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Friday, April 12, 2024

How Reliable is ISIS’s Claiming Responsibility for Deadly Attacks in Iran?

ISIS claimed responsibility for the twin blasts on January 4, 2024, that killed 84 people and wounded scores of others at a memorial for top commander Qassem Soleimani in Iran. It has been the deadliest attack since the 1979 Shah Revolution in the country. The United States intelligence officials confirmed that ISIS is the perpetrator of the attacks. However, there are still uncertainties about the real perpetrators of the attack.

The intense shadow of politics, the rivalry between Iran and Israel, ongoing retaliation operations following Hamas’s October 7 massacre in Israel, the lack of resources and investigation capacity, and the absence of cooperation between the security forces in the region draw a blurry picture of the real perpetrators. Various state and non-state actors have been accused of planning and detonating twin bombs. Despite dovetailing  ISIS announcements and US Intelligence assessments, Iran tends to accuse Israel and the US of masterminding the attacks. However, the tactics and targets of the attack failed to point out Israel as the perpetrator, given the fact that the Middle East so far has recorded assassinations and targeting of nuclear facilities by Israeli operatives. Moreover, it is not strategic to mastermind these attacks in Iran when Israel continues its retaliatory operations against Hamas. Other likely suspects are either anti-regime forces in Iran or the government itself since the region has previously witnessed such kind of false flag operations.  

The ISIS’s branch in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), is also accused. The terrorist group has increased its activities after the Taliban’s takeover in 2021. It was confined to several provinces in Afghanistan before the takeover; however, ongoing economic and political grievances under the Taliban government have paved the way for the organization to expand its presence in almost all provinces in Afghanistan. Its regional operational capacity has grown, and the group has conducted terrorist attacks not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. ISIS-K targeted Shia mosques and religious gatherings in the last three years. Its tactic and attack types targeting civilians and religious gatherings have made ISIS-K the most prominent suspect of twin blasts in Iran.  

Despite tactical similarities that point fingers over ISIS-K, it is a question of why the terrorist group would make a deadly attack. Those who confirm ISIS’s involvement believe that Qasem Suleimani led operations against ISIS in Syria and caused enormous losses for the organization. It should be noted that Iran has taken the side of Bashar Al-Assad to maintain his position in the government. Also, ISIS jumped into the fray because the organization aims to get attention, knowing well that keeping popularity brings more funds and recruits to a terrorist organization. On the other hand, those who are against confirming ISIS’s involvement underline the discrepancies between ISIS’s announcement and the Iranian government’s statements. For example, ISIS stated that two suicide bombers killed more than 300 polytheists. However, the death toll was 84, and one of the blasts was a suitcase detonated remotely.     

These discrepancies related to the twin blasts bring up a question of how reliable ISIS is when the group claims responsibility for terrorist attacks. Terrorist groups aim to take credit when a group spokesperson, on behalf of the organization,  states that the group is the perpetrator of the attack. They tend to claim responsibility for attacks—targeting state institutions and the military rather than civilians— when they aim to gain publicity and when the backlash from the government is not likely. As opposed to terrorist attacks that claimed most responsibility in the 1980s and 1990s, every one of seven attacks has been recorded claiming responsibility since 2018. According to the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID), the attacks by ISIS and its affiliated organizations steadily increased from 2018 to 2022. They conducted 873 attacks in the first ten months of 2023. Contrary to increasing attacks, its attacks of claiming responsibility slightly increased between 2018 and 2020 and dropped in 2021 and 2022. ISIS groups claimed responsibility in its 161 attacks. 

Figure 1: Terrorist Attacks and the Claiming Responsibility by ISIS and its Affiliated Organizations from January 2018 to October 2023

ISIS uses two methods to claim responsibility: (a) through its own Amaq News Agency and then tweeting by the group’s supporters, and (b) using its official channel, the Nashir Media Foundation. ISIS releases specifics about the attackers in about 24 hours when the group calculates that it can reap a political benefit from doing so, and the attack serves the group’s objectives. ISIS, at its peak, was one of the most reliable terrorist organizations, and it was primarily accurate when the group claimed responsibility. The group, however, began to jump selectively for notable attacks and show itself as the perpetrator, even though they were not based on concrete evidence. Even non-terrorism incidents recorded ISIS’s claiming responsibility. For example, ISIS falsely claimed responsibility for the Las Vegas shootings in 2019. However, the incident was a mass shooting case by an individual with an assault rifle with no political motives.

It seems that the Western World will consider ISIS as the likely perpetrator of twin blasts in Iran, despite discrepancies in its statement. However, rather than presenting solid evidence of who made the attacks, Iran will prefer to benefit from the consequences of these attacks. The regime will continue to exploit these attacks in its domestic affairs and regional politics. The government will keep diverting people’s attention from ongoing economic problems and justifying its attacks targeting American facilities in the Middle East. 

Iran is already experienced in having solid relations with terrorist organizations globally. So far, the regime has supported any terrorist groups targeting the US, regardless of Sunni groups that have attacked Shia groups in the Middle East. For example, Iran gave its support to the Taliban in its fight against the US, knowing how Afghan Shias have been persecuted under the Taliban’s leadership. Hamas and Al Qaeda are two groups receiving massive support from Iran. The regime has opened its borders and hosted Al Qaeda’s leadership cadre in the country. Its militia groups, well-settled and well-organized in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Syria, will continue to threaten American interests in the region. Its newly formed group right after Hamas’s October 7 attacks, Islamic Resistance in Iraq, will take a leading position in planning and targeting these interests. On the other hand, the outside audience will never make sure about the real perpetrators of the twin blasts, but ISIS will keep exploiting the attacks and enjoy being again a popular organization. The audience will keep asking about the strategic goals of ISIS in making these attacks since ISIS even avoided targeting Iran during the period when Iran-backed militia groups wreaked havoc and caused tremendous losses for the organization in Syria.        

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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