Post Facto Jihad: ISIS' ‘Amaq News Agency Takes Responsibility for Lone Wolf Attacks in Europe and North America

Gilad Shiloach analyzes the activities of the 'Amaq News Agency, a critical part of ISIS' public relations efforts.

The series of attacks perpetrated by supporters of ISIS in the United States and Europe beginning in June brought the 'Amaq News Agency, part of the ISIS public relations apparatus, to center stage. The agency’s work, which makes extensive use of social networking sites (SNS) to disseminate its reports, shines light on how ISIS appropriates individual attacks, and transforms them into attacks committed on its behest even when there is no evidence of a direct connection to it, or of guidance from the organization. This is additional evidence of the power of SNS to shape, and even create, reality.

The 'Amaq News Agency issues press releases using the Telegram network, primarily in Arabic, English and French. At times, it also uses smartphone apps.[1] 'Amaq purports to fill a role similar to that of a government press agency, publishing dozens of press releases that appear, on the surface, to be dry and informative. Reports issued by the agency lack the pathos characterized by other PR issued by ISIS, and lacks the jihad rhetoric intended to inflame the masses or to deter enemies. The reports do not include depictions of mass executions and beheadings. Its semantic usage demonstrates that the agency wants to present an image of providing ostensibly objective reporting. For example, unlike the official ISIS propaganda,  in which the offensives that the global coalition mounts are referred to as “Crusader offensives,” ‎'Amaq‎, calls them “American offensives.” Similarly, 'Amaq replaces the terms “Allawi Army” and “Shiite Army” used in ISIS propaganda‎‎ with the simpler “Syrian army” and the “Iraqi Army,” respectively.

‎Despite this, 'Amaq‎ is indeed considered an inseparable part of the ISIS media apparatus, even though it is not recognized as an official propaganda agency. ‎'Amaq‎ reports primarily on positive developments for ISIS on the battlefield, on territorial conquests and on terrorist attacks around the world. It provides extensive coverage of the global coalitions’ assaults on ISIS targets in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, with emphasis on the destruction caused. Thus, ‎'Amaq continues the general line of ISIS propaganda that presents itself as a victim that protect civilians from these attacks, in an attempt to create legitimacy for taking revenge on the West. ‎Moreover, the name chosen for the agency is not coincidental. The apocalyptic Islamic tradition transmitted by the prophet Mohammed states that the Day of Judgment will come when Christians come to fight Muslims in two cities, 'Amaq and Dabiq located in what is now northern Syria. The press agency was given the former name, while the latter is the name of an English language magazine published by ISIS.

‎'Amaq‎ gained prominence as a result of its exclusive photographic report about ISIS' September 2014 battles against the Kurds in Kobani in northern Syria.[2] The agency was the first to officially report the death of ISIS Minister of War Abu Omar al-Shishani in July 2016,[3] and the death of spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in late August 2016.[4] It was the one to publish an exclusive report that ISIS was taking official responsibility for the attacks in Paris last November, as well as the attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia in January 2016,[5] and Brussels in March of that year.[6] However, it would seem that the most significant task 'Amaq has recently undertaken was claiming for ISIS several attacks by individual terrorists, which are sometimes known as “lone wolf” attacks, in the United States and Europe during the summer of 2016.

The wave of terrorist attacks began on June 12, when Omer Mateen opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando Florida, killing 49 people. Approximately 12 hours after the attack, ‎'Amaq‎ took responsibility for the attack, claiming that it was committed by a soldier of the caliphate.[7] They did this even though, to date, no evidence has been found that Mateen‎ had any direct contact with ISIS or that the organization participated in planning or directing his actions. The agency’s claims were somewhat supported by reports in the American press that Mateen‎ placed a call to the 911 emergency line during the attack, and during that conversation swore allegiance to ISIS.[8] In subsequent weeks, ISIS again took responsibility for several attacks committed by individual terrorists, with or without their consent. These attacks included the killing of a policeman and his partner in the Paris suburb of Magnanville by terrorist Larossi Abballa, only two days after the attack in Orlando,[9] and in July, when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a truck into a crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. In the last instance, ‎'Amaq‎ even provided a motive for the attack, stating that it was “in response to the call [by ISIS] to attack civilians in coalition countries” fighting the organization.[10] In some cases the agency published videos that the attackers filmed of themselves prior to and during the attack, swearing allegiance to ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in front of the camera.

The presentation of these terrorists as caliphate soldiers is intended to not only to appropriate the attacks and attackers, as noted, but more importantly to transmit the message that anyone can fight on behalf of the organization, even without traveling to the territory of the “Islamic State” or participating in the ISIS training camp. The only threshold is attacking a target designated by the organization. Therefore, it insists on presenting such actions as a response to its call and the product of its propaganda efforts.

'Amaq News Agency plays a key role in appropriating lone wolf attacks for ISIS. Taking responsibility for attacks no less severe than those previously conducted by the organization positions ISIS as a global threat to the soft underbelly of its enemies around the world, even when it is suffering losses in Syria and Iraq. The murderous efficiency of these attacks, and the ability of ISIS to appropriate them, time and time again, with the assistance of the attackers themselves, leads to the conclusion that SNS have led to a deep change not only in the marketing and indoctrination methods used by Islamic terrorism,[11] but also in how it organizes itself internationally.

[1] “This New ISIS App Brings Terror Straight To Your Cell Phone,” Vocativ, 30 Nov, 2015.

[3] “ISIS 'Minister Of War' Reportedly Killed In Iraq,” Vocativ, 13 July, 2016.

[4] “Major ISIS Leader Reportedly Killed In Aleppo,” Vocativ, 30 Aug, 2016.

[5] “ISIS Claims Responsibility For Deadly Jakarta Attacks,” Vocativ, January 14, 2016.

[6] “ISIS Officially Claims Responsibility For Brussels Bloodshed,” Vocativ, 22 Mar, 2016.

[7] “ISIS: ‘Caliphate Soldier’ Behind Orlando Massacre,” Vocativ, June 12, 2016

[8] “Orlando Gunman Pledged Allegiance to ISIS, Official Says,” CNN, June 12, 2016.

[9] “Video: Paris Terrorist Calls Out Journalists, Rappers To Be Killed,” Vocativ, June 14, 2016

[10] “ISIS Claims Responsibility For Attack In Nice,” Vocativ, July 16, 2016.

[11] Harel Chorev, “Between the Knife and the Keyboard: The Online Indoctrination of ISIS (Hebrew),” Middle East Crossroads 5, no. 12 (6 December 2015)