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Conventional wisdom holds that terrorism is committed for strategic reasons as a form of costly signaling to an audience. However, since over half of terrorist attacks are not credibly claimed, conventional wisdom does not explain many acts of terrorism. This article suggests that there are four lies about terrorism that can be incorporated in a rationalist framework: false claiming, false flag, the hot-potato problem, and the lie of omission. Each of these lies about terrorism can be strategically employed to help a group achieve its desired goal(s) without necessitating that an attack be truthfully claimed.
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Studies in Conflict & Terrorism
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Lying About Terrorism
Erin M. Kearnsa, Brendan Conlona & Joseph K. Younga
a School of Public Affairs American University, Washington, DC, USA
Accepted author version posted online: 20 Feb 2014.Published
online: 15 Apr 2014.
To cite this article: Erin M. Kearns, Brendan Conlon & Joseph K. Young (2014) Lying About Terrorism,
Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 37:5, 422-439, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2014.893480
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Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 37:422–439, 2014
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1057-610X print / 1521-0731 online
DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2014.893480
Lying About Terrorism
School of Public Affairs
American University
Washington, DC, USA
Conventional wisdom holds that terrorism is committed for strategic reasons as a form
of costly signaling to an audience. However, since over half of terrorist attacks are not
credibly claimed, conventional wisdom does not explain many acts of terrorism. This
article suggests that there are four lies about terrorism that can be incorporated in a
rationalist framework: false claiming, false flag, the hot-potato problem, and the lie
of omission. Each of these lies about terrorism can be strategically employed to help
a group achieve its desired goal(s) without necessitating that an attack be truthfully
Brian Jenkins1claimed that terrorism2is theater where attacks are performed for an audi-
ence to generate a response that is in line with the goals of the perpetrator.3Recent rationalist
research is built on the premise that terrorism is committed for strategic reasons.4These
literatures disagree over the extent to which attacks are symbolic or serve an instrumental
purpose. However, if the purpose of terrorism in each framework is to communicate to an
audience, why do many attacks go unclaimed? Related, why are attacks falsely claimed by a
group or blamed on a group that was not responsible? Rationalist explanations of terrorism
address why groups claim responsibility for their attacks, but do not offer an explanation
for why groups lie about terrorism.
Kydd and Walter5provide the most comprehensive framework of rationalist expla-
nations for terrorism.6They argue that terrorism is a form of costly signaling whereby
weak groups must demonstrate that they are credible adversaries. By carrying out attacks,
violent groups hope to achieve any combination of the following five end goals: territorial
change, policy change, regime change, social control, and maintaining the status quo. To
achieve these goals, Kydd and Walter identify five strategic logics of costly signaling:
(1) attrition to cause maximum damage and convey to the adversary that the terrorist group
is capable of imposing a significant cost on its opponent, (2) intimidation to convey to the
population that the group is too strong for the government to stop them, (3) provocation to
elicit a disproportionate response that would radicalize the population against the group’s
opponent, (4) spoiling to communicate to the opponent that moderates on their side are not
Received 30 September 2013; accepted 21 January 2014.
Address correspondence to Joseph K. Young, School of Public Affairs, American University,
4400 Massachusetts Ave., Washington, DC 20016-8043, USA. E-mail:
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Lying About Terrorism 423
Figure 1. Percent of terrorist attacks that are claimed, 1998–2011. Source: Global Terrorism
trustworthy or powerful, and (5) outbidding to convey to the population that the terrorist
group is more determined to fight its opponent than any rival groups and thus is more
worthy of public support. This is a comprehensive framework and brings together years of
rigorous empirical and theoretical work. These strategic logics of terrorism, however, are
only applicable to terrorist events where the perpetrator claims credit.
Kydd and Walter’s7theory of terrorism as a costly signal fails to explain all forms of
terrorism. Whether a group takes responsibility for a terrorist attack that was not its own,
intentionally implicates another group, or simply fails to take responsibility for an attack
that it did commit, groups sometimes lie about terrorism.8There is a dearth of research
on why groups lie about attacks. In this framework, it would seem that when an attack is
not claimed, it fails to coerce the attacker’s enemy and thus appears pointless. This article,
however, offers a rationalist explanation for why a group might lie about terrorism through
false claiming, false blaming, or lies of omission.
Understanding why groups lie about terrorism is of particular importance today. De-
spite the conventional wisdom that terrorism is about coercion and signaling, many ter-
rorist attacks are not claimed.9In fact, according to the Global Terrorism Database only
12.4 percent of terrorist attacks were claimed from 1998 to 2011.
As shown in Figure 1, the percentage of terrorist attacks claimed per year during
this time period is never over 18.1 percent. Additionally, during the past few decades, the
percentage of claimed attacks has dropped from 61 percent in the 1970s to just 14.5 percent
from the late 1990s through 2004.10 Credit is no longer taken for many of the most deadly
attacks.11 Changes in claiming attacks highlight not only the importance of explaining why
terrorists lie, but also hint at the existence of strategic reasons for lying about terrorism.
While lying about terrorism appears to be more common in recent decades, it is not a
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424 E. M. Kearns et al.
new phenomenon. Some of the cases that are discussed in more detail below occurred in
the 1970s and 1980s. As these and other cases show, the modern history of terrorism has
examples of lying about involvement in attacks. One of the problems with these lies is
that often they are not discovered, or the full details of the events are not made public,
until years later. Although lying about terrorism is not a recent occurrence, the increasing
number of attacks that are unclaimed indicates that terrorism is not always a clear signal.
While terrorism can be a form of costly signaling through claiming, there are also rationalist
explanations for attacks that are unclaimed and thus appear to lack a signal, but in fact may
be perpetrated for another strategic purpose.
This article does not aim to challenge Kydd and Walter’s12 theory of terrorism where
a group accepts responsibility for its own attack. The aim of this article is to expand
rationalist theory to terrorist attacks where lying about responsibility occurs. This article
suggests that there are four lies about terrorism that can be incorporated in a rationalist
framework. In brief, a group can perpetrate a terrorist attack and lie about it in two ways:
by blaming the attack on a rival group and by not claiming credit for it. A group can lie
about a terrorist attack that they did not perpetrate in two ways as well: by taking credit for
another group’s attack and by blaming it on another group without knowing what group was
truly responsible. The levels of internal and external control exerted by a group may help
determine the type of lie that the group chooses to tell. Each of these lies about terrorism
can be strategically employed to help a group achieve its desired goal(s).
The next section examines why groups claim responsibility for terrorist attacks; how-
ever, this offers an incomplete understanding of terrorism. Next, the article examines reasons
why a group might falsely claim, falsely blame, or fail to take credit for a terrorist attack.
Then, the article offers rationalist explanations for each of these lies and provides case
studies to illustrate how lying about terrorism can be strategically motivated. Finally, the
article concludes by discussing issues with modeling these attacks, identifying hypotheses
about situations where one could expect to see each strategic lie, and suggesting policy
Telling the Truth About Terrorism
The practice of claiming credit for terrorist attacks began in the late 1800s as a way for
rebels, in part, to differentiate themselves from criminals.13 The strategic model assumes
that perpetrators of terrorism are rational actors who seek to achieve their goals through
costly signaling. Historically, groups that use terrorism have met this definition; they were
motivated by a particular goal, had clear and understandable demands, claimed credit for
their attacks, and explained how their actions were in-line with their ideology.14 Hoffman15
argues that groups take credit because an attack alone is a poor form of communication. It
is not expensive to claim an attack, and by claiming one’s own attack it is more difficult for
other groups to credibly claim an attack for which they were not responsible.
