RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now to some questions raised by the shooting of a police officer in Philadelphia earlier this month. The suspect claimed he tried to kill the officer on behalf of the Islamic State, and the attack has been called ISIS-inspired, which indeed does pose some interesting questions, like what does inspired mean, and are authorities making common criminals more than they are by linking them to terrorists? Here's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: According to captain James Clark of the Philadelphia Police Department, the man who repeatedly shot a policeman in his cruiser earlier this month was quick to tell arresting officers why he did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JAMES CLARK: He pledges his allegiance to Islamic State. He follows Allah, and that is the reason he was called upon to do this.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The problem is apart from that declaration, investigators haven't been able to find even the most gossamer connection between the suspect, Edward Archer, and the terrorist group. Will McCants is a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution and just wrote a book about ISIS. And he's uncomfortable with saying attacks like the one in Philadelphia are ISIS-inspired.
WILL MCCANTS: Sounds like we need a new category.
TEMPLE-RASTON: A new category because these recent attacks are very different from those traditionally launched by al-Qaida. Al-Qaida terrorists typically went to Pakistan or Yemen to train. They had email connections to known terrorists. Those markers are noticeably absent from the so-called ISIS-inspired events. The ISIS-inspired attacks in this country appear to have been launched by what law enforcement officials call classic injustice collectors. These are people who have been nursing various resentments for years and then in the heat of the moment appear to reinvent themselves as ISIS followers. Again, Will McCants.
MCCANTS: If you have individuals who have no sustained interest in the group and have no organizational ties, it seems like their interest in ISIS is much more opportunistic than it is ideological.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Clint Watts, a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, has been tracking the Philly case. And he says it's possible that news coverage about ISIS, not the group itself, was behind Archer's claim of responsibility.
CLINT WATTS: I think it was mostly what would be described as a headline-inspired terrorist attack.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Saying he had done it for ISIS might have been a convenience. Archer's mother told police he had mental problems and had been hearing voices. That, says Watts, shouldn't be dismissed.
WATTS: 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 or even before that al-Qaida. And so the connections to the actual terrorist group are nonexistent, and so it's more inspired by current events than it is by any ideology or motivation.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Consider the San Bernardino shooters. They appear to have been longtime followers of al-Qaida. The FBI says Syed Farook thought about going to Yemen to fight with the group. And allegedly, he planned an attack five years ago before ISIS even existed and then decided not to go through with it. Watts says the ISIS propaganda after the San Bernardino attack shows how distant the connection might have been. ISIS had no details about the operation.
WATTS: And they were just as surprised by the San Bernardino attacks as anyone was.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Of course, a closer link between ISIS and the recent attacks could be discovered as investigations continue. FBI director James Comey has said all the evidence gathered so far points to the Philly shooter, Edward Archer, having acted alone. Agents are still searching for two hard drives removed from home computers in San Bernardino. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.