U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul said that when a man drove a truck into pedestrians and bicyclists in New York, killing eight, the attack fit a perilous international pattern.
The Austin Republican, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, made his claim after being asked by Bret Baier of Fox News to share what he knew. McCaul replied: "This was the ninth vehicle assault used by ISIS. Remember Nice (France)--we saw this happen previously."
Baier: "So you think this is ISIS," the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
McCaul: "I believe when an individual yells out, ‘Allahu akbar,’ all the indicators and hallmarks of an act of terror and, I think, yeah, that’s true in this case."
Baier asked about the difference between individuals self-radicalized or inspired by ISIS as opposed to being directed by ISIS. McCaul replied: "You know, I think those lines are blurred now" because of the ability of ISIS to radicalize people using online posts.
We asked McCaul how he reached his conclusion that the New York attack was the ninth vehicle assault by ISIS. By email, Margaret Anne Moore, staff spokeswoman for the homeland security committee, sent a list she described as specifying eight previous "vehicular attacks to the West by ISIS" from March through September 2017. Asked how McCaul determined each attack was "by ISIS," Moore said that in each instance, "either ISIS claimed responsibility or the perpetrator claimed to be doing it in the name of ISIS, as reported by the press and/or local law enforcement."
The staff-provided list:
3/22/2017 – London, United Kingdom – Westminster Bridge attack
4/7/2017 – Stockholm, Sweden – Hijacked truck attack on central street in Stockholm
6/3/2017 – London, United Kingdom – London Bridge and Borough Market attack
6/19/2017 – Paris, France – Champs-Elysee car ramming attack
8/9/2017 – Paris, France – Soldier barracks attack
8/17/2017 – Barcelona, Spain – Las Ramblas attack
8/18/2017 – Cambrils, Spain – Vehicle ramming
9/30/2017 – Edmonton, Canada – Police ramming and stabbing
10/31/2017 – New York – Lower Manhattan bike path attack
McCaul’s list, limited to attacks in 2017, didn’t include the attack in Nice he mentioned on Fox News. Earlier, an April 2017 Newsweek story counted that attack among several ISIS-linked vehicle attacks; the story said that Tunisian Mohamed Bouhlel in July 2016 drove a truck into revellers in Nice celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 people. Newsweek’s story also singled out Tunisian Anis Amri driving a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, killing 12 people.
For our part, we reviewed news stories listed in connection with the attacks on the staff-provided list supplemented by our own finds and additional stories flagged by Moore. In most instances, we found, the stories suggest an ISIS claim to responsibility or inspiration by ISIS. A U.S. expert on terrorist attacks separately told us she saw no corroboration of ISIS being directly involved in any of the attacks tallied by McCaul’s aide.
In March 2017, six people died after Khalid Masood drove a car into pedestrians on a sidewalk near London’s Westminster Bridge. A BBC news story said the so-called Islamic State said it was behind the attack. According to an Oct. 31, 2017, ABC News story, ISIS called Masood, who was shot dead by police, "a soldier of the Islamic State."
The next month, Rakhmat Akilov, an Uzbek man, drove a stolen truck into a Stockholm department store, killing four people. A BBC news account quoted Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Lofven, calling the incident a terror attack. A subsequent New York Times news story said the Islamic State had not claimed credit though it quoted Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, saying Akilov had been recruited by the Islamic State. At a press conference, according to Reuters, Jonas Hysing, chief of national police operations, said: "The suspect had expressed sympathy for extremist organizations, among them IS," described as an acronym for the ultra-hardline militant group. A subsequent news story in the Independent, a British online news service, said Akilov told authorities he got his "order" for the attack directly from Isis in Syria.
In June 2017, Khuram Butt, a British national, was believed to have led a trio of terrorists who used a van to plow into pedestrians on London Bridge before stabbing customers in pubs and bars, killing seven people. In 2016, the Telegraph newspaper reported, Butt appeared in a documentary entitled "The Jihadis Next Door." ISIS claimed responsibility, ABC News reported.
The same month, Karim Cheurfi drove a car into a police van on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. CNN reported that according to its affiliate, BFMTV, that the driver, shot dead by police, "was under what is known as a ‘Fiche S’ file, a French terror/radicalization watch list composed of thousands of names, of which some are under active surveillance. Active surveillance means that they are on law enforcement's radar, not necessarily under rigorous surveillance," CNN said. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a message posted on a jihadi channel, the New York Times reported. Also, according to a June 2017 news story posted by The Daily Beast, the driver had mailed letters on the day of his death pledging allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In France in August 2017, a man identified by authorities as Hamou Benlatreche allegedly injured six soldiers by driving into them at Place de Verdun, not far from the town hall in Levallois-Perret, which is home to France’s main intelligence agency. The Guardian newspaper reported that French authorities remained cautious per the driver’s motives. An August 2017 Associated Press news story quoted prosecutor Francois Molins saying Benlatreche was a member of a fundamentalist Islamic movement, Tablighi Jamaat, but there was no evidence that he had connections with ISIS members.
Less than two weeks later, a driver plowed a van through crowds on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s main pedestrian boulevard, leaving 13 people dead, CNN reported, with Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, calling it an act of "jihadi terrorism." CNN said ISIS' media wing, Amaq, had said the perpetrators were "soldiers of the Islamic State" yet ISIS hadn’t "explicitly claimed responsibility."