Traditionally, groups have perpetrated terrorism because they want publicity, not a
high body count; however, recent attacks are more lethal and less likely to be claimed
than attacks in the past.16 Hoffman17 suggests that terrorist attacks may be more lethal
today for a variety of reasons including the fear that the attack will not otherwise gain
sufficient attention, development of expertise through experience, and the role of state-
supported terrorism. These explanations for the increased lethality of terrorist attacks may
also explain why groups are less likely to claim credit for their attacks. The reduction in
claiming may indicate that violence has become the end goal. As a result, explanations and
credit taking may occur less often, and attacks may become more deadly.18
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Lying About Terrorism 425
The chances of a militarized counterstrike may impact credit-taking where low and high
responses would increase claiming, but moderate response would decrease it.19 Hoffman20
suggests, however, that the relationship between claiming and likelihood of retaliation may
be impacted by public opinion about civilian casualties when a government responds to
terrorism. Claiming may be more likely when backlash is directed at the government instead
of the group that commits terrorist attacks.
In sum, groups may be more likely to tell the truth about terrorism when they want
to gain publicity and calculate that there is a low risk of backlash from the population and
the government. These conditions, however, are not always present. Furthermore, there are
strategic explanations for lying about terrorism when conditions are sub-optimal. While
all unclaimed attacks may not be strategic, it may be that some are. Since the majority of
attacks are now unclaimed, even explaining a portion of these attacks is an important task.21
Lying About Terrorism
Communications between actors in a group that uses terrorism are complex due to the
clandestine nature of these actions. Accordingly, the ways in which a group can lie about
terrorism are also complex, and may not fall under a traditional understanding of a lie. In
this article, the term “lie” refers to both direct and indirect lies about terrorism. As discussed
at the outset, there are four lies that a group can tell about a terrorist attack, each of which
has its own purpose, as shown in Table 1. First, a group may claim responsibility for an
attack that they did not perpetrate. Second, a group may commit false flag terrorism by
carrying out an attack and then blaming it on a rival organization. Third, a group may lie by
blaming an attack that it did not commit on a rival group, which is termed the hot-potato
problem. Fourth, a group may engage in a lie of omission where they perpetrate an attack
but neither claim responsibility for it nor blame it on another group. Knowing how groups
lie about terrorism leads to the next question: why do groups lie about terrorism?
Table 1
Committing, claiming, and blaming terrorism
Did the group actually commit the attack?
Yes No
Took credit Truthful terrorism False claiming another’s
Principal-Agent Problem
Did not take credit Unclaimed act
Principal-Agent Problem
Blamed it on another False Flag Terrorism
Principal-Agent Problem
Hot-Potato Problem
Why Claim Responsibility for an Attack that a Group Did Not Commit?
It is difficult to ascertain how many terrorist attacks are claimed by a group that was not the
actual perpetrator. In one study focusing on Israel, Hoffman22 found that multiple groups
claimed 8.4 percent of the attacks between 1968 and 2004. Nearly half of these attacks had
conflicting claims of responsibility, whereas the rest were joint ventures. The number of
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426 E. M. Kearns et al.
attacks that are falsely claimed by a group and not credibly claimed by the true perpetrator,
thus leading to a general belief that the false claimer is actually responsible, is not known.
These results, however, provide evidence that claiming responsibility for an act that one
did not commit is a relatively common phenomenon in terrorism and warrants explanation.
Of the four types of lies about terrorism, Kydd and Walter’s23 framework is most
applicable to explaining why groups claim credit for an act that they did not commit. When
this occurs, the group that falsely claims an attack may be trying to convince its target
of persuasion that it is a credible threat. Attrition as a strategic logic of terrorism is used
when a group’s power to make good on its threats is questioned. A group could take credit
for another group’s attack to convince the enemy of its power. A group that falsely claims
another’s attack could lack the power it is attempting to display, or it could have the capacity
to carry out the attack itself but opportunistically claim credit to prevent another group from
demonstrating its power.
Outbidding as a strategic logic of terrorism is ripe for taking credit for another group’s
attack. Hoffman24 found that the likelihood of claiming credit increases when multiple
terrorist groups with the same general goals are competing for supporters. However, when
there are multiple competing groups and an attack goes unclaimed, there may be an addi-
tional incentive to free ride and not attack but to claim credit for another’s violence. Taking
credit for another group’s work can cause doubt among the population over the effective-
ness of the rival. If two groups both take credit for the same attack, then it may become less
clear to the population who is actually responsible and deserves support. Taking credit for
another’s attack may be a logical choice even when a group does not expect to gain many
supporters from it.
Why Commit an Attack and Blame It on a Rival Group?
Blaming violence on another has a long history.25 The term “false flag” likely originated in
naval combat, where ships would fly a more innocuous flag prior to violent engagement.
False flag terrorism is when one group commits an attack and blames it on a rival group or
a fictitious group of its invention. Due to the secret and deceptive nature of such attacks,
it is difficult to identify incidents of false flag terrorism.26 Jenkins,27 however, argues that
false flag attacks are common and identifies the four main strategic reasons for committing
false flag terrorism: infiltration, deniability, stigmatization, and destabilization.
Infiltration occurs when government agents are able to penetrate an already existing group
and rise through its ranks.28 A more advanced form of infiltration occurs when a provo-
cateur advances within the organization and is able to authorize attacks for the purpose of
discrediting the organization and stigmatizing the ideology of the group she has infiltrated.
In this case, the penetrated organization is carrying out attacks and claiming credit for them.
The 1957 Battle of Algiers is an oft-cited example.
Deniability occurs when an organization desires to carry out an attack to obtain a tactical
or practical objective but cannot take credit for the attack. This can take a number of forms,
including state-sponsored attacks being claimed by known groups giving false names29 or
a group creating a bogus opposition group to use as a cover.30 An example of false flag
terrorism through deniability includes Libya commissioning the Japanese Red Army to
attack U.S. targets following the 1986 air strikes.31
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Lying About Terrorism 427
Stigmatization occurs when an attack is committed by one group in a manner where the
enemies of the actual perpetrator would be blamed and receive public backlash. This style
of false flag terrorism may be more common where groups have an ideological base, as
it can cause speculation.32 Jenkins33 provides alleged Libyan involvement in the Lebanese
group, The Call of Jesus Christ, where it was later shown that the French secret service was
involved as an example of false flag terrorism through stigmatization.
Destabilization occurs when a group commits an act against its own people and blames a
rival group for it. In destabilization, the goal is to cause a general environment of chaos.
There are multiple reasons why groups might find a benefit in using terrorism to create
an environment where security of the average individual is uncertain.34 In Jenkins’s35
conception of destabilization, government agents are responsible for an attack that is
blamed on a rival organization; however, terrorist organization can also use destabilization
to create chaos. Greece, Spain, and Turkey are examples of false flag terrorism through
Why Blame an Attack that You Did Not Commit on a Rival Group?
Groups that use terrorism often have rivals. Some are bitter and others less so. Hamas
and Fatah, for example, are Palestinian groups that compete for support of the Palestinian
people and have been strategic rivals for decades with dramatic episodes of intra-Palestinian
violence.37 Not all rivalry or intergroup competition, however, encourages strategic acts of
terrorism. One scenario, the hot-potato problem, can occur when there are two or more
competing organizations.
Within states, there are a number of organizations that seek to achieve some goal. These
organizations are often nonviolent but some groups may perceive violence as necessary in
order to fulfill their objectives. The hot-potato problem can arise due a lack of agreement
about cooperation between organizations. One organization may believe that violence is
antithetical to achieving its objectives, while another organization may perceive violence
as critical. When this occurs, nonviolent groups may attempt to eliminate inaccurate per-
ceptions that their organization is violent, while violent groups may desire a furthering of
that perception. As a result, when a violent organization carries out an attack, nonviolent
groups may have a strong incentive to distance themselves from the act. One common way
to accomplish this is to blame the attack on a rival organization. Of course, the organization
falsely being blamed for the attack may also not wish to be associated with the stigma of
violence. Out of such an environment, a hot-potato problem may arise where groups pass
blame to rival organizations in order to avoid the stigmatization of being associated with
violence. The hot-potato problem can also arise when a group perpetrates an attack and
initially takes credit for it but then retracts and possibly blames a rival group, generally due
to backlash or other negative effects of having claimed credit.
