Soon after the news of the attempted bombing of Times Square was reported, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, according to news reports. Then a few days later the Pakistani Taliban retracted their claim.
Terrorist claims of responsibility released after the fact remain largely unreliable. The false claims of aspiring terrorists, the counter claims of competing radical groups and the decentralized nature of modern insurgencies makes those self-indicting claims almost completely untrustworthy.
Unlike most crimes, where the perpetrators try to conceal their connection to a crime, terrorists actually prosper by promoting their involvement with attacks, said Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the Rand Corporation and a terrorism expert. In fact, association with a successful attack can boost a group's infamy so effectively that terrorist organizations often claim responsibility for an operation they had nothing to do with, Jenkins said.
"Terrorism is primarily a form of communication. So in some cases, it's competitive, and then you have rival claims for a particular attack. In some cases there are false claims, where organizations take credit for operations they did not order to be carried out," Jenkins told Life's Little Mysteries.
Additionally, when a small group commits a terrorist act, they may falsely claim affiliation to a larger terrorist network. This works the other way around, too more well-known groups like al Qaeda may attempt to gain prestige by associating themselves with successful attacks carried out by largely independent cells, Jenkins said.
Sometimes, because terrorist organizations are so fractured and decentralized, one portion of a terrorist group will claim responsibility for a bombing while another faction of the same group denies involvement.
"We are talking about groups with a lot of divisions and members that are not tightly disciplined," Jenkins said.
However, there is one rare case where claims of responsibility can usually be taken at face value. In the case of suicide bombings, the bombers often make so-called "martyrdom videos", where they spell out their reasons committing their act and identify their allegiance. By and large, these videos are considered credible by intelligence services, Jenkins said.
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