Nevada state police and the FBI continue to gather evidence from the gruesome Las Vegas massacre Sunday that left 59 dead and 527 more injured, but the shooter’s possible motives remain unclear. The Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the deadly shooting has added to the confusion surrounding the case, and while it has been met with widespread skepticism, experts aren’t prepared to discount it just yet.
ISIS has produced none of the usual evidence — video of a pledge of allegiance to the group or shooter’s-eye footage from the scene, for instance — in support of its claim that gunman Stephen Paddock was a “soldier of the Islamic State.” And the FBI says it has found no signs connecting the attacker to international terror groups.
“If this is a false claim, this is an exceptionally false claim that goes beyond any they’ve made in the past.”
Still, ISIS generally has a strong track record of accuracy in the attacks it officially claims. If the latest claim proves groundless, analysts say, it would be among the most egregious false statements the terror group has ever issued. But there’s a second option, which suggests ISIS has determined that falsely claiming responsibility for very high-profile attacks is beneficial for their long-term strategy. This new tactic would allow the group to potentially attach its brand to headline-grabbing atrocities, sow fear and confusion about its capabilities, and potentially attract new recruits at a time when its physical “caliphate” is nearing collapse.
“If this is a false claim, this is an exceptionally false claim that goes beyond any they’ve made in the past,” Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VICE News. “It would mean they have broadened the bandwidth of what they’re willing to claim.”
Joscelyn said he always treats ISIS claims with skepticism, but the Las Vegas message made him more skeptical than any of the group’s previous statements.
“There’s nothing corroborating this right now,” he said.
Joscelyn is far from the only expert puzzled by the group’s claim. Graeme Wood at The Atlantic considered its many inconsistencies. The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi looked at the demographics of previous attackers and how they squared with what is currently known about the shooter, Stephen Paddock.
The morning after the massacre, ISIS issued a claim of responsibility via a now familiar process: A statement from the terror group’s Amaq News Agency, circulated among supporters on the encrypted Telegram app, claimed the gunman was a “soldier of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting coalition countries.”
Amaq, almost sensing the doubt around its claim, swiftly followed up with a second statement saying the shooter had converted to Islam in recent months. The group doubled down later, publishing an official communique from ISIS’ central command that detailed the attack and gave the attacker the Islamic nom de guerre “Abu Abd El Bar al Amriki.”
But the group failed to produce anything that would support their claim.
Analysts are left baffled as to how to respond to these strong, repeated claims of responsibility, given the absence of any supporting evidence. “It wasn’t a lone claim by some rogue media operative,” said Joscelyn. “They made a big push in multiple languages to claim this — this is something they’ve decided as an organization to do.”
Joscelyn said that it was a myth that ISIS opportunistically claimed every major act of violence as its own — the vast majority of attacks it has claimed have subsequently been verified as inspired or directed by the group. Over the past year, however, it has made an increasing number of apparently false claims.
Contrary to an initial ISIS statement, a gun attack on a Russian security service office in Khabarovsk that killed two in April was carried out by a far-right extremist. Last month, ISIS claimed to have planted a bomb at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport that prompted an evacuation of a passenger jet, although authorities said it was a false alarm.
And in potentially the terror group’s biggest false claim before Las Vegas, ISIS took credit for a June attack at a casino complex in Manila, the Philippines, that killed 37 people. Authorities say the attack was actually a botched robbery carried out by a debt-ridden civil servant.
Joscelyn admits that analysts still don’t fully understand the murky logic behind ISIS’ decision-making process around claiming attacks — why it falsely takes responsibility for some attacks but overlooks others where it appears to have a credible claim. ISIS has issued no statement over Saturday’s vehicle-and-knife attack in Edmonton, Canada, which is being investigated as an act of terrorism, and closely resembles recent ISIS-inspired vehicle attacks.
Joscelyn said if ISIS were deliberately claiming unaffiliated acts of violence as the work of its own hand, it could be doing so as a strategy of “information warfare.”
“I see little advantage in such a shift,” Graeme Wood wrote in The Atlantic on Monday. “When Amaq claims an attack, it makes itself hostage to the facts that are revealed in the follow-up investigation.”
But Joscelyn said such claims would do little damage to the group’s credibility among their zealous supporters, who “already live in their own extreme media bubble.”
Doing so would link the ISIS brand to high-profile acts of violence, and potentially attract extremists to their cause. “It would be a zero-