Why Commit an Attack and Neither Claim It Nor Blame It?
The lie of omission is most common; the perpetrator neither claims credit for the attack
nor blames the attack on another group. Al Qaeda attacks since 1998 have often followed
this pattern, while the Shining Path in Peru was likely one of the pioneers of this approach
in the 1980s.38 Over the past few decades, both the nature of groups that use terrorism and
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428 E. M. Kearns et al.
the prevalence of claiming responsibility of terrorist attacks have changed. The main goal
of groups today may be fear, not publicity, which could explain why groups claim attacks
less frequently since anonymous attacks still generate fear in the target population.39 Not
claiming credit is a way to amplify fear and the potential catastrophic damage intended
by the perpetrators.40 Groups may not need to claim responsibility for an attack publically
if the intended audience is internal41 or a competing group.42 State-backed attacks are not
likely to be claimed, but the target usually knows who is responsible and why that attack
The destabilization argument can also be applied to attacks where no one claims
credit. For example, a government or an allied government group may want to create an en-
vironment where the populace would support more oppressive measures and reductions in
freedoms. However, since the populace is unlikely to support such restrictions, the govern-
ment has an incentive to create an environment of insecurity. By covertly organizing attacks
against the populace, the government can create a tense environment to orchestrate support
for repressive measures, but also cannot credit for the attacks, which would undermine
its goal.
More recently, some of the most deadly terrorist attacks have gone unclaimed.44 It
is possible that some of these attacks were not claimed because they were directed at
civilians and the responsible group feared backlash. Pluchinsky45 suggests that groups may
not claim attacks that conflict with their desired public perception, or if the number of
casualties exceeds expectation. In a study of eight Middle Eastern terrorist group-types,
Chasdi46 found that 27.7 percent of attacks were unclaimed. The unclaimed attacks in this
study were more likely to have targeted civilians and, surprisingly, were also more likely
to have no injuries or fatalities than claimed attacks. The lack of injuries and fatalities
in unclaimed attacks may suggest that the acts were merely meant to cause fear and
add to political pressure, or it may suggest that the responsible group views the lack of
civilian casualties as a failure and are too embarrassed to claim credit.47 These conflicting
findings suggest that, perhaps, attacks on both ends of the casualty spectrum are likely to
go unclaimed, but for different reasons.
Hoffman48 also notes the political differences between the era when groups were
more likely to claim attacks and the present. In the 1970s, there was more impunity for
terrorist attacks whereas some states are now more likely to use military force and economic
sanctions in response to terrorism, which drives groups that use terrorism and their sponsors
underground and increases the utility of remaining anonymous.
When civilians are killed in a terrorist attack, the target population will likely be
upset and may react in ways that are counterproductive to the perpetrator’s goal(s). Killing
civilians can also result in international outcry against the responsible organization. Civilian
casualties will often make governments less cooperative with responsible terrorist groups,
and governments may react by changing policies that the terrorists enjoyed. For all of these
reasons, claiming terrorism can be a poor strategy.
The Principal-Agent Problem
The principal-agent problem occurs when an actor within a group behaves in a way that is
not sanctioned by the leadership of his organization. Power structures within organizations
that use terrorism range from strictly hierarchal to more horizontal cells. Due to varying
structures of groups that use terrorism, there are a number of ways that communication can
fail and impact claiming of attacks. When a group has a hierarchal structure, the leadership
gives an order and agents carry out that order. When a group is comprised of horizontal cells,
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Lying About Terrorism 429
the leadership may set out broader guidelines and, rather than being told what and when
to attack, agents have autonomy to perpetrate attacks and then report back to leadership.
When power is not focused into a single governing body, there is an increased chance for
principal-agent issues to arise, which can explain why some attacks go unclaimed.
Just as multiple strategic logics of terrorism can be used simultaneously,49 groups
can also employ multiple strategies of lying about terrorism. This article has outlined
four lies that can be told about terrorism from the perspective of a group’s leadership.
However, a principal-agent problem can further explain why each of these lies may be told.
First, an organization may claim responsibility for an attack based on false statements of
responsibility from its agents. An agent may take credit for an attack carried out by another
group to appear more effective. Leadership might then claim responsibility for the attack
without realizing that they are lying. Second, an agent may carry out an attack and report
back to leadership only to discover that leadership disagreed with the agent’s action. Since
the leadership cannot undo the attack, they may neglect to claim credit for it or blame the
attack on a rival group to prevent their group from receiving the negative ramifications of
the attack. Third, an agent may carry out an attack that he determines to be a failure so he
does not inform his superiors about his involvement in the attack. Because the organization
is unaware that its agent was responsible, they will not claim the attack and may blame the
attack on a rival organization. Fourth, an agent may carry out an attack and report it to his
superiors. However, the leadership may be selective in deciding which attacks are worth
claiming and fail to claim some attacks.
Levels of Control and Lying About Terrorism
Lies about terrorism may be a function of both the level of control the group has over its
environment and the level of control the group’s leadership has over its subordinates when
an attack occurs. Table 2 shows how the levels of an organization’s external and internal
control can impact the type of lie told about terrorism.
False claiming occurs when a group has high external control and high internal control.
In this situation, a group is able to make a claim about an attack perpetrated by another
organization without repercussions or its own agents betraying the truth. However, false
claiming can also occur when a principal-agent problem arises and a group has high external
control but low internal control whereby the agent can tell his superiors that he committed
an attack that he did not such that the leadership is unaware that they are falsely claiming
responsibility for another group’s attack.
Fal se flag terrorism occurs when a group has high external control and high internal
control. In this situation, a group is able to carry out an attack and successfully blame it on
another group in a way that is credible to the target population and is not betrayed by its
own agents. However, false blaming can also occur when a principal-agent problem arises
and a group has high external control but low internal control whereby an agent can commit
an attack that is not sanctioned by his superiors and when he tells the leadership of his
organization about the attack they falsely blame the attack on a rival organization.
The hot-potato problem occurs when a group has low external control and high internal
control. In this situation, it is possible that one group may commit an attack that could reflect
poorly on a different group. Since the non-perpetrating group does not have control over
the responsible organization, the non-perpetrating group blames the attack on a rival group
to minimize the backlash and stigmatization that its group may face as a result of another
group’s attack. It is also possible that a group may be responsible for the attack and initially
claim credit but later retract that claim and blame a rival, generally due to backlash faced
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430 E. M. Kearns et al.
as a result of having claimed credit. However, the hot-potato problem can also occur when
a principal-agent problem arises and a group has low external control and low internal
control whereby an agent carries out an attack but fails to inform his superiors about his
responsibility for the attack and the organization’s leadership blames a rival group for the
attack instead.
Unclaimed attacks can occur when a group has high external control and high internal
control. In this situation, a group is able to successfully carry out an attack and keep members
of its organization from betraying their involvement outwardly. However, unclaimed attacks
can also occur when a principal-agent issue arises and a group has high external control
and low internal control whereby an agent carries out an attack that would be detrimental
to the group’s goal and thus leadership fails to claim credit for the attack.
Table 2
Control and lying about terrorism
Level of
HIGH False Claiming
False Flag
False Claiming/Principal-Agent
False Flag/Principal-Agent
LOW Hot-Potato
Hot-Potato Problem
This article has outlined four strategic reasons why a group may lie about terrorism through
false claiming, false blaming, the hot-potato problem, and lies of omission. To illustrate
these arguments, case studies are provided to outline examples where groups have lied
about terrorism to achieve a strategic goal.
