Within hours of Sunday night’s massacre at Mandalay Bay, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the Islamic State issued a claim. The group said the attack had been carried out by a “soldier of the Islamic State in response to calls to target coalition countries.” ISIS didn’t provide any evidence to support the statement.
If you’re like me you instinctively dismissed it: Police positively identified the shooter as an old white dude named Stephen Paddock. The FBI had apparently also debunked the claim, but not yet conclusively, only going as far as saying they hadn’t found any links to international terrorism YET. But if you’re like me you’ve also reconsidered your first instinctive dismissal.
This seemingly batshit ISIS claim has puzzled experts. The group doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled down on it, and even offered unsubstantiated specifics: Paddock had converted to Islam in the last few months; they also gave him an Arabic name, “Abu Abd al-Bar al-Ameriki.” And though ISIS has made a run of false claims recently, this one would be a huge embarrassment: The largest mass shooting on U.S. soil. Eyes of the world. Why throw all credibility away?
On top of that, we still have no information about why Paddock did the unimaginably monstrous thing he did. No motive whatsoever, not even a theory. In this age, when law enforcement and media agencies have near-instant access to just about any type of biographical information about anyone, we’ve heard nothing. It’s hard to believe this, but the top two theories right now are:
1. He’s crazy.
2. He’s ISIS.
Those aren’t mutually exclusive. And yes, please indulge your double-standard race theories.
As for the ISIS part, I have a background in global threat analysis and can speak from authority. We should consider it closely, because it might be true. But even if we learn it’s bullshit (highly, highly likely) we can still learn a lot. So I’ll touch on three things here:
A. Could this claim be legit?
B. How to analyze a potential ISIS attack.
C. Why ISIS makes fake claims.
If ISIS is wrong about this one, it might mean the end of Amaq. It would also indicate a new level of desperation on the part of their leadership, likely a symptom of confusion and weakness from constant defeats in their core battlefield of Syria and Iraq. My bet, though? They’re definitely taking heavy losses, but they’re also taking a page out of Putin’s playbook. I’ll show you why.
Weirdly, yes. Here are the arguments for and against.
It’s bullshit: ISIS claims pretty much everything these days.
There’s a kernel of truth to this, and it’s only a recent development. ISIS has various propaganda mouthpieces, but the group most often claims attacks through its official media arm, Amaq Agency. In the past, claims from Amaq carried a good amount of cred, but this trend has shifted a bit over the last year or so.
For example, this June Amaq falsely claimed ISIS had carried out an attack that killed 37 people in a casino in Manila, Philippines. The Manila police waited to call it a terrorist attack, but President Trump didn’t. Turns out the police knew what they were talking about: It wasn’t an ISIS terrorist, or any jihadist at all. It was a robbery. The attack made headlines around the world, and Amaq got it very, very wrong. (Coincidentally the Las Vegas attack was also a psycho in a casino.)
You can google more examples of disputed claims, but here are a few others. Amaq claimed a stabbing attack in Israel that Hamas also claimed. They claimed to have smuggled explosives into De Gaulle Airport in August, but the real threat turned out to be an angry woman who got blocked from her flight. The day before the Mandalay shooting, Amaq claimed ISIS was behind a knife attack that killed two people in Marseille. For that attack they used the same “soldier of the caliphate” formula used in the Mandalay claim. French authorities initially accepted Amaq’s statement, but now apparently dismiss it.
Though ISIS has historically been careful and accurate in most of its claims, that trend seems shaky, if not shifting.
It’s not bullshit: ISIS doesn’t claim everything.
Case in point: The day before the Las Vegas shooting, a Somalian man carried out a combination vehicle-stabbing attack in Edmonton, Canada. He had an ISIS flag on the dashboard. ISIS still hasn’t claimed this attack.
Is it because ISIS only claims major events, and that one in Canada was minor? Not at all. ISIS claims a wide range of its attacks, from massive “double-tap” suicide bombings that kill many dozens of people, down to attempts that sputter out.
We have to understand ISIS cares deeply about its image: It’s a brand. They depend on this brand to recruit, and like any corporation they understand how badly even a little bit of brand damage can hurt you. This is why the group’s claims have (until quite recently) been among the most reliable of any terrorist organization. This May, Rita Katz (director of the SITE Intelligence Group) told NPR that “we have not been able to find a real lie from ISIS. Despite the fact that they are a terrorist organization, they want to provide their followers and supporters with authentic information.”
