Extremist groups often jump at the chance to own up to terrorist incidents in the propaganda game against their enemies, but few of those claims can be substantiated by evidence, rendering such strategies futile in the long run.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sinai air disaster, costing the lives of all 224 people on board a Russian Airbus, the rash of speculation and claims, denials and scepticism about terrorist involvement followed a familiar course.
ISIL-affiliated terrorists claimed they had carried out what amounted to mass murder, calling it retaliation for Russian air strikes in Syria.
At first, the media latched on to suggestions that the plane was struck by a missile early into its flight to St Petersburg from the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheik.
Officials pleaded for caution.
Analysts – and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi – questioned ISIL’s ability to bring down an aircraft flying at 35,000 feet. And the world waited for authoritative explanations.
Then, when the United States and British governments said the evidence pointed to a bomb on board, rival theories of pilot error or catastrophic mechanical failure were ushered aside. The claim or responsibility – or, more accurately, admission of guilt – from ISIL’s Sinai offshoot, Wilayat Sinai, suddenly appeared a lot more plausible.
So why did we not believe them all along, even allowing for whatever doubt properly remains until the investigators’ work is complete?
The truth is that it is difficult to accept, at face value, either the claims or the rebuttals. Decades of study reveals wide differences in the behaviour of those responsible for such attacks – or, sometimes, not responsible but seeing advantage in being thought so. There is no single, smooth pattern.
ISIL and other extremists certainly believe they benefit from being blamed for acts that cause huge loss of life, typically plane crashes or mass-casualty shootings in public places. What seems depraved, barbaric and indefensible to civilised minds can be given crude justification in medieval terminology.
And the more sensational the act is, the surer extremists can be of causing fear, rattling governments and prompting demands for harsh counter-terrorism measures.
Governments vary in their responses to claims of responsibility. Some feel a bombing or other terrorist act should be swiftly acknowledged as such, simultaneously making a case – as has been seen in Turkey – for repressive steps that stifle dissent more than they deter violence. Others, like Egypt on this occasion, play for time, avoiding unpalatable conclusions for as long as the emerging evidence permits.
Metrojet Flight 9268 was the first passenger plane known to have been destroyed by terrorists since 2004, when two internal flights – also Russian – were blown up by Chechen suicide bombers, killing a total of 89.
There have also been plenty of failed attempts so Wilayat Sinai’s success in causing carnage on October 31 explains why its intercepted electronic communications betray an element of boastfulness.
In all countries where Muslims find themselves in a minority and not always warmly welcomed, violent acts falsely claimed in the name of Islam intensify the pressure on law-abiding people to shoulder collective guilt. For ISIL, Al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists, making ordinary Muslims the subject of hostility or worse is not a hazard of war but a bonus.
"It is exactly what they want," says Hanif Qadir, a British Muslim and former Al Qaeda sympathiser who now campaigns tirelessly against radicalisation and has recently published a new work, Preventing Extremism and Terrorist Recruitment.
“It makes people feel they need protecting. A minority, even those previously uncommitted, may then see extremist groups as their defenders.”
Once a sense of victimhood takes hold, it is difficult to shake off, as has been witnessed in other conflicts around the world, including Palestine and Northern Ireland, where “sneaking regard” and burning resentment may triumph over revulsion at the impact of terrorism on the innocent. The sequence of claim and doubt that followed the loss of the Metrojet plane reflects only one of the customary post-atrocity patterns.
When Wilayat Sinai’s claims were dismissed, the group responded with bluster, challenging the authorities to prove it had not destroyed the Airbus. Only after the United States and UK said the attack had probably taken the form of a bomb smuggled on board did terrorism begin to look the obvious cause.
If ISIL is generally quick to present itself as the instigator of attacks, the recent history of terrorism is more complicated. Most terrorist groups are happy to be blamed for acts they had nothing directly to do with.
There is more than a hint of “win win”. Fear is generated whether or not those making a claim even knew an attack was about to be carried out. This is especially the case if the attacks occur in settings many people can identify with and western civilians are killed. Death in a Nigerian town centre, a Baghdad market or a remote part of Libya has nothing like the same impact in the West as a massacre in a Kenyan mall, on a Tunisian beach or in any air space.
If there is no admission of guilt, the media and the pundits take over, earnestly debating whether terrorists, or which terrorists, were culpable. The effect is the same.
Mr Qadir, who founded the London-based Action for Change Foundation, says it is not a question of ISIL, now the world’s most prominent terrorist group, being less a structured network than a coalition of similar ideas with the loosest of organisational discipline.
“It is a very well structured group,” he says. “There’s leadership and organisation and there are objectives. But it is true that some people will act on its behalf without actually being members and those actions may be claimed by ISIL.”
Academic research produces perplexing, even startling detail. In the United States, the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database has analysed 140,000 acts it defines as terrorism since 1970. Last year, it reported that since 1998, out of 45,000 such acts only 14 per cent had been followed by credible claims.
Although Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader killed by US special forces in 2011, is widely believed to have ordered the airborne suicide attacks of September 11 2001, a series of contradictory statements were attributed to him, including acceptance or rejection of responsibility.
There are variations of the guessing game. When the French-Algerian Kouachi brothers attacked the Paris office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, they claimed to be acting on behalf of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Yet their accomplice. Amedy Coulibay, who killed four hostages at Jewish supermarket elsewhere in Paris, before – like the Kouachis – being shot dead by police, claimed allegiance to ISIL.
An apparently well-informed report in the French newspaper Le Monde says analysis of email and other exchanges between Kouachi, Coulibaly and other suspects demonstrates the "porous" nature of demarcation lines between ISIL, Al Qaeda and allied groups.
In one grim respect, analysts are more or less agreed. Whether they fear more coordinated “spectaculars”, such as attacks on civil aviation, or an increase in opportunistic acts by solitary terrorists, possibly without formal affiliation, they see little prospect of ending terrorism soon.
But however distressing each atrocity may be, some observers discourage exaggerating the problem.
Seven years ago, Glenn Carle, a former US intelligence chief, argued that extremists should be seen for the “small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are”, mocking Al Qaeda’s military capabilities as “far inferior to its desires”.
That was before the alarming growth of ISIL, but the message has contemporary echoes.
“True, they [ISIL] are an exceptionally unpleasant regional plague,” the British military historian and former newspaper editor, Sir Max Hastings, wrote last week in London’s Daily Mail newspaper. “But they will eventually fade away because their leaders have no economic vision beyond subsistence.” In other words, both see terrorists as nasty but, in broader terms, insignificant. If there is merit in the Carle/Hastings approach, arguments over the validity of terrorist claims of responsibility may eventually become redundant.