The London Nail Bombings
In April 1999, a bombing campaign shook London. On 17 April, the first bomb detonated
in Brixton, a predominantly Black community, injuring 45. On 24 April, a bomb exploded
in East London near Brick Lane, a predominantly Bangladeshi neighborhood, injuring 13.
On 30 April, a third bomb went off in Soho, a predominately gay community, injuring 79
and killing three.
The perpetrator, David Copeland, was apprehended on the night of the last bombing.
Copeland admitted to carrying out all three bombings and stated that he worked alone.50
Two years before that attacks, Copeland had joined a far-right political group, the British
National Party, but left the following year due to the group’s unwillingness to use violence.51
Copeland later joined the National Socialist Movement and became the regional leader in
Hampshire a few weeks before his bombings.52 Despite his links to right-wing extremist
groups, Copeland acted alone in these attacks.53
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Lying About Terrorism 431
Four right-wing extremist groups separately claimed credit for the April 1999 London
bombings. The groups that claimed credit ranged from the well known, like Combat 18, to
the relatively unknown, like the White Wolves,54 to the obscure, like the English National
Party and the English Liberation Army.55 At the time of the bombings, Combat 18’s leader
was imprisoned and police had infiltrated the group, so its claims of responsibility were
quickly discarded as false.56 The White Wolves claimed credit for all three attacks and
specifically stated that they, not Combat 18, were responsible for the bomb in Brixton.57
Adding to the sense of confusion and unease, twenty-five people including leaders of the
Black and Asian communities in London received death threats from the White Wolves.58
Despite these claims of credit, there was no evidence of the White Wolves’ involvement
in the attacks. Very little is known about the two other groups that claimed credit for the
attack in Brixton.
Groups are more likely to claim attacks when there are multiple organizations that are
competing for support in the environment.59 While this was meant to explain why groups
truthfully claim their own attacks, it also offers a rationalist explanation for why groups in
competitive environments may falsely claim responsibility for an attack.
To be successful in a false claim, a group must have a high level of control both within
its organization and outside of it. Authorities did not believe the claims of credit, even prior
to Copeland being apprehended. None of the four groups that claimed responsibility was
particularly powerful or well known, aside from Combat 18. For this reason, it is likely
that each of the groups claimed these attacks because the targets were in line with their
goals, and claiming such high profile attacks would garner attention and portray strength.
However, these groups failed to convince the population of their involvement because no
group had strong external control, which allowed for four groups to separately claim credit
for attacks that none of them committed.
It is possible that one or more of the group that falsely claimed responsibility did so
without realizing that they were lying. A principal-agent issue can arise when an agent wants
to impress his superiors and appear more effective by claiming involvement in an attack
for which he has no responsibility. If this occurred, the leadership of the group(s) would
not be aware that they were lying about the attack. For the principal-agent issue to occur in
false claiming, the group would need to have high external control but low internal control,
which is unlikely for small, ideologically based groups such as those that claimed credit.
While a principal-agent issue may account for some of the lies told about this bombing
campaign, it is unlikely the reason that all four groups falsely claimed responsibility.
The Cinema Rex Fire
The Cinema Rex fire in Abadan, Iran was one of the deadliest attacks in modern history
and a catalyst for the White Revolution of 1979. The attack on the Cinema Rex is also
an exemplary case of the strategic utility of false flag terrorism. On 19 August 1978, the
anniversary of the 1953 coup that overthrew Mosaddeq, the democratically elected Iranian
prime minister, a theater in a working-class neighborhood of Abadan was set on fire during
a screening of a controversial, slightly pro-leftist film.60 The doors were locked from the
outside and anywhere from 350 to 800 people were killed.61 The shah blamed Islamic
militants for the attack while the revolutionary Islamists blamed SAVAK, the shah’s secret
police.62 Public opinion supported the latter position, illustrating the lack of public trust in
the shah’s government, and led to public outrage and protests.63
The shah responded to the protests by making concessions, which was seen as a sign
of weakness.64 On 8 September, a peaceful protest in Tehran ended with troops opening fire
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432 E. M. Kearns et al.
and killing between 80 and 90 protesters, although public perception was that the death toll
was several thousand.65 This event marked a turning point. The shah responded with greater
repression, including closing schools and suspending the media.66 Attempts to quell the
opposition failed and the public viewed the shah as untrustworthy, indecisive, and unstable.
In contrast, Ayatollah Khomeini had a clear goal for the future and the revolution began
shortly thereafter.67
The official investigation into the cause of the fire stopped when the revolution started.68
The 1980 trial showed that a religion-oriented group was responsible, and the attack may
have been directed by higher clericals.69 After the revolution, an official investigation
discovered that Islamic militants set the fire to create public animosity against the Pahlavi
regime.70 However, due to the nature of the events and the political climate at the time,
there is a dearth of information about the fire.71 It cannot be known for certain who set
the fire, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that the Islamic revolutionaries were
responsible and the events that unfolded after the fire were certainly more beneficial for
Regardless of whether the fire was actually set by Islamic militants or by the shah’s
SAVAK forces, both groups blamed the other for the attack. Following the logic of costly
signaling, the true perpetrator should have claimed credit for the attack, but that is not what
occurred. Therefore, the primary objective of the Cinema Rex fire was not to send a costly
signal. However, lying about the attack did have a strategic aim, and it led to the Islamic
revolutionaries achieving one of Kydd and Walter’s72 end goals: regime change.
To successfully carry out false flag terrorism, the group that actually perpetrates the
attack must have high external and internal control. The political climate in Iran during
August 1978 provided a ripe environment for such attacks. The shah’s regime was crumbling
and revolutionary sentiments were beginning to grow. However, the opposition was not
unified and there was not yet massive public support for regime change. The Islamic
revolutionaries capitalized on the shah’s low level of external control and their own high
level of internal control to carry out a false flag attack. As a result, the Islamic revolutionaries
also solidified the opposition movement and expanded their own control.
Three of Jenkins’s73 strategic reasons for committing false flag attacks apply to the
Cinema Rex fire: deniability, stigmatization, and destabilization. Deniability was necessary
and advantageous to the Islamic revolutionaries. The revolutionaries sought to carry out
a provocative attack that would generate support to their cause. The attack on innocent
families at a movie theater achieved their tactical objectives. However, it was necessary that
the attack be perpetrated in such a way that it could not be easily linked back to their cause.
Stigmatization was essential, and the fire started a chain of backlash. While the regime
rightfully blamed revolutionaries for the attack, the public largely did not believe this and
held the shah’s regime responsible. As a result, distrust in the regime grew and resulted in
public outrage and rekindled protests. Destabilization that resulted from the fire provided
the chaotic environment necessary to serve as a catalyst for the White Revolution.
While it is possible that the Cinema Rex fire is an example of false flag terrorism
due to a principal-agent problem, that explanation is unlikely. For the principal-agent
problem to occur in a false-flag situation, a group needs to have high external control but
low internal control such that an agent commits an attack that is not sanctioned by his
superiors so leadership blames their opponent for the attack. However, at the time of the
Cinema Rex fire, the Islamic revolutionaries had high internal control, as the movement
was hierarchical and centered around creating a theology-based regime. Rather, evidence
suggests that Islamic revolutionaries clandestinely orchestrated the attack with the purpose
of stigmatizing the shah’s regime and destabilizing the political environment to garner
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Lying About Terrorism 433
support for regime change. The Cinema Rex fire is the pinnacle example of the strategic
utility and success of false flag terrorism in achieving the terrorist’s end goal.
The Bologna Train Bombing
On 2 August 1980, an unattended suitcase bomb detonated in the train station in Bologna,
Italy killing 85 and injuring over 200. Hours after the attack, Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari
(NAR), a neo-fascist group, called a newspaper in Rome to claim credit for the attack.