So, no: ISIS doesn’t typically claim every attack that comes up in the press. Despite recent inaccuracies, it’d be an unusual outlier for the group to lie so blatantly about such a massive attack.
What’s more, ISIS doubled, tripled, and then quadrupled down on the claim, making a series of supporting announcements through some of their smaller media arms. This is unusually strident, and it would seem only to amplify their embarrassment if and when it comes out that they were way wrong about Paddock. Which brings me to…
It’s bullshit: Paddock isn’t their type
ISIS focus its recruiting efforts on younger targets, mostly people in their 20s-30s. The oldest jihadist suspect arrested in the U.S. to date was a 55-year-old woman. Paddock, however, was in his 60s. Paddock was also reportedly an inveterate gambler, which is a major sin to ISIS, on the same level as drinking.
It’s not bullshit: ISIS called for attacks in Vegas
This is true, though probably not worth much in the final analysis. This spring ISIS published a tape that called for terrorist attacks on the Vegas strip.
Another coincidence: Paddock checked in to his room the same day ISIS released a tape supposedly of its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, calling for ISIS “soldiers” around the world to carry out attacks. Note that the group indicated they believed Paddock was inspired by the Islamic State, not directed by them. This has an interesting and new interpretation we’ll get to later.
It’s bullshit. Period.
ISIS has offered no evidence. We’ve seen no selfies or videos of Paddock pledging his allegiance to the group. We’ve heard no reports of authorities finding any ISIS propaganda on Paddock’s body, in his room, or at his home.
Well, it’s not “period.”
We haven’t heard any definitive statement about Paddock from law enforcement. We also haven’t heard many specifics about his personal life, and the ones we have heard (reportedly no religious affiliation; no political affiliation) just make things murkier. ISIS, however, offered up a specific claim: Paddock had converted to Islam a few months ago. There’s no proof they’re not just talking out of their ass, but no other marginally credible theories have circulated, beyond Paddock “snapping.”
But now let’s analyze the available information and see if we can come to a reasonable conclusion of our own.
The Las Vegas shooting contradicts a typical ISIS attack in several key ways. But first let’s look at what makes sense.
The target: This motherfucker indiscriminately killed innocent Americans gathered to have a good time, listening to country music. And I know the fact that the crowd was likely more Trumpy than most hasn’t gone lost on any of you, either. The concert and crowd are representative of our society, our government, and, being in Las Vegas, of the worst sins and excesses of American culture. I’m reminded of the attack at the Ariana Grande concert in England. (Please also understand that ISIS fighters don’t care if they kill Muslims. For ISIS, all Muslims who aren’t pledged to ISIS are fair targets.)
The tactics: ISIS recently asked sympathizers in the U.S. to take advantage of our relaxed gun laws: “In most U.S. states, anything from a single-shot shotgun all the way up to a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle can be purchased at showrooms or through online sales—by way of private dealers—with no background checks, and without requiring either an ID or a gun license.” Omar Mateen, who shot 49 people dead at a gay nightclub in Orlando, took advantage of these laws, as did the San Bernardino shooters, who got their guns legally.
Note that authorities also found materials for making explosives. Paddock also apparently had dozens of guns. He might have initially planned for an even larger attack.
Time and place: I pointed this out earlier, but this year ISIS called for attacks specifically in Las Vegas. Also, Paddock checked in the day the militant group released a new tape of its leader calling for attacks.
That’s about it, actually. Now let’s look at parts of the attack that don’t conform to a typical ISIS attack.
The tactics: Even though parts of the attack conform to traditional ISIS tactics, others don’t. Jihadists tend to immerse themselves in their attacks and locations. Even attackers who use long guns to kill at a distance often carry out those attacks in enclosed spaces. It’s well worth noting that Paddock set himself up in a 32nd-floor sniper nest, far removed from his victims. This recalls Charles Joseph Whitman’s massacre from the University of Texas Tower more than it does any jihadist attack.
The attacker’s death: ISIS soldiers typically go out in blazing martyrdom. This isn’t just for looks; it has ideological (and brand) value. Lone suicides are atypical (suicide bombers are of course different), and Paddock shot himself before the cops got to him. It could be, though, that if he’d recently radicalized he was still pretty green. He might have been well trained in the killing, less so in the ideology. We also have heard no reports of Paddock shouting the requisite “Allahu Akbar!” during his madness.
