It has been a horrific few days since Stephen Paddock committed the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on Sunday night. But when the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed the attack just hours after it had taken place, the tragedy took on a strange new dimension. How could Paddock, a 64 year old man with no criminal history or known radical beliefs, and whose crime police had not initially investigated as a terrorist attack, have acted on behalf of ISIS?
Investigators have as of yet found no link between Paddock and ISIS, but just as notably, they have also not found any motive at all. As Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said (albeit vaguely): “[Paddock] may may have been radicalised, unbeknownst to us, and we want to identify that source.”
However, it must likewise be noted that ISIS is facing significant losses in Iraq and Syria, and may have seen value in capitalizing on an attack it didn’t commit to salvage morale amongst members and supporters.
Thus, as more and more questions arise about Paddock, we must carefully and skeptically consider all possible scenarios.
Monday morning, ISIS’ ‘Amaq News Agency reported on one of its accounts that that Paddock was a “soldier” with the group. When my staff and I first saw the post, we hesitated, asking each other if ISIS’ account had been hacked. But as other ISIS channels, began posting the message, it was clear that this claim was coming from the group, so we reported on it.
Less than 10 minutes later, ‘Amaq issued a follow-up message—a rarity for the media agency—appearing to address the widespread skepticism of its claim by stating that the attacker “had converted to Islam several months ago.”
Under an hour later, ISIS doubled down on its claim of responsibility with a formal communique identifying Paddock as “Abu Abdul Barr al-Amriki.” The statement, which provided more unverifiable details to ISIS’ narrative, read in part:
…responding to the call of the Emir of the Believers Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi - may Allah preserve him - to target the countries of the crusader coalition, and after precise monitoring of gatherings of the Crusaders in the American city of Las Vegas, one of the soldiers of the Caliphate (Abu Abdul Barr al-Amriki) - may Allah accept him - equipped with a machine gun and diverse ammunition in a hotel overlooking a music venue, was able to open fire on their crowds, inflicting among them 600 killed and wounded. That, until he exhausted his ammunition and dismounted [his horse] as a martyr…
It’s worth noting the rhetorical weight of an ISIS communique. While statements by ‘Amaq News Agency don’t in themselves indicate any particular amount of involvement or investment by ISIS, formal red and blue communiques like the one above are meant to signal the group’s direct involvement.
This differentiation between claim types fits ISIS’ terrorist playbook. By ISIS’ standards, any unconnected lone wolf who attacks on its behalf is a “soldier,” and the group embraces them as such through ‘Amaq claims. As for major attacks which the group has had its hand in, though, ISIS issues a red and blue communique, essentially putting its signature on the event.
Four days later, on Thursday, ISIS doubled down on its claim yet again in the hundredth issue of its al-Naba newspaper. An article in the issue added new information to its claim, stating that Paddock “converted to Islam 6 months ago” and tallying causalities.
The West has sadly found routine in reports of bombings, stabbings, shootings, or vehicular attacks, followed shortly after by additional reports reading, “ISIS Claims Responsibility…” But the Las Vegas attack stands out from other recent attacks by the group. Just compare the Las Vegas attack to other ISIS-claimed attacks in the West in 2017: Manchester, Barcelona, and even this past weekend in Marseille—these events all seemed characteristic of ISIS-inspired or coordinated attacks, whether it by the attackers’ travels, social media histories, past criminal investigations, or other variables. For most of these attacks, ISIS’ responsibility claims were expected.
But Las Vegas, ISIS’ only claimed attack in the U.S. in 2017, deviates sharply: Paddock’s age, his method of attack, his suicide, his background. The attack just doesn’t fit the typical profile. Furthermore, wouldn’t investigators have found a pledge by Paddock if he did indeed attack on the group’s behalf?
ISIS could very well be lying. The group exaggerates casualty counts for its attacks on a regular basis. But to outright lie about a high-profile, external attack like that of Las Vegas would be another matter altogether, and far more unlikely. To that point, the more I pick apart ISIS’ claim for Las Vegas, I’m reminded of its claim of downing flight KGL9268 on October 31, 2015, which killed all 224 people onboard. As news of the crash broke that Saturday, October 31, journalists and investigators from Egypt, Russia, the U.S., and other countries were scrambling for answers, with a mechanical error a forerunning prospect. Then, just hours later, ISIS’ Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the planes downing, calling its operation revenge for its military campaigns in Syria.