The next day, police in the Spanish resort town of Cambrils, south of Barcelona, shot five people after they drove their car at pedestrians and police officers, Reuters reported. ISIS claimed responsibility in a communique, the Independent reported.
In Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, 30, was accused of running down a police officer with his car and then stabbing him repeatedly on the last Saturday of September 2017. CBC News quoted Edmonton’s police chief, Rod Knecht, confirming that a black ISIS flag was seized from a car where the officer was attacked. Police said the driver fled before driving a U-Haul truck into four pedestrians during an unsuccessful attempt to evade capture.
Vehicular attacks not uncommon
In December 2016, Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst, said in a post on NPR’s website that driving a car into people in a terror attack wasn’t a new tactic nor one uniquely employed by Islamic State believers. For example, in mid-2008, at least three separate Palestinian attackers used cars and bulldozers to kill and injure multiple people in and around Jerusalem, Peritz wrote, and a Uighur militant group rammed a dump truck into a group of 70 Chinese police officers and then attacked them with machetes, killing 16.
By email to our inquiry, Peritz suggested the accuracy of McCaul’s claim might turn on how you categorize attacks linked to, or inspired by, ISIS. It’s also unwise, on the other hand, to limit counts to attacks in the West, Peritz suggested. "Do Iraqi civilians and soldiers count in this metric? ISIS has been using suicide car bombs for a long time, against military and civilian targets. Let us not be so ethnocentric as to forget those individuals as well," Peritz wrote.
At Peritz’s suggestion, we checked on whether the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, based at the University of Maryland, tracks vehicular attacks by ISIS. A consortium spokeswoman, Jessica Stark Rivinius, replied by email that the consortium drew on news reports to identify 20 such attacks globally over the years involving vehicles employed as contact weapons--including nine attacks attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or its predecessor; four attributed to affiliated groups; and seven attributed to ISIL-inspired individuals lacking a direct link to the organization.
The consortium’s list of the 20 incidents, dating from June 2007 into June 2017, shows that half a dozen occurred in Iraq with others taking place in Israel, Indonesia, Sweden, France, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, Indonesia, Glasgow in Scotland, London, Berlin--and Columbus, Ohio, where the consortium says ISIL claimed responsibility for an assailant in 2016 ramming his vehicle into students and bystanders, though the driver’s ISIL connection couldn’t be confirmed.
A 2016 background paper spells out five ways the consortium classifies attacks possibly related to ISIL; the paper further lists 30 groups as ISIS affiliates. "In order to classify an attack as ISIL-inspired," the consortium says, "we relied on statements made by the perpetrator(s) or other direct evidence (e.g., journals, social media messaging)."
An August 2017 update states: "Several terrorist attacks in Western Europe in 2016, including two of the mass-casualty ISIL-related attacks in France and Germany, involved vehicles used as contact weapons (rather than as vehicle-borne IEDs). Although this tactic is not unprecedented, there has been a marked increase in the frequency and lethality of these attacks."
An accompanying chart depicts ups and downs in vehicular attacks since 2002, indicating spikes in deaths of late:
SOURCE: Report, "Overview: Terrorism in 2016," National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, August 2017 (accessed Nov. 8, 2017)
A consortium specialist, Erin Miller, told us the organization considers an attack outside of Iraq or Syria, where ISIS is known to be based, to be connected to the group only if perpetrators show, or proclaim, inspiration by the group. Miller said that it’s not enough solely for the group to claim responsibility as it did after the Westminster Bridge attack.
Miller elaborated in an email: "Likewise, in order to classify an attack outside Iraq/Syria as perpetrated by ISIL (not just ISIL-inspired individuals) we need some evidence that ISIL members they were tactically/operationally responsible. The 2015 Paris attacks are a good example of this. The actual perpetrators who orchestrated and carried out the attack were ID'd by authorities as members of ISIL."
Oft-reported claims about ISIS’s responsibility, Miller said, are typically brief and vague, for instance describing attackers as "soldiers of the Caliphate." She allowed, though, that this distinction splits hairs "between the concept of responsibility in a tactical/operational sense and responsibility in an abstract philosophical sense."
At our request, Miller reviewed the list of vehicular attacks provided by McCaul’s aide. Her conclusion: The consortium wouldn’t attribute any of the nine attacks to the Islamic State itself yet up to five of the attacks may have been ISIS-inspired--those in New York, on the Champs-Elysee and London Bridge, Edmonton and maybe Stockholm. Miller suggested no corroborated ISIS connections to the attacks in Spain or those on Westminster Bridge and on soldiers in Paris. Miller cautioned too that consortium determinations for attacks after June 2017 remain preliminary "as we haven't done the data collection for these attacks yet."
We shared Miller’s assessment with Moore, McCaul’s aide, who reaffirmed her previous broader claim than what McCaul said to Fox News: "Based on the open-source information we provided, the Committee believes the 9 vehicular attacks the chairman cited were either claimed by ISIS or the perpetrator was inspired by ISIS."
McCaul said the New York bike path assault "was the ninth vehicle assault used by ISIS."
McCaul based his claim on nine 2017 attacks--none of them confirmed to have been conducted by ISIS. Regardless, it looks like more than half may have been ISIS-inspired and if you consider actions globally over time, ISIS merits blame for at least nine vehicular assaults.
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