ISIS, Putin and the claim of responsibility

An image from a recent attack on a casino in the Philippines. Contrary to initial reporting and even a tweet by Donald Trump, the perpetrator was no ISIS member, but rather an indebted gambler.

Claiming or denying responsibility for things that happen, seems to have become almost an art form.

Imagining a criminal, confessing to a whole bunch of crimes he did actually not commit, is quite an extraordinary thought. But this is pretty much normal, if it comes to certain terrorist organizations. It appears as if ISIS in particular, claims almost everything at one point or the other. Sure, there are the official looking ISIS channels who seem somewhat more cautious, but even they did claim responsibility for the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando for instance, where the perpetrator in part seemed to have been motivated by his inability to cope with his own sexual orientation. OK, if I think about it, this might exactly be the reason that incites a huge chunk of religious violence, but normally this is not the stuff a group like ISIS wants to be openly associated with.

The point is though, that Islamist terror groups tend to claim responsibility for far more attacks and events, than what they have actually organized. The attacker in Orlando might have mentioned ISIS in a phone call, he made to the local police during his attack; so, he might have been inspired by the Islamic State; but if we look into it, there seems to have been little actual relationship between the attacker and the group he did mention. Inspiring someone and being fully responsible for his actions, are indeed two separate things.

One the other extreme we find Russian president Vladimir Putin. Whenever someone makes any claim of Russia being involved in anything, Putin instantly seems to deny any connection. Be it meddling in the US election, the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the killing of figures of the Russian opposition in Russia and abroad, he instantly denies any involvement and frequently calls the accusations conspiracy theories.

Neither Putin nor ISIS are stupid, let alone inexperienced, so rather than dismissing their difference in style as merely a personal preference, one should look at this as a strategic decision.

A terror group like ISIS tries to spread terror and fear, precisely to extend its otherwise very limited reach. Claiming responsibility for a multitude of events – these do not necessarily need to be attacks – does make sense. Especially in a media environment with an ever-shortening attention span. The way events are perceived is decided in the first couple of hours, until the whole media circus moves on. So, by pretty much claiming everything almost instantly, some claims might make headlines and that is all ISIS needs. That way, ISIS is more of a claim-machine than one that needs to orchestrate terror.

To law enforcement or the judiciary system – and to the victims – it is important to determine, if something had been an attack and who was behind it. But the panic element, that makes terror so devastating, relies on fast paced judgements. If prosecutors, weeks after an event, find out that a blast had been a technical malfunction, the battle over our perception has already been lost.

The reaction of denying any wrongdoing seems quite “reasonable” as well. If you deny any involvement in anything evil, that might limit your liability. Every two-year-old knows that. It becomes odd, when everyone knows that you are lying. Take for instance the fighting in Eastern Ukraine that goes on for years now. Putin denies any support for the so-called separatists. That seems odd, since the lack of support by official channels in Russia make it very hard to explain, where all the shiny new Russian tanks and small-arms are coming from.

Everyone knows, that there is support from within Russia and either Putin is extremely naïve, or he is lying. But constantly lying might in fact be a clever political move. People know that you do at least some of the things people claim you do. By appearing untrustworthy to your opponents – in Putin’s case the West -, people might start to believe that you are responsible for almost everything. You might become the focus of a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are funny, since, when you fall for them, they always seem to be directed against you. I have yet to find a person, who thinks that there is a conspiracy going on that aims at making his life better. That way, these conspiracies are always aimed at something extremely powerful, lurking in the shadows. But what if you are at the receiving end of such a theory? To some groups – i.e. the Jews, Freemasons, Communists -, this can have dire consequences. But if you are an organization that holds real power and whose job it is to use that power, people associating even more power to you, might certainly have some benefits.

I believe for instance, that American institutions, like the NSA and CIA, that are constantly under suspicion, do certainly realize that this conspiracy theory that is associated with them isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There are quite a few people, that almost believe in the omnipotence of these US agencies. And you do not want to pick a fight with such a powerful organization willy-nilly. That way, the CIA reaches parts of the world, where there is no agent present.

Strangely claiming everything and denying everything might create a similar outcome. It widens your reach. But the constant claim is the tool of the weak and the constant denial is the tool of the actor, people already think is powerful. There comes the point, where you should start switching from one to the other. If you have widened your virtual reach to a point, that people start believing in your godlike powers, it might become favorable to deny everything.

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