From Jan. 1 through Sept. 17, 42,512 wildfires have burned 6,927,327 acres across the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. While Americans view these numbers with alarm – there were 37,274 wildfires over the same period last year – terrorists have turned blazes into incitement propaganda and recruitment pitches, spotlighting wildfires’ devastating effects to their followers and encouraging lone operators to spark their own infernos.
From 2015 to 2019, 88 percent of wildfires were caused by humans, according to a Sept. 1 Congressional Research Service report, though lightning caused bigger blazes on average. Manmade does not mean all of those were arson: humans can accidentally start wildfires – from things like campfires, discarded cigarettes, power lines, controlled debris burns, sparks from equipment, fireworks in parched terrain, etc. – or intentionally set blazes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimated 7 percent of the Golden State’s wildfires have been set by arsonists, who are rarely caught, often spark multiple fires, and may even have a background in firefighting.
If someone is setting a fire for a cause – the definition of terrorism being acts committed to further an ideological agenda – they’re going to want someone to know about it. Terror tutorials have emphasized that the arsonist not get caught so they can go on to set more fires, but they’ve also been adamant about the arsonist leaving some sort of identifier to pin it on the terror group. If ISIS were to set a wildland blaze, one could expect – like they have done in Iraq – the release of footage or photos of their deeds, and a claim that, if the arsonist has not yet been arrested, does not identify their operative. This evidence to back up a claim could also depend on whether there are one or multiple individuals involved in the crime: a lone attacker, depending on his or her experience with firesetting or familiarity with the area, may be quick to bail from the scene in order to avoid detection or injury and may not stick around to capture the visuals craved by ISIS propaganda producers.