Calling all cliches: Hallmarks

‘Although no terrorist organisation had claimed responsibility for the explosion last night,’ reported The Times on 14 June 1990, ‘police said the attack bore all the hallmarks of the IRA because of the size and make-up of the bomb.’ That sounded pretty authoritative. A hallmark is a stamp of authenticity on something made of silver or gold, or, in a metaphorical sense, it’s a distinguishing characteristic. So in this instance, police officers with considerable experience of terrorist bombs had identified that this one resembled previous examples from a particular source.

As the years have passed, however, the word ‘hallmark’ seems to have become a little vaguer, employed with perhaps not quite the same precision.

Following the 7/7 bomb attacks on London in 2005, for example, no one was in any real doubt who was responsible. ‘The UK has suffered a significant terrorist attack that, at these very early stages, has all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda,’ announced the Financial Times the next day, and the Express agreed: ‘The atrocities bore all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation.’ With the benefit of a fortnight’s hindsight, the Sun (23 July 2005) was able to invoke a higher authority to confirm the story: ‘Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the bombings had all “the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda attack”.’

And what were these hallmarks? That scarcely seemed to matter; the important thing was claiming that they’d been detected. Here are some newspaper reports of other terrorist attacks:

  • ‘A Western intelligence source said: “These bombs in Spain bear all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.”’ – Express on Sunday 23 June 2002
  • ‘Suicide bombers struck at three luxury hotels in Amman yesterday, killing at least 57 people in attacks that bore all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda strike.’ – Times 10 November 2005
  •  ‘Last night the US State Department said the “vicious” attack in the Yemen capital Sanaa bore all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation.’ – Daily Mirror 18 September 2008
  • ‘The attack [on Mumbai] seems to bear all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation.’ – Times 28 November 2008
  •  ‘Janet Napolitano, the US homeland security secretary, claimed that the plot had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda “spectacular”. It was well orchestrated, it targeted airlines and it was designed to cause global panic and chaos.’ – Sunday Telegraph 31 October 2010
  • The killing of Christopher Stevens, US Ambassador to Libya, had ‘all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style event,” Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’. – Times 13 September 2012

Even the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, which, to a casual observer, might appear to be a very different crime to, say, the 7/7 suicide bombings, was said to bear ‘all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-style outrage’ (Sun 23 May 2013).

Later that same year, though, came a spate of synchronised car bombings in Baghdad, and The Times (1 October 2013) detected a slight variation in the telltale signs: ‘The 11 bombs, concealed in parked cars and detonated within minutes of one another, bore all the hallmarks of Iraq’s al-Qaeda franchise, which is now based in Syria. Western officials said that the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is using war-torn Syria as a sanctuary from which to orchestrate devastating bomb attacks in Iraq.’

Since then, the hallmarks of al-Qaeda have been conspicuous by their absence. Nonetheless the hallmarks remain. They’re just attributed to someone else instead:

  • ‘Five car bombs which killed 26 people in mostly Shia Muslim neighbourhoods in Baghdad yesterday bear all the hallmarks of ISIS.’ – People 20 July 2014
  • ‘It was last night unclear who was behind the massacre [in Tunis], but Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said it bore all the hallmarks of an IS attack.’ – Daily Mirror 19 March 2015
  • ‘Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the two suicide bombings [in Ankara], but the attack has all the hallmarks of Isis.’ – Independent 12 October 2015
  • ‘Spain’s Interior Minister, Jorge Fernandez Diaz, said… “It has all the hallmarks of attacks [ISIS] carries out.”’ – Independent 4 November 2015
  • ‘The use of eight suicide bombers and gunmen in a capital city [Paris], guaranteeing maximum coverage by the media, has all the hallmarks of an IS operation.’ – Independent on Sunday 15 November 2015

Whether these are the same hallmarks that we used to think were unique to al-Qaeda is difficult to say. Hallmarks don’t seem quite as distinctive as once they were.

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