That said, it’s hard to ignore the 20+ guns Paddock reportedly had in his hotel room. He didn’t use anywhere near all of them. Is it possible he prepared for a dramatic standoff, then panicked? Consider again the unused explosives and the more than a dozen other guns he had back at his home in Mesquite.
Propaganda: Often, as we saw in the recent Edmonton attack, an agent of ISIS will carry ISIS propaganda that glorifies the group and connects them to its mission. In marketing terms, like a NASCAR driver’s suit. But authorities haven’t reported finding any such propaganda on Paddock. Not on his body, in his hotel room, or in his home.
Communication: ISIS “soldiers of the caliphate” haven’t received training or support directly from the group. They’ve been radicalized on their own terms, often through interactions with ISIS members and recruiters on encrypted messaging services such as Telegram and Signal. We haven’t heard any reports about the contents of Paddock’s phone and emails, but investigators were no doubt knee-deep in data within a few hours.
The pledge: ISIS-inspired attackers have, with few exceptions, all recorded or published in some way their pledge of allegiance to the group. They’ll do this with videos Attackers have pledged at different times in the attack cycle, some ahead of time, some during the attack (as with Omar Mateen), and some immediately afterwards (as we saw in San Bernardino). Often, attackers will record or stream the attack itself. Paddock, as far as we’ve been told, never issued such a pledge. In fact, he didn’t post any videos or pictures of himself whatsoever. Not a great way to go about glorifying yourself or your transcendent mission from god.
The analysis of the attack leads me to believe that Amaq’s claim is most likely bullshit. If so, though, we’re left with another question: Why would they stake their rep on such a wild claim, and why repeat it throughout the day? The risk-reward is backwards. Here’s a thought: They watched the election.
Simply put, ISIS has been getting it ass handed to it for over a year now. Coalition forces in Syria and Iraq have been steadily compressing and crushing the group’s core forces. As a result, ISIS is centrally weak and must turn to attackers in other parts of the world to exercise whatever influence and power it can. This is why you keep hearing these calls for attacks in the West and the U.S.: ISIS needs new recruits. Especially in the United States, where the group would have a near-impossible mission sending fighters from Syria, even the Americans who have joined them. It’s generally thought that the louder these calls get, the weaker ISIS is.
The battlefield losses might also explain the recent decrease in the quality of Amaq’s claims.
If we just go ahead and assume the Las Vegas claim is flat-out false, then, how can we explain it? Well, it’s either an accident or purposeful. So one option is they got a lot of bad information from a bad or formerly trustworthy source. If on purpose, though, why tell this lie?
Because information is a powerful weapon for the weak. This claim might not be crazy after all, but tactical.
In short, ISIS might be taking a page out of Putin’s playbook. The group has long understood the value of weaponizing misinformation, especially when fighting from a weak position (as Putin is). They’ve also been watching the last year in America very, very closely, and know our society is tearing itself apart, doing a lot of ISIS’s legwork for them. What’s more, these fractures break along racial lines, Islamophobia being one of the main drivers of discord. ISIS might look at this situation and calculate that the U.S. is damn close to taking some horrifying steps. If ISIS could provoke (and “justify”) anti-Muslim sentiment, parts of our social fabric might disintegrate immediately. Violence against Muslims in America, or more oppressive laws and executive orders, would likely push a great number of young recruiting targets here over the edge and into the ISIS camp. Then Trump and crew push back, and voila, the caliphate successfully decentralizes and takes the war to America.
How do you do this? Sow doubt and hate everywhere you can.
Any hysterical violent event moves fast. You can’t trust what you see or hear. Bad information spreads as quickly as good, and it probably gets farther, too. The Mandalay shooting produced a storm of misinformation, some accidental and some purposeful. This includes suspicious Twitter bot activity that, ding ding ding!, exploited and amplified Amaq’s bizarre claim. Alt right accounts also jumped on the Amaq train.
Though ISIS is a little late to the game, they’ve figured out the power of misinformation: The power of doubt. This is the power of the weak. It works on an individual level: Critical thinking requires doubt; doubt doesn’t require critical thinking. People will believe what they want to believe. You just have to figure out what they want to believe.
On that note, I’d like to end by pointing out that even ISIS dudes had a hard time believing their own claim. Check out this Telegram conversation (courtesy NYT ISIS correspondent, @rcallimachi) between two reported ISIS members. When one of them says he wants someone to confirm Amaq’s claim about the shooter, the other says he can either cut open the guy’s heart or believe his leaders.