One day after the cold-blooded murder of 58 people in Las Vegas, the authorities had identified the attacker as Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old man from Mesquite, Nevada. An isolated loner living an hour outside of Las Vegas, Paddock had a secluded existence, and was not well-known to any of his neighbors. It seemed, initially at least, that the man behind America’s deadliest gun massacre was just another in a long line of deranged mass murderers.
It thus came as something of a surprise when the Islamic State threw itself into the media storm, claiming Paddock as one of its own—not least to the journalists, analysts and academics who have been studying the group’s activities and propaganda for years. What was even more surprising was that it did not just circulate its first claim and leave it at that—as it tends to with incidents like these. Instead, it doubled and tripled down on it in the hours and days that followed, eventually releasing no fewer than five separate reports on the operation. Amidst them all, something seemed amiss.
For the most part, when the Islamic State takes credit for an attack outside of Syria and Iraq, its claiming methodology is consistent. Usually, the individuals who carry out the attack make contact with someone directly connected to the group—a trusted fighter, official or supporter—to whom they send (or attempt to send) a pre-operation pledge of allegiance. Ideally, if the situation allows, the group likes its would-be attackers to send over video footage of themselves as well, which it makes use of them for post-op propaganda purposes. For example, the Islamic State released a video made by Anis Amri, the perpetrator of the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack, which killed 12 people, shortly after he carried out the attack. By abiding to this methodology religiously in recent years, the Islamic State has been able to keep its terrorism-related communications credible. Indeed, contrary to the popular misconception, there have been vanishingly few cases in which it has claimed attacks where some sort of link was not—eventually—demonstrably present.
In Las Vegas, though, it appears that this methodology may have been broken. For now, there seem to be more holes than usual in the Islamic State’s story. Bearing in mind Paddock’s motive still remains obscure, anyone engaging in speculative analysis needs to tread carefully. However, regardless of whether Paddock was or wasn’t affiliated with the group, it still bears discussing why the group could have adopted the attack, and what that might mean.
There are three scenarios worth consideration. The first is that the Islamic State claimed the attack legitimately. In this scenario, Paddock did actually radicalize after converting to Islam several months ago, before somehow making contact with the group or one of its supporters on social media. In this scenario, then, the Islamic State was simply following its usual terrorism communication methodology. Based on what has emerged to date, though, this seems extremely unlikely. The FBI still has not come across evidence of his belonging to or being associated with any transnational cause—and, in this context, you would think it would be fairly obvious. What is more, if analysts who have tracked the group for years sometimes struggle to keep up with it online due to ISIS channels constantly getting suspended, is it really feasible that a senior citizen and new convert to Islam could navigate this space without setting off intelligence alarm bells? Of course, only time will tell, but based on what we know to date, this scenario seems highly improbable.
In the second scenario, the Islamic State claimed the attack mistakenly. As mentioned, most of its former claims have seemed to rest on intelligence that had been transmitted through a trusted network of individuals. Over the last several months, as media operatives have been identified, imprisoned, or killed, Islamic State official propaganda outlets have almost certainly become more decentralized and more heavily reliant on their overseas network for information pertaining to attacks in the West. In this scenario, the Islamic State claimed the attack because it thought Paddock was one of its own, based on mistaken information from the security source upon which they based their own attribution.
This is certainly conceivable: the organization suffers from a profound lack of institutional redundancy and, unless its external operations group is directly involved in coordinating an attack, it has to rely on second-hand open source and raw human intelligence collected from within its global network of supporters. It thus follows that, if its security sources get sloppy, collecting and transmitting false information regarding an attack, the accuracy of its claims will inevitably suffer. The Islamic State may be monstrous, but its operatives are only human—they are as liable to making mistakes as we are—and this could be why the Las Vegas massacre was adopted.
In the third scenario, the Islamic State claimed the attack opportunistically. This hypothesis suggests that Islamic State media officials broke into relatively unknown territory with Las Vegas. As mentioned, contrary to popular misconception, the Islamic State does not tend to associate itself with attacks to which it has no connection. However, just because it has not happened before does not mean it will not happen ever, and it is possible that the group adopted Paddock as one of its own in spite of his having no connection to it. In spite of what some analysts think, the group probably does not worry about its global credibility as much as we like to think it does. Indeed, we—that is, Western publics, governments, and militaries—are not, and never have been, the only audience for its terrorism and propaganda. Rather, when it adopts attacks like this, the Islamic State media cabal is just as much communicating with its ‘domestic’ audience—those living under and fighting for it in Syria and Iraq, as well as the card-carrying supporter community it has cultivated online. This demographic will take a claim like this at face value even if we do not and, at this stage, it does not matter what the global media says about Paddock: for this demographic, Islamic State media’s credibility is iron-clad, and everything else is just propaganda.
When considering the Islamic State’s attacks and the strategic communication operations surrounding them, it is imperative that they are not only understood through the blinkered view of the ‘adversary.’ Now that the group’s contiguous caliphate is seemingly on the way out, its ability to carry out attacks like that in Las Vegas—or, rather, the internal perception that it is able to carry out attacks like that in Las Vegas—has become instrumental to its survival as an idea. So, whether it adopted what happened in Nevada last week truthfully, accidentally, or opportunistically, the internal benefits it derived from doing so remain intact. It is critical that we bear this in mind moving forward, for the choices the group makes around these issues illuminate much about the threat it could present in the months and years to come.