On the evening of Oct. 1, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest country music festival from a room in the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. The mass shooting, the worst in modern U.S. history, left at least 58 people dead and more than half a thousand injured. It was an act that President Donald Trump called “an act of pure evil.”
Hours later, ISIS claimed responsibility.
Through its propaganda news arm al-Amaq, the terror group claimed that Paddock — one of its newest “soldiers” — had converted to Islam in recent months and taken the name “Abu Abd Abdulbar al-Ameriki” before arming building up a suspected arsenal of at least 19 rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. This is a scary, and believable, possibility: Between its inception in 2014 and Trump’s assumption of the presidency at the end of January, ISIS has conducted 143 attacks in 29 countries, killing 2,042.
There’s one problem, however: ISIS is probably full of shit.
In a press conference on Oct. 2, the Federal Bureau of Investigation immediately rebuked ISIS’s claims, stating that the attack appears to have no international terror connection whatsoever; later that day, Las Vegas Sheriff Joseph Lombardo made an important and telling distinction, describing the shooting as a lone wolf attack that has yet to garner the classification as “terrorism” at all. ISIS’s claim, when taken with the glaring lack of evidence suggesting a connection to Paddock, is a boast designed to scare paranoid citizens — a boast that actually highlights the group’s slow and steady decline.
“The statements are absent of any details that would suggest any type of coordination between ISIS and the perpetrator,” Laith Alkhouri, counterterrorism expert and founder of Flashpoint monitoring service, told & Task & Purpose. “This appears to be an ISIS attempt to capitalize on the frenzy and gain propaganda value.”
Alkhouri gave the example of the June 2 attack at a resort in Manila in the Philippines. Despite continuous police denial, ISIS was adamant that it was behind the lone gunman attack at a casino resort that left 37 dead. But according to local law enforcement, shooter Jessie Carlos was evidently a disgruntled government employee that used to gamble at the resort with no tangible link to ISIS. It appeared more likely that ISIS wanted to exploit the attack for propaganda value in the wake of the group’s increasing activities in the Philippine city of Marawi.
Claiming responsibility for mass shooting attacks in the U.S. despite the tenuous connection between a suspect and ISIS is a strategic modus operandi for the group. While ISIS claimed responsibility for the 2015 shooting attack in San Bernardino that left 14 dead via social media and its propaganda news sites, investigators were unable to determine if the perpetrators — married couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, ISIS supporters who had “been radicalized for some time,” according to CNN — had any direct connection with militant leaders. Similarly, 2016 Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen frequently referenced ISIS in conversations with police, claiming he was “speaking to the person who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.” But while ISIS embraced his pledge, the group specified that the shooting “had not been commissioned by senior commanders in the Middle East.” The massacre, which took place at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was the deadliest shooting in U.S. history — before Las Vegas.
But ISIS’s claims of credit for these attacks after the fact doesn’t make them orchestrated acts of international terrorism under various law enforcement definitions: As with the Manila attack, none of the evidence surrounding these attacks suggest the shooters directly colluded with ISIS leadership in any way. These attacks do not indicate that ISIS has sleeper cells or wide geographical range organizationally committed to furthering to the group’s agenda, and prematurely labeling them “terrorism” over unconfirmed statements from ISIS could have tremendous legal ramifications. Indeed, the goal of such claims is to project strength despite the group’s recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria — to exploit the fear and confusion that comes with each mass shooting and use it to sow terror among a population without actually firing a shot.
Ironically, there is no real value for ISIS in claiming these types of domestic terror attacks around the globe. Not only do they do nothing to further the organization’s end goals, but they make the organization appear weak despite their intent.
ISIS claims its end goal, which is to to create a unified, Muslim nation-state (the “caliphate” that fell in Mosul at the end of June) where it can freely practice and spread its extremist beliefs and take on its role in bringing about, well, the apocalypse. They are basically an insane death cult, guided by strict adherence to ideology that has even put them at odds with other terror organizations like Al Qaeda. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic,” as The Atlantic reported in March 2015. “Very Islamic.”
Several mass shooting attacks in the United States don’t fit that bill, simply because their perpetrators aren’t perfectly devout ISIS crusaders. While the San Bernardino shooters had a stronger connection to Islam, bastardization of Islamic principles espoused by ISIS don’t match those of Pulse nightclub shooter Mateen and Paddock who has not yet been identified as having any ties is Islam at all. Mateen in particular explicitly broke with the faith by having intimate relationships with men: Were he to have lived under the Caliphate, where his homosexual tendencies are strictly forbidden, Mateen would have likely died a particularly torturous death, the Washington Post reported. The same can be said of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the man who bowled through a crowd in Nice, France, with a truck on July 14, 2016, killing 84 and injuring more than 300. No official evidence of his collusion with ISIS has been found.
Being able to inspire small-scale terrorism certainly remains important for the group, but lone wolf attacks are so terrifying because they’re not the type of organized, cell-based operation ISIS favor: they cannot be categorized, cannot be forecasted, and cannot be stopped. ISIS leadership knows this, and it capitalizes on that. And in the United States, the purportedly ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks have become somewhat synonymous with the idea of mass shootings — something the group would likely embrace given the latter’s ubiquity.
But these same principles of being unpredictable and uncategorizable should also lend credence to the idea that lone wolf attacks usually not an extension of organized international terrorism. They are they workings of deeply disturbed individuals who find solace in the radicalism of terrorist groups with which they have no legitimate connection — they are empty people looking for an idea to give them meaning. ISIS-organized attacks, like the combined shooting and bombing in Paris, France on Nov. 13, 2015 that boasted a death toll of 137 and 413 injured, are incredibly complex, both strategically and tactically. Outside of the traditional stockpiling or arms and ammunition, the mass shootings carried out by lone wolves are not particularly in-line with ISIS agendum.
As such, embracing mass shootings is more of a weakness than a strength. As ISIS continues losing ground and leadership, are increasingly embracing lone wolf attacks from radicalized individuals who operate under a thin veneer of allegiance to the group’s causes, so far that terror leaders “becoming ever more reliant on volunteers who lack training and act with little or no coordination or guidance,” the Washington Post reported in July. In its flaccid claims, ISIS wants to adopt the appearance of strength and power despite the fact that the group is now forced to sacrifice its rigid ideological dogma in order to maintain the illusion of ubiquitous terror.
While that idea offers little in the way of solace about the destruction left behind by lone wolves and creates even more questions about how to combat or prevent these types of attacks, one thing is for certain: buying into ISIS’ claims and allowing the organization to control the narrative around mass shootings means letting them win. Giving them credit gives them victory — a small victory, but victory for fear and terror nonetheless. And even after their territory and would-be terrorists are gone, giving into fear is exactly what will keep ISIS alive.