-Naba that Charles de Gaulle Airport in the French capital, Paris, was evacuated on Sunday, 26 Dhul-Hijjah [17 September], due to explosive devices planted by a security detachment belonging to the soldiers of the Islamic State.

The security source added that the security detachment was able - by the grace of Allah - to enter the explosive devices into the inside of the airport, and plant them inside pre-determined locations. However, the Crusader forces managed to detect their presence before their detonation, and immediately evacuated the airport.

The Arabic word for “detachment” was also attributed to the Brussels attackers, whom ISIS claimed on March 22, 2016 to be “a security detachment from the soldiers of the Caliphate.”

The word detachment is not unique to ISIS claims for attacks in the West. ISIS also uses the word detachment to describe claims of attack in Iraq, Syria, and across the world.

Release and Timing

Much buzz has surrounding the timing of ISIS’ statement for the Manhattan attack, which it issued two days after the event. Such a delay is not so unusual for ISIS, though. The following chart shows various ISIS-claimed attacks (both as inspired and coordinated) throughout the West, and how long it took for ISIS to issue a statement on them.

As the chart shows, multiple attacks, including the July 2016 Nice vehicular attack and the aforementioned Barcelona operation in August, were claimed two days after being committed. Others, like the June 2017 Champs Elysees and June 2017 Brussels attacks, were issued a full month later.

Method of Claim

The method in which ISIS’ statement for the Manhattan attack was released, Naba newspaper, also reflects nothing abnormal for the group. ISIS has multiple ways it will claim an attack. Typically, ISIS claims its coordinated attacks with red and blue communiques issued by its Nashir Telegram channel. These communiques may be preceded by an ‘Amaq claim.

However, ISIS has used Naba to claim attacks on numerous occasions, among which being last month’s incident at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France; a fire in Malmo, Sweden; and a fire at a furniture factory in Russia.

ISIS also claims attacks by other means, namely its al-Bayan Radio news bulletin and Rumiyah magazine. Attacks in the West reported on in Rumiyah have included the June 2017 Champs Elysees attack and the June 2017 Brussels Central Station attack, both of which commented on in issue 11 of the magazine.  

Does ISIS only Claim Attacks by those who were Killed?

In most cases, ISIS attackers are not alive when ISIS claims their operations, as was the case with Saipov. However, it is not unheard of.

For Anis Amri, who also performed a vehicular attack at a Berlin Christmas Market last year, ISIS claimed the attack via its ‘Amaq News Agency on December 20, days before he was killed in a shootout in Milan.

ISIS similarly claimed the London Metro bombing this past September though the attackers were still alive, and would be arrested in the coming days. This claim was notably issued less than 12 hours after news of the incident broke, at which point much information—including a motive—were still unconfirmed.

Reporting Must Reflect the Nuance of ISIS Statements

ISIS reported on the Manhattan attack only through its ‘Naba magazine, using language akin to that of ISIS-inspired attacks. The claim furthermore offered no additional information about Saipov or his attack, as the group commonly does for coordinated attacks.

Sure, ISIS calling Saipov one of its "soldiers" is a way of claiming responsibility the attack, but only if we are to consider what is effectively an endorsement by ISIS as a claim of responsibility...

Considering these elements, Saipov’s attack appears to be the standard case of someone radicalized—at least in a significant part—online, proving once more how dangerous ISIS propaganda is.

An affidavit issued for Saipov states that he was “inspired to carry out the Truck attack by ISIS videos he had watched on his cellular phone,” and that he was particularly motivated “after viewing a video in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…questioned what Muslims in the United States and elsewhere were doing to respond to the killing of Muslims in Iraq.”

Sure, ISIS calling Saipov one of its "soldiers" is a way of claiming responsibility the attack, but only if we are to consider what is effectively an endorsement by ISIS as a claim of responsibility (i.e., if an attacker is inspired by ISIS, then that attack was in some way ISIS' doing).

However, reports should specify these conditions, because such concerns amount to more than petty semantics. The exact manner in which ISIS claims an attack—the timing, outlet from which the statement was released, the carefully made wording—is critical to understanding it and hence, developing a better public understanding and effective strategy for prevention. Thus, these variables deserve the same scrupulousness and sensitivity to nuance that we’d give to any other matter of national security.