The Red Brigade and the Organized Communist Movements, both communist groups, also
claimed credit for the attack but later retracted their claims. There were widespread protests
in Bologna the following day, and a few days later, there was a nationwide strike and calls
for swift justice. A few weeks after the bombing, dozens of NAR members were arrested,
but they have maintained their innocence to this day.74
During a bank fraud investigation in 1981, police discovered documents in the office of
Licio Gelli, a prominent financier, which both implicated military and political officials in
misleading investigators about the Bologna train bombing and detailed a plan to install an
authoritarian government.75 Gelli was later acquitted of charges of carrying out the bombing
but was convicted of investigation diversion along with four members of the Italian military
secret service. Through a series of trials and appeals members of NAR were convicted of
carrying out the bombing: husband and wife Valerio Fioravanti and Francesca Mambro in
1995 and Luigi Ciavardini in 2004. Despite convictions and admissions to other crimes
including murder, all maintain that they were not involved in the Bologna bombing.
The attack was likely symbolic, as it occurred on the same day that a trial started for
eight neo-fascists for the 1974 Italicus Express bombing.76 Accordingly, many believe that
NAR was responsible for the attack, and that, perhaps, it was perpetrated to sway public
opinion in the ongoing strategy of tension between communist and neo-fascist groups,
including the Red Brigade and NAR.77 However, given that Bologna was a communist
stronghold, public opinion at the time led many to conclude that the Red Brigade was, in
fact, responsible.78 To this date, there is still doubt about the true perpetrators of this attack.
The political environment in Italy at the time was tense and the months leading up to the
Bologna train station bombing were filled with terrorist incidents across Italy. The strategy
of tension that characterized this period was full of fear and propaganda aimed to sway public
opinion. Accordingly, a complex environment of loyalties was borne out of the relationships
between various groups, including the Red Brigade, other communist groups in Italy, NAR,
other neo-fascist groups in Italy, and the Italian government. In such a situation, the hot-
potato problem can arise when a group perpetrates an attack, initially takes credit for it, but
later the group or its agents retract the claim of credit. Based on available information, this
is likely what happened in the Bologna train bombing where NAR claimed credit but, after
apprehension, the leader and agents maintained their innocence. This was not, however,
the only lie told. The Red Brigade and the Organized Communist Movements also lied
by falsely claiming credit for the attack and later retracting, possibly due the widespread
public backlash against the bombing in the days that followed.
The political environment in Italy during this time was ripe for the hot-potato problem
since individual organizations had low external control but high internal control. It is
possible that NAR perpetrated the attack and took credit due to its low level of external
control. NAR may have falsely assumed that this would benefit the group by increasing
public attention after a number of Red Brigade attacks in the previous months. However,
NAR leaders and members insistently deny responsibility for the attack. This retraction
indicates a high level of internal control and was a rational action primarily because
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434 E. M. Kearns et al.
arrests are counterproductive to the cause and, to a lesser extent, because public response
to the attack was overwhelmingly negative. While it is possible that the principal-agent
problem was also at play in the Bologna train bombing, it is unlikely given the available
The December 21st Charasadda Suicide Bombing
On 21 December 2007, the main mosque in the small village of Sherpao, Pakistan was
packed with over 1,000 worshipers when an individual in the second row detonated a
suicide bomb.79 Over 50 people were killed and over 100 were injured.80
The primary goal of the attack was likely not civilian casualties.81 Rather, the at-
tack appeared to be an assassination attempt against Pakistan’s former interior minister,
Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao.82 This attack was not the first assassination attempt against
Sherpao.83 On 28 April 2007, the Taliban targeted Sherpao at a political rally for his party,
Pakistan’s Peoples Party.84 Sherpao escaped both attacks unharmed.85
No group claimed credit for the December 2007 attack, and the evidence does not point
to any specific group.86 The Pakistani Taliban perpetrated the first attempt on Sherpao’s
life, which makes them the most obvious suspect. However, they are not the only group
with motive.87 Both Al Qaeda and the Taliban considered Sherpao a target due to his efforts
as Interior minister against the rise of extremism.88
Sometimes, a group may not claim credit for an attack because it is obvious to its targets
that they are responsible.89 In such cases, no official claim is needed to make the signal.90
However, Pakistan is a country with a plethora of violent organizations and, because more
than one group had reason to want Sherpao dead, it is not obvious who was responsible.
As such, the failure to claim this attack cannot simply be explained by a perceived lack of
need on the perpetrators’ part.91 In this case, if a group wanted credit, it would have had to
explicitly claim the attack.
There are three explanations for why failing to claim this attack was strategic: the
assassination attempt failed, costly signaling was never the goal, and there was fear of
public backlash. If the attack was an assassination attempt, as is widely believed, then the
failure to claim responsibility for this attack was most likely the product of deniability.
The perpetrator may have had objectives other than costly signaling and wanted to avoid
the negative ramifications of responsibility. This would require the group to have high
external and internal control, since no rumors of responsibility have surfaced. The attack’s
primary objective seems to have been to assassinate Sherpao. Thus, this attack may have
had nothing to do with signaling. Related to the first point, it is also possible that the
responsible group planned to claim credit for the attack, had it been a success. However,
since the attack failed, the responsible group may not have claimed credit for fear of being
perceived as weak or ineffective.
The group responsible may have failed to claim credit because the attack killed more
people than the group expected.92 By claiming responsibility for the attack, there are two
ways that the perpetrators could be harmed: public backlash and governmental response.
Since the attack killed many in a mosque, there may have been particularly strong public
backlash against the group responsible. Since the target was a political figure, it may have
generated more severe governmental response as well.
While the principal-agent problem can potentially explain why some terrorist attacks
are not claimed, it probably does not apply to this case. The principal-agent problem
occurs when agents of a terrorist organization act independently from leadership, and this
breakdown in communication results in attacks contrary to the objectives set forth by
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Lying About Terrorism 435
leadership. Given that this was an assassination attempt of a major target, it is unlikely that
an agent was acting independently from leadership. The fact that it was a suicide attempt,
and that the previous attempt on Sherpao was planned, also suggest that this was most
likely an attack planned and authorized by the leadership.
Why It Is Difficult to Model
This article provides a theoretical expansion for understanding terrorism through a rational-
ist lens. Previous research has detailed the strategic reasons that groups tell the truth about
terrorism, and this article offers strategic reasons why groups lie about terrorist attacks.
While the present article expands our theoretical understanding of how terrorism can be
strategic, regardless of whether or not a credible claim of credit is made, it is difficult to
model these problems.
The central concern is how to tell if people are lying. According to the Global Terrorism
Database,93 a large proportion of terrorist attacks involve a lie, most of which appear to
be a lie of omission or falsely claiming the attack of another group. It is more difficult to
ascertain the proportion of attacks that are true false flag instances or are subject to the
hot-potato problem, but as the case studies discussed in this article indicate, all of these
lies about terrorism do occur. Identifying that groups sometimes do lie about terrorism
is the first step in theorizing about why this phenomenon occurs, especially with greater
frequency. However, at this point, it is probably not possible to model these problems using
a large Nstudy.
Where We Expect to See Each Lie
As discussed above, the type of lie told about terrorism is a function of a group’s level of
internal and external control when the attack occurs. Based upon this understanding about
how groups lie, it is possible to hypothesize the environments in which each lie is most
likely to occur.
False claiming, false flag, and unclaimed attacks all require that a group possesses high
external control, but the level of internal control can vary. If a group has high external control
and high internal control, its agents do not betray the truth, which can manifest in different
types of lies. A false claim is likely to occur and be believed when the group is dominant in
its region, not faced with strong competition, and more hierarchically structured. New or
weak groups may falsely claim in hopes of gaining attention and appearing stronger than
they are, but these claims are less likely to be believed. False flag attacks are likely to occur
when the group needs a catalyst event to provoke a disproportionate response or generate
public support for its cause, and necessitates that the group has the capacity to credibly and
believably blame the attack on its opponent. Unclaimed attacks are likely to occur when the
attack is meant to communicate to an internal audience or when the group does not have
competition in the region and thus the perpetrator is obvious to the population.
