When 30-year-old Edward Archer opened fire on a Philadelphia policeman earlier this month, he quickly offered authorities a motive: He told them he had done it for the Islamic State.
“He pledges his allegiance to the Islamic State,” Capt. James Clark of the Philadelphia Police Department told reporters hours after the Jan. 7 shooting. “He follows Allah and that is the reason he was called upon to do this.”
The FBI, for its part, has said it is investigating the attack as a possible act of terrorism — inspired by ISIS.
The problem is that apart from Archer’s declaration, investigators combing through his communications haven’t been able to find even the most gossamer connection between the shooter and the terrorist group. It raises the question as to what “ISIS-inspired” really means — and whether by accepting those declarations at face value, law enforcement and analysts are giving terrorists too much credit.
“The way we have traditionally talked about attacks being ‘inspired’ by particular groups doesn’t seem to fit very well anymore,” said Will McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution who has just written a new book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. “It sounds like we need a new category.”
Today’s violent jihadist threat is very different from those associated with al-Qaida in the past. ISIS followers appear more troubled and more confused about their intentions and motivations than their al-Qaida predecessors.
Al-Qaida’s operatives typically went to Pakistan or Yemen to train. They usually had email connections and phone conversations with known terrorist actors as they prepared to attack. And Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the leader of al-Qaida, kept a tight rein on the group’s terrorist operations. He was keen to approve each and every attack and he loathed freelancers. He worried, among other things, that unsanctioned attacks could dilute the al-Qaida brand.
The ISIS model couldn’t be more different. The attacks dubbed as ISIS-inspired in this country have tended to be the work of what law enforcement officials call “classic injustice collectors.”
These are people who have been nursing various resentments for years, who, in the heat of the moment, appear to reinvent themselves as ISIS followers. Doing so, officials say, not only gives them a greater sense of purpose, but it also seems to guarantee a great deal of publicity.
McCants says it would make sense to determine if a suspect actually had some sort of sustained interest in a particular group before deciding an attack was inspired. “If you have individuals who have no sustained interest in the group and have no organizational ties,” he said, “it seems like their interest in ISIS is much more opportunistic than it is ideological.”
Clint Watts, a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, has been tracking the city’s police shooting case. He says it is very possible that the saturation coverage of ISIS, rather than the ideology of the group itself, motivated Archer to claim he’d opened fire on Officer Jesse Hartnett for the Islamic State.
“I think it was mostly what would be described as a headline-inspired terrorist attack,” said Watts.
Archer’s mother told police he had mental problems and recently had been hearing voices. Archer has a long criminal history. Those kinds of facts shouldn’t be lightly dismissed — they might actually provide an explanation.
“Someone who has deep psychological issues, some sort of problems in their local environment, picks up a weapon, and conducts an attack and then attributes it to a group like ISIS and before that al-Qaida,” says Watts. “The connections to the actual terrorist group are nonexistent, so that’s why, so far in this case, I’d say it is more inspired by current events than a particular ideology.”
Consider the husband-and-wife team who opened fire on a holiday party in San Bernardino last month. Investigators believe Syed Farook had been a longtime al-Qaida follower. He allegedly had considered traveling to Yemen to fight with the group and FBI agents say he planned a terrorist attack five years ago — before ISIS even existed — and then decided not to go through with it. Minutes before the holiday party attack, Farook’s wife, Tashfeen Malik, allegedly Googled the Islamic State and then posted on Facebook the couple’s allegiance to the group.
“ISIS had no details about the operation, that was clear from their propaganda,” says Watts. “They were just as surprised by the San Bernardino attacks as anyone was.”
Of course, a closer link between ISIS and the recent attacks could be discovered as the investigations continue. FBI Director James Comey has said all the evidence gathered so far in the Philadelphia case suggests Edward Archer acted alone.
This week, the Islamic State published an article in its online magazine, Dabiq, praising the San Bernardino attack. The group claimed that Malik’s Facebook post was “reaffirming” her allegiance to the group. Agents are still searching for two hard drives removed from computers in Farook and Malik’s home to see if they contain more clues about the couple’s connection to ISIS.