PolitiFact: Islamic State-inspired attacks have often used vehicles

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 the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, as opposed to being directed by Islamic State. McCaul replied: “You know, I think those lines are blurred now” because of the ability of Islamic State 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 Islamic State. Margaret Anne Moore, the Homeland Security Committee staff spokeswoman, sent us 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.”

McCaul’s list, limited to attacks in 2017, didn’t include the attack in Nice he mentioned on Fox News.

We reviewed news stories about the attacks and found an Islamic State claim to responsibility or inspiration in most cases. A U.S. expert on terrorist attacks told us she saw no corroboration of Islamic State being directly involved in any of the attacks tallied by McCaul’s aide.

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.

Peritz told us the accuracy of McCaul’s claim might turn on how you categorize attacks linked to, or inspired by, Islamic State. It’s unwise 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 Islamic State. 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 or its predecessor; four attributed to affiliated groups; and seven attributed to Islamic State-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 the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an assailant in 2016 ramming his vehicle into students and bystanders, though the driver’s connection to the group couldn’t be confirmed.

A consortium specialist, Erin Miller, told us the organization considers an attack outside of Iraq or Syria, where Islamic State 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.

Oft-reported claims about Islamic State’s responsibility, Miller said, are typically brief and vague, for instance describing attackers as “soldiers of the Caliphate.”

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, but up to five of the attacks might have been inspired by it.

Our ruling:

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 Islamic State. Regardless, it looks like more than half might have been Islamic State-inspired and, if you consider actions globally over time, Islamic State merits blame for at least nine vehicular assaults.

We rate this statement Half True.

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