If a group has high external control but low internal control, then the group may
be unknowingly lying about its responsibility, unknowingly denying its responsibility, or
knowingly denying its responsibility for an unsanctioned attack. Under these conditions,
both false claiming and false blaming are likely to occur by a dominant group in a region,
but the group’s structure is more likely to be horizontal and thus the group’s leadership is
less aware of their subordinates’ actions. Unclaimed attacks are likely to occur when the
attack was not carried out as planned or when the public has a negative perception of the
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436 E. M. Kearns et al.
Conversely, the hot-potato problem will only arise in environments where groups have
low external control due to a number of competing groups. If a group has high internal
control, the hot-potato problem will likely arise when another group perpetrates an attack
that is counterproductive to its goals. If a group has low internal control, the hot-potato
problem may also arise if an agent commits an attack that is counter to his group’s goals
and thus fails to report it so the group’s leadership may unknowingly blame a rival group
for the attack, which would be denied by the group who was blamed but not responsible,
thus resulting in blame being bounced back and forth.
Policy Implications
In recent years, the percentage of terrorist attacks that are credibly claimed has decreased.
This article presents rationalist explanations for why groups lie about terrorism, either
through false claiming, false blaming, the hot-potato problem, or lies of omission. By
expanding our understanding of terrorism from a rationalist perspective to include instances
where groups lie, this article also expands the policy implications for addressing terrorism.
Groups may lie about terrorism for a number of reasons and in a variety of ways.
Claims of terrorist attacks should be treated with a degree of skepticism from both an
academic and a policy standpoint. As this article demonstrates, even when only one group
claims responsibility for an attack, this does not guarantee that the claiming group is truly
responsible. Thus, it is better to acknowledge the claim of responsibility than to ascribe
responsibility for any given attack. Furthermore, in order to fully understand terrorism, it
is important to appreciate the environment in which an attack takes place and the potential
repercussions for the group that is publically deemed responsible for an attack. As such, it
is worth treating attacks that seem strategically ill timed with a great deal of suspicion. This
does not mean that every attack that leads to repercussions against the terrorist group will
have a lie behind it. If the propositions above are useful, it is wise to consider the degree of
internal and external control to identify different potential reasons for lying. Terrorism is
not the straightforward game of costly signaling that conventional wisdom has assumed it
to be. Rather, terrorism occurs in environments where errors, disorder, and stigmatizations
are key elements, and where costly signaling is only one of the potential explanations.
1. Brian M. Jenkins, International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: The
Rand Corporation, 1974), p. 4.
2. We define terrorism as violence or threats of violence against noncombatants to coerce an
opponent in pursuance of a goal. For a more thorough discussion of defining terrorism see Bruce
Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) and Leonard Weinberg,
Ami Pedahzur, and Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler, “The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism,” Terrorism
and Political Violence 16(4) (2004), pp. 777–794; Joseph K. Young and Michael G. Findley, “Promise
and Pitfalls of Terrorism Research,International Studies Review 13(3) (2011), pp. 411–431 examines
the implications of changing these definitions for terrorism research.
3. See, for example, Jenkins, International Terrorism; Gabriel Weimann, “Media Events:
The Case of International Terrorism,Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 31(1) (1987),
pp. 21–39; Gabriel Weimann and Conrad Winn, The Theater of Terror: Mass Media and International
Terrorism (White Plains, NY: Longman Publishing Group); Bruce Hoffman, “Why Terrorists Don’t
Claim Credit,” Terrorism and Political Violence 9(1) (1997), pp. 1–6.
4. Andrew Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, “Sabotaging the Peace: The Politics of Extremist
Violence,International Organization 56(2) (2002), pp. 263–296.
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Lying About Terrorism 437
Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism,” International Security
31(1) (2006), pp. 49–80.
David A. Lake, “Rational Extremism: Understanding Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century,”
Dialog-IO 1(1) (2002), pp. 1–15.
5. Kydd and Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism.“
6. They build and extend on the work of James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,”
International Organization 49(3) (1995), pp. 379–414 and others who model conflict in a general
bargaining framework and attempt to explain why war or violence occurs even when it is costly for
the parties involved.
7. Kydd and Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism.”
8. Individuals can lie about terrorism as well. We do not have an apriorireason to separate
group from lone wolf attacks, thus this discussion should apply to each actor’s use of violence
9. Richard J. Chasdi, “Middle East Terrorism 1968–1993: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist
Group-Type Behavior,Journal of Conflict Studies 17(2) (1997).
10. A. L. Wright, “Why Do Terrorists Claim Credit?” (working paper, Princeton University,
11. Hoffman, “Why Terrorists Don’t Claim Credit.”
12. Kydd and Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism.”
13. D. C. Rapoport, “To Claim or Not to Claim; That is the Question—Always!” Terrorism
and Political Violence 9(1) (1997), pp. 11–17.
14. Bruce Hoffman, “Terrorism Trends and Prospects,” Countering the New Terrorism 7 (1999),
p. 13.
15. A. M. Hoffman, “Voice and Silence: Why Groups Take Credit for Acts of Terror,” Journal
of Peace Research 47(5) (2010), pp. 615–626.
16. J. Gearson, “The Nature of Modern Terrorism,” The Political Quarterly 72(s1) (2002),
pp. 7–24.
17. Hoffman, “Terrorism Trends and Prospects.
18. Ibid.
19. E. Bueno de Mesquita, “Conciliation, Counterterrorism, and Patterns of Terrorist Violence,”
International Organization 59(1) (2005), pp. 145–176.
20. Hoffman, “Voice and Silence.”
21. A rival explanation for the lack of claim-making might be related to religious ideology or
lack of ideology. Although ideologies that promote terrorism have waned and waxed over time, they
rarely disappear and at any given time there are many groups with a myriad of ideologies utilizing
22. Ibid.
23. Kydd and Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism.”
24. Hoffman, “Voice and Silence.”
25. One infamous event, the so-called Manchurian Incident, was a false flag attack by Japanese
agents against their own interests as a pretext for a larger invasion of China (James Weland, “Misguided
Intelligence: Japanese Military Intelligence Officers in the Manchurian Incident, September 1931,
The Journal of Military History 58(3) (1994), pp. 445–460).
26. A. Schmid, “Statistics on Terrorism: The Challenge of Measuring Trends in Global Terror-
ism,” Forum on Crime and Society 4(1–2) (December 2004), pp. 49–69.
27. P. Jenkins, “Under Two Flags: Provocation and Deception in European Terrorism,” Studies
in Conflict & Terrorism 11(4) (1988), pp. 275–287.
28. J. M. Bale, “The May 1973 Terrorist Attack at Milan Police HQ: Anarchist ‘Propaganda of
the Deed’ or ‘False-Flag’ Provocation?,Terrorism and Political Violence 8(1) (1996), pp. 132–166.
29. Bruce Hoffman, “Reply to Pluchinsky and Rapoport Comments,Terrorism and Political
Violence 9(1) (1997), pp. 18–19.
30. Bale, “The May 1973 Terrorist Attack at Milan Police HQ.
31. Bale, “The May 1973 Terrorist Attack at Milan Police HQ.
32. Jenkins, “Under Two Flags.”
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438 E. M. Kearns et al.
33. Ibid.
34. Bale, “The May 1973 Terrorist Attack at Milan Police HQ.
35. Jenkins, “Under Two Flags.”
36. Ibid.
37. Jonathan Schanzer, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (New York: Macmillan,
38. We thank one of the anonymous reviewers for making this point.
39. Hoffman, “Voice and Silence.”
40. Again, we thank an anonymous reviewer for this point.
41. T. Copeland, “Is the ‘New Terrorism’ Really New?: An Analysis of the New Paradigm for
Terrorism,Journal of Conflict Studies 21(2) (2001).
42. D. A. Pluchinsky, “The Terrorism Puzzle: Missing Pieces and No Boxcover,Terrorism
and Political Violence 9(1) (1997), pp. 7–10.
43. Rapoport, “To Claim or Not to Claim.
44. Hoffman, “Why Terrorists Don’t Claim Credit.”
45. Pluchinsky, “The Terrorism Puzzle”
46. Chasdi, “Middle East Terrorism 1968–1993.
47. Pluchinsky, “The Terrorism Puzzle”
48. Hoffman, “Why Terrorists Don’t Claim Credit.”
49. Kydd and Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism.”
50. Nick Hopkins and Sarah Hall, “Festering Hate that Turned Quiet Son into a Murderer,”
The Guardian, 30 June 2000. Available at
sarahhall (accessed 4 September 2013).
51. Ibid.
52. Ibid.
53. “Profile: Copeland the Killer,” BBC News, 30 June 2000. Available at
2/hi/uk news/781755.stm (accessed 4 September 2013).
54. Hopkins and Hall, “Festering Hate that Turned Quiet Son into a Murderer.”
55. Ibid.
56. Ibid.
57. Ibid.
58. Hopkins and Hall, “Festering Hate that Turned Quiet Son into a Murderer.”
59. Eric Min, “Taking Responsibility: When and Why Terrorists Claim Attacks,” Paper pre-
sented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, August
60. Behrooz Moazami, “The Islamization of the Social Movements and the Revolution, 1963–
1979,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29(1) (2009),
pp. 47–62.
61. E. Abrahamian, “The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution,Radical History Review 105 (2009),
pp. 13–38.
62. Ibid.
63. Ibid.
64. Moazami, “The Islamization of the Social Movements and the Revolution, 1963–1979.
65. Ibid.
66. N. R. Keddie and Y. Richard, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press, 2006).
67. Marvin Zonis, “Iran: A Theory of Revolution From Accounts of the Revolution,Worl d
Politics 35(4) (1983), pp. 586–606.
68. Elham Gheytanchi, “I Will Turn off the Lights: The Allure of Marginality in Postrev-
olutionary Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27(1) (2007),
pp. 173–185.
69. Keddie and Richard, Modern Iran.
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Lying About Terrorism 439
70. Daniel L. Byman, “The Rise of Low-Tech Terrorism,Washington Post, 6 May 2007, sec.
B03; S. Nabavi, “Abadan, 19th August, Cinema Rex,” Cheshmandaz no. 20 (1999), pp. 105–127.
71. Moazami, “The Islamization of the Social Movements and the Revolution, 1963–1979.
72. Kydd and Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism.”
73. Jenkins, “Under Two Flags.”
74. Donna Bassett, “Bologna Train Station Bombing,” in Peter Chalk, ed., Encyclopedia of
Terro rism (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012), pp. 136–138.
75. Ibid.
76. Ibid.
77. “1980: Bologna BlastLeaves Dozens Dead,” BBC News. Available at
onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/2/newsid 4532000/4532091.stm (accessed 8 January 2014).
78. David R Deropolous, “Sons of Darkness: Bologna, 1980,” The American Mag.1Septem-
ber 2005. Available at (accessed 8
January 2014).
79. AAJ News Archive, “Suicide Bomber Kills 50 Namazis in Charsadda,AAJ News 24 De-
cember 2007. Available at
(accessed 14 September 2013).
80. Ibid.
81. Ibid.
82. Ibid.
83. Bill Roggio, “Pakistan: Over 50 Killed in Charsadda Suicide Attack,” The Long War Journal
21 December 2007. Available at over
50 kil.php (accessed 14 September 2013).
84. Ibid.
85. Ibid.
86. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).
(2012). Global Terrorism Database. Available at (accessed 18 June
87. Roggio, “Pakistan.
88. Ibid.
89. Hoffman, “Voice and Silence.”
90. Ibid.
91. Ibid.
92. Pluchinsky, “The Terrorism Puzzle.”
93. START.
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... Terrorist organizations also may tell four lies about attacks: (1) Terrorist groups may falsely claim responsibility for an attack they did not perpetrate; (2) Terrorist groups may commit false-flag terrorism to blame a rival organization; (3) Terrorist groups may blame an attack that they did not commit on a rival group; and (4) Terrorist groups may lie by omission, denying they perpetrated an attack but without blaming a rival group (Kearns, Conlon, and Young, 2014). ...
... Kearns, Conlon, and Young, 2014). According to the 2019 Annex of Statistical Information, a significant number of incidents were unclaimed in 2019, as was the case in previous years. ...
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... we include GTD's binary indicator for whether the attack perpetrator was an unaffiliated individual. Similarly, claimed attacks are sometimes less deadly because groups are more likely to disavow attacks that exceed their expected fatality threshold (Kearns, Conlon, and Young 2014;Pluchinsky 1997). 15 It is possible that democracies experience a greater number of claimed attacks, or that terrorists know it is more difficult to obscure their identities in democracies, and thus the GTD's binary variable for whether an attack is claimed is included. ...
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A long literature examines the relationship between terrorism and democracy. However, little research examines the lethality of terrorist attacks across regime type. This article theorizes the terrorism that democracies do experience will be less deadly. Democracy increases the opportunity for nonstate actors to use terrorism to attract attention to their causes, which we argue also mitigates the need to carry out deadly attacks. Using cross-national data on domestic terrorist attacks committed between 1970 and 2013, a multilevel statistical analysis demonstrates that terrorist attacks in democracies are less lethal. A time-series cross-sectional analysis further reveals that consolidated democracies and harsh authoritarian regimes experience few deaths from terrorism. While democracies experience high volumes of nonlethal terrorism, strong autocracies experience low amounts of deadly terrorism. Thus, there is strong evidence that—in one important sense—democracies are safer from terrorism. Existe una extensa literatura que examina la relación entre el terrorismo y la democracia. Sin embargo, son pocos los estudios que examinan la letalidad de los atentados terroristas según el tipo de régimen. Este artículo sostiene que el terrorismo que registran las democracias será menos mortífero. La democracia aumenta la oportunidad de que los actores no estatales utilicen el terrorismo para atraer la atención hacia sus causas, lo que, según argumentamos, también mitiga la necesidad de llevar a cabo ataques mortales. Utilizando datos transnacionales sobre ataques terroristas nacionales cometidos entre 1970 y 2013, un análisis estadístico multinivel demuestra que los ataques terroristas en las democracias son menos mortales. Un análisis transversal de series cronológicas revela además que las democracias consolidadas y los regímenes autoritarios duros registran pocas muertes por terrorismo. Mientras las democracias registran grandes volúmenes de terrorismo no letal, las autocracias fuertes registran bajas cantidades de terrorismo mortal. Por lo tanto, hay pruebas sólidas de que, en un sentido importante, las democracias son más seguras frente al terrorismo. Si une vaste littérature analyse les relations entre terrorisme et démocratie, peu de travaux se sont penchés sur la létalité des attaques terroristes selon le type de régime. Cet article émet l’hypothèse que le terrorisme qui frappe les démocraties est moins meurtrier. En effet, dans la mesure où le régime démocratique augmente les possibilités, pour les acteurs non étatiques, de recourir au terrorisme pour attirer l’attention sur les causes qu’ils défendent, il limite également la nécessité de perpétrer des attaques meurtrières. S’appuyant sur des données transnationales portant sur les attaques terroristes intérieures entre 1970 et 2013, une analyse statistique multiniveau démontre que les attaques terroristes sont moins létales dans les démocraties. Par ailleurs, une analyse transverse et temporelle révèle que les démocraties solidement établies et les régimes autoritaires ne subissent que peu de morts dues au terrorisme. Tandis que les démocraties connaissent une quantité importante de terrorisme non létal, les autocraties fortes ne souffrent que de peu de formes de terrorisme meurtrières. Par conséquent, il est clair que, dans un sens (particulièrement important), les démocraties sont un meilleur rempart contre le terrorisme.
