FP Explainer

Who Decides If Terrorist Claims of Responsibility Are Real?

The U.S. government.

Soon after Saturday's attempted bombing in New York's Times Square, a Pakistani Taliban faction released a series of videos seeming to claim responsibility for the failed attack and promising further violence against the United States. U.S. authorities quickly downplayed the statements, and though a Pakistani-American suspect has been arrested, officials have yet to find any proven links between him and the Taliban. So who gets to make that call?

These guys.The Worldwide Incidents Team at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) tracks terrorist attacks and attempted attacks around the world as well as terrorist claims of responsibility. Although it is generally assumed that terrorist groups have actually done the things they say they have done, it's not unheard of for groups to take credit for attacks they didn't commit.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the mysterious Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades -- known for talking a big game on the Internet -- claimed responsibility in a letter to a London newspaper. The group -- which also took credit for the 2003 U.S. blackout, calling it "Operation Quick Lightning in the Land of the Tyrant of This Generation" -- was later determined to be just seeking attention. Palestinian militant groups are also notorious for issuing competing claims of responsibility for attacks on Israel.

The NCTC evaluates claims based on what is known about the groups' competence, track record, and operating methods and assigns their statements one of five levels of credibility: likely, plausible, unknown, unlikely, and inferred. "Inferred" refers to attacks in which there is no claim but a particular group's responsibility can be assumed based on the "attack signature" -- factors such as timing, location, and methods used.

The NCTC generally only releases more credible claims to the public, but keeps all of them in a classified record -- even the most dubious -- in case new information comes to light that prompts a re-evaluation.

After all, today's bigmouths could be tomorrow's bad guys.

Thanks to the National Counterterrorism Center.



FP Explainer

What Happens to the Oil After an Oil Spill?

Depends how fast you get to it.

A recovery effort is currently underway to clean up a massive oil slick caused by the explosion of the oil rig Deep Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico last week. The leaking well is gushing more than 1,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf and has already created a slick covering about 28,600 square miles. The U.S. Coast Guard and oil giant BP -- which had the rig under contract -- are trying to contain the slick before it reaches the coast of Louisiana. But after the recovery workers remove the oil from the water, what do they do with it?

It's largely a matter of speed. As we all learn in science class, oil and water don't mix, and oil will float at the surface. After an oil spill at sea, recovery workers will attempt to contain the slick with booms and remove it with floating skimmers. Given how quickly oil can spread in rough seas, though, this is an extremely difficult process, and only 10 to 15 percent is typically recovered in major maritime spills.

Once oil waste is recovered, it is classified by type. The quality of the waste depends largely on how long the oil has been exposed to sediment and debris in the water. If it is recovered quickly, the oil can be separated from the water and reprocessed. Although it probably won't be sold on the open market, this oil can be burned to power oil refineries, power, stations, cement plants, or brick kilns.

Oil that's been in the water too long is typically rendered unusable by salt, sediment, and other materials. This includes oil that washes up on shore, which will usually settle into a tar-like substance on the beach. Such oil generally has to be disposed of in landfills, broken down with chemicals, or just incinerated.

While the collection of oil after a spill typically gets more attention, the disposal of the oil can be just as critical to mitigating environmental damage. Failure to probably segregate oil waste by type at the spill site can lead to thousands of gallons of reusable oil being wasted. Improper disposal or incineration can spread contamination further.

BP has not yet decided on a disposal method for the oil from the Deep Horizon spill, but with more than 35,000 gallons of crude recovered so far, it's a pretty big mess to clean up.

U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images