The world was doubtful that ISIS had somehow managed to take down a major airliner flying above Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula, with high-ranking officials calling it “unlikely.” Responding to these doubts, I stressed that while ISIS’ claim should not be written off, the group would need more evidence to support its bold claim.
ISIS was listening, and responded to the international community’s doubts on November 4 by releasing a brief audio speech entitled, “We are the Ones who Downed It, So Die in Your Rage.” In the audio, an unidentified speaker (believed to be the leader of ISIS’ Sinai Province) insisted that the plane was downed on the one-year anniversary of the establishment of ISIS’ Sinai Province. He promised proof:
For we, by the grace of Allah, were the ones who crashed it, and we shall reveal, Allah permitting, how we brought it down, at a time and way we deem appropriate.
Then, two weeks later, ISIS released the twelfth issue of its now-discontinued magazine, Dabiq, providing its promised proof by showing the IED it used to down the plane and details about its operation.
Lone wolves regularly leave behind easy-to-find pledges or indicators of their support for ISIS, but coordinated operations, which ISIS has indicated the Las Vegas attack to be, require more secrecy. So, as investigators have yet to find any manifesto, pledge of allegiance, or small hint of Paddock’s motivations, ISIS may hold onto whatever pledge it might have (stress the might) in a similar fashion that it did for its proof aforementioned plane downing—perhaps reserved for a video release or it’s soon-to-come fourteenth issue of Rumiyah magazine.
To better assess ISIS’ claim for the Las Vegas attack, it helps to consider what a cost-benefit breakdown would look like for the group. Of course, for a group like ISIS, carnage is currency. So, if Paddock indeed carried out his massive attack in support of the group, it will be perceived within the global jihadist community as a monumental achievement. ISIS supporters will continue to celebrate while AQ and other jihadi rivals will bitterly condone it.
On the other hand, if investigators find no links between ISIS and Paddock—or even find some clearly worded message left behind by Paddock expressing some other motive—the group still stands to benefit (at least somewhat). To ISIS’ cult of brainwashed supporters, there is no silver-bullet finding that could crack the bubble. ISIS supporters trust only ISIS media as sources of information; all other news stories—especially those conflicting with the group’s statements—are deemed “fake news,” among other descriptions.
ISIS supporters, to that point, have expressed blind faith that ISIS was behind the Las Vegas attack. Like their reactions to ISIS-coordinated attacks like Brussels and Paris, ISIS supporters’ celebration started before ISIS even claimed the attack on Monday, and appeared to become more coordinated and intense as the day went on. Materials disseminated as part of this campaign included celebratory graphics and further threats that “this is not the first time we have done this and will not be the last.”
ISIS supporters have written off the lack of evidence for a Paddock-ISIS connection as the result of poor research and government intelligence. Mocking the skepticism of journalists, analysts, and officials, an ISIS-linked channel promised eventual proof in a remarkably similar fashion to the aforementioned audio speech regarding flight KGL9268:
Just wait cause #IS is going to release the Evidence. We want you first to Die in Rage investigating and finding the evidences and links!
Another message stated bluntly:
We dont care what you think. While you are busy thinking of it, #IS is already preparing the next attack!
Despite ISIS supporters’ blind faith, the group has a lot to lose if it is caught lying. ISIS is extremely invested projecting legitimacy as well-funded government agencies and organizations constantly work to discredit it. It knows that being caught in a major lie would only feed these entities’ counter narratives.
It is not for nothing that ISIS maintains one central media outlet for the enormous span of its official media releases (as opposed to the more dispersed, decentralized media structure of al-Qaeda and its affiliates); doing so allows the group to maintain an uncontradicted, noise-free message to the world. ISIS knows that respected journalists, analysts, and government officials—with necessary degrees of skepticism and caution—take its attack claims seriously. However, any definitive proof that Paddock had no connection to ISIS would be a severe fracture to how seriously the group’s statements are taken by such communities in the future.
Regardless of Paddock’s motivations, his attack in Las Vegas was a tragic act of evil. But ISIS has come too far to walk back its claims for the Las Vegas attack. Unless it wants its future claims to be dismissed, it will need to provide what it did for flight KGL9268 and other events: proof.