... Even if there is disagreement about whether violence committed for political ends is primarily theatrical or rational in nature, there is nonetheless a consensus that it is communicative (Kydd and Walter 2006;Matusitz 2013;McClure 2014;Kearns, Conlon, and Young 2014). Whether labelled as political violence, armed struggle or "terrorism" (Breen Smyth 2008), this violence has been conceptualised as a form of "propaganda by the deed" (Hoffman 1998, 136). ...
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Using the case study of statements of denial issued by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) over an extended 35-year period, this article critically examines how non-state armed groups (NSAGs) use statements of denial when engaging with various audiences across time and space. It posits that these statements are an integral part of how NSAGs communicate with different audiences during their armed campaigns, and subsequently during the process of transitioning out of political violence. At the same time that these statements feed into the macro-level “propaganda war” between the NSAG and the state, this article maintains that they also reflect the complex intimate relationship between NSAGs and the communities from which they emerge. Arguing that statements of denial help NSAGs to favourably frame how the conduct of its campaign, the character of its members and its internal cohesion are understood by proximate and distant audiences, the article tracks the qualitative changes to IRA statements that would eventually become a key component in the performance of the peace process by the late 1990s.
The secret is essential for terrorists. Aware of their position of political and military inferiority towards their adversary, terrorists typically have no choice but to operate clandestinely, emerging from the shadows to carry out acts of violence in order to attract attention. However, the social organisation of the secret has not been the subject of a thorough reflection in the literature on political terrorism. Following Simmel's classic investigation into secrecy and secret societies, this article intends to shed light on “external secrecy”, understood as the social practice of intentionally hiding information and knowledge from external actors that do not belong to the terrorist organisation. The paper explores how external secrecy takes the form of a sort of barrier system that can be crossed by individuals and can be built and removed by organisations. It also examines how external security in terrorist organisations can produce both opportunities for deliberate deception and risks of undesired manipulation by external actors. Finally, the article focuses on the inherent trade‐off between the need for external secrecy and the quest for visibility in terrorist organisations. Overall, this discussion suggests the opportunity to develop a research programme on the management of secrecy in terrorism.
Why do criminal actors publicly display threatening messages? Studies of organized crime emphasize that criminal actors rely on clandestine networks of influence. Subtle or coded threats are an effective means of extending that influence, but publicizing these threats appears to undermine their chief advantage. We argue that publicized threats broadcast an imagined order, delineating who has a place in society under criminal control, and who does not. To demonstrate this argument, we construct a “grammar of threat” and use this to analyze public threats broadcast by four criminal actors: two groups in Colombia and two in Mexico. The analysis demonstrates that every group projects an order through their threats, but that the order imagined varies by group. Some orders are more clearly ideological; some are more localized or more expansive. These findings highlight the important role of communication—distinct from but often combined with violence—in criminal governance.
In recent years, the challenge of jihadist mobilization has become evident in Europe. The phenomenon is nothing new but has witnessed a sharp increase after the rapid rise of the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh in 2014. This chapter examines the jihadist mobilization which has affected European countries from 2014 onwards, with an emphasis on terrorist violence. The text is divided into four main sections: the first section examines the relevant issue of foreign terrorist fighters, the second and third sections analyze, respectively, the characteristics of terrorist attacks and the profiles of terrorist attackers, based on an original database, while the fourth section explores the evolution of terrorist plots, with an eye on future scenarios. The data show a significant decline in jihadist terrorism after 2017, in conjunction with the crisis of IS’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, European governments have stepped up their efforts to face the threat. Nevertheless, terrorist plots and attacks have not stopped. Ultimately, the drivers of jihadist mobilization are still present in the region and the danger is not likely to disappear in the near future.KeywordsTerrorismRadicalizationJihadismIslamic StateEurope
Many papers on CBRN terrorism begin the same way. First, they quote leading politicians or security figures saying how likely it is that there will be a CBRN terrorist attack in the near future and highlighting the potentially devastating consequences. This is then contrasted with the very low numbers of terrorist attacks that have employed CBRN weapons in the past. This disparity between the fear of CBRN attacks and the infrequency of their occurrence has been central to many of the papers published in this area. The primary concern of this review is therefore to explore the variation in expert threat assessment and consider the factors that can be used to gauge the likelihood of terrorist actors turning to CBRN weapons.
A surge in the spread of fake news after a terror attack such as the 2018 Surabaya bombings has been observed in recent times. It was clear that the spread of fake news (i.e., information disorder [ID]) can amplify the social impact and consequences of a terror attack on the local community. However, research on the prevalence of ID in connection to a terror incident is not well-studied in Southeast Asia (SEA). To address this gap systematically, this study describes an approach taken to study this nexus between the spread of ID in connection to a terror attack. By drawing on the Global Terrorism Database and manual searches, a case study bank of 39 terror incidents with instances of ID in SEA from 2015 to 2019 was created through the use of a mix of automated and human workflows. This exploratory study sought to document the kinds of ID that emerged in English language media after a terror incident in SEA and to identify implications for the field of ID as well as terrorism.
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Zusammenfassung Der Beitrag entwickelt anhand zahlreicher Beispiele rechtsterroristischer Gewalt eine Systematisierung instrumenteller Zielsetzungen rechtsterroristischen Handelns. Dabei ruft er zunächst als zentrale weltanschauliche Referenz den völkischen Nationalismus auf, dem biopolitische Paradigmen inhärent sind, denen mittels rechtsterroristischer Gewalt Geltung verschafft werden soll. Dieses ist für eine Vielzahl rechtsterroristischer Gewalttaten zentral, denen es um die Aufrechterhaltung rassistischer, sexistischer und heteronormativer Gesellschaftsverhältnisse geht. Regelmäßig ist solche Gewalt auch als Botschaftsverbrechen zu verstehen, wobei ganz unterschiedliche Modi der Kommunikation beobachtbar sind. Rechtsterroristische Gewalt – sofern sie nicht parastaatlich verfasst ist – hat nicht die direkte Schwächung der Kampffähigkeit des Gegners zum Ziel, sondern zielt auf Bestrafung, Einschüchterung und Vertreibung ausgewählter sozialer Gruppen und Individuen sowie in manchen Fällen auf das strategische Moment der Zuspitzung gesellschaftlicher Konflikte, wie im abschließenden Teil des Beitrages an zahlreichen Beispielen gezeigt wird.
Media‐oriented terrorism has stirred growing interest in the communication strategy of modern terrorism and in the quantity, forms, and consequences of media coverage of terrorist events. One limitation of previous analyses is the lack of a theoretical framework to pinpoint the uniqueness of terrorism as media drama, and the commonalities with other kinds of media drama. A theoretical media‐event framework is proposed. The attributes, social processes, and impact of media events are compared with these same factors in terrorist events. The representative case selected to illustrate terrorist events is the June 1985 TWA airliner hijacking.
This article analyzes the behavior of street demonstrators in the Iranian Revolution of 1977-79. It tries to show that they acted less like irrational mobs and more like the rational crowds found in George Rude's classic works. It also tries to show that the bloodshed in these street protests was far less than conventionally thought both inside and outside Iran.
The study of terrorism is often complicated by the tendency of groups to issue false or misleading claims of responsibility, a practice which dates back at least to the late nineteenth century. This paper describes and categorizes various patterns of false claims and attributions in contemporary European terrorism. These deceptions are practiced both by terrorist groups themselves and sometimes by official agencies. The paper also argues for a more subtle and critical evaluation of claims of responsibility than has been found in some recent accounts of terrorist movements.