Nothing to do with Islamic State.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Islamic State Is Just an Umbrella Brand for Hate

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Islamic State may have nothing to do with any of the recent high-profile terror attacks for which it has claimed credit. No matter: It’s such a strong brand that it’s firmly associated with the atrocities in the minds of those who rarely read past the headlines. More importantly, they bear the IS stamp in the minds of those who are tempted to blow something up or go out and shoot some strangers; a modern brand, created for a world of ready anger and short attention spans.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

Islamic State’s claims of responsibility rarely come with anything other than a scant level of detail available to anyone who has read a few accounts of the attack on the internet. While crediting itself with the Paris attacks of November 2015, Islamic State said:

And so eight brothers equipped with explosive belts and assault rifles attacked precisely chosen targets in the center of the capital of France. These targets included the Stade de France stadium during a soccer match — between the teams of Germany and France, both of which are crusader nations — attended by the imbecile of France (Francois Hollande). The targets included the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice. There were also simultaneous attacks on other targets in the tenth, eleventh, and eighteenth districts, and elsewhere.

The statement didn’t name most of the targets, let alone the fighters who had hit them. Islamic State appeared to know no more than the general public about what happened in Paris.

This is a pattern. When the Islamic State-affiliated group claimed it had “succeeded in downing” a Russian plane in Egypt last October, no details were forthcoming. The statement from Islamic State’s news agency, Amaq, on the March explosions at the Brussels airport and a subway station in the Belgian capital was similarly short on specifics that might credibly link the group to the attacks. On Tuesday, Amaq reported -- with attribution to an unnamed “source” -- that it had been an IS figher who stabbed a police commander and his wife in a Paris suburb Monday night, and again, nothing in this statement betrayed a superior knowledge of the circumstances.

After the San Bernardino shooting last December, Islamic State’s reaction was so ambiguous that some media took it for a claim of responsibility while others discerned a degree of detachment: The statement merely claimed the shooters had been the group’s "supporters."

It may seem counterintuitive, but IS isn’t typical; anonymous attacks are the norm among terrorists, with only one in seven terror attacks ever claimed by a group. Terror groups may go after civilians as their stock in trade, but bragging about it was seen as counterproductive.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda didn’t claim responsibility until after intelligence work linked the suicide pilot plot to the organization and its specific leaders. Ever since, al-Qaeda has preferred to claim responsibility when the attack was precisely targeted, as in the case of the January 2015 massacre at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly. The Yemen arm of al-Qaeda made its claim early and provided some detail about how it had been planned, and that information was soon confirmed when the authorities learned that the perpetrators, the Kouachi brothers, had traveled to Yemen and received money for the implementation of the plan.

Islamic State grew out of al-Qaeda and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, started out within that organization. Yet the newer group threw all the rules out the window. IS is like a young marketer who, frustrated with the bureaucracy and slowness of a Fortune 500 company, leaves to set up his own firm and sell the same product, but with more sophisticated social media marketing and a bolder, younger, more in-your-face image. 

Indeed, Islamic State seems to be more about marketing than planning. It’s pushing an umbrella brand for malcontents, an alternative to government-supported attitudes. The more Western governments try to quash IS, the more eagerly it claims credit for every miscreant with a gun. Political scientist Ethan Bueno de Mesquita wrote in 2005 that highly publicized government crackdowns tend to mobilize terrorist sympathizers. In a 2010 article, another political scientist, Aaron Hoffman, suggested that the more governments crack down, the more terror groups are motivated to take credit so they can show their supporters they are successfully fighting back. (Not cracking down at all may have a similar effect, though, as terrorists claim the West has capitulated.)

Those attracted to the IS brand are drawn by the idea that they can wreak havoc on societies that have rejected them in some way but claim allegiance to something bigger than themselves -- a moral or religious authority to absolve them, a link to turn them from criminals into martyrs. 

Orlando shooter Omar Mateen fit this type. The night of his attack on the Pulse nightclub, he called the police to pledge allegiance to Islamic State, and after the attack made headlines everywhere, the terror militia claimed credit, saying one of its fighters had done it. Yet again, there were no details to establish a credible connection.

As it turns out, he had frequented Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando that he shot up last weekend. He had come there to drink, sometimes turning aggressive, and he messaged another regular for a year on a gay chat app. Given Islamic State’s known aversion to alcohol and homosexuality, this was clearly not a model fighter. 

The jihadist propaganda Mateen appears to have consumed online didn’t all come from Islamic State -- some was from rivals such as al-Qaeda. Yet he chose to declare his loyalty to Islamic State, which had provided him no help in planning the attack: It’s a publicly available franchise with zero entry cost, the ubiquitous sugary, carbonated drink of pseudo-Islamic ideology. Just saying “ISIS” makes further explanations unnecessary, and the moral consequences of murder disappear in a fizz of political bubbles. Someday, the free-riding may backfire when embarrassing facts undermine the claims, as they do in Mateen’s case, or when actual perpetrators decide to reveal some details.

Islamic State is not an all-powerful octopus of a global terror organization, but it has a tenacious military force in Syria and Iraq and a talented marketing team. Once it is defeated militarily, angry and desperate attackers, fueled by all sorts of personal hatreds and grievances, will seek another umbrella brand -- and another group may rise to provide it. There is no simple solution, no immigration ban, no military operation that can stop attacks like the one in Orlando. The seeds of hate are there, regardless of the brand under which they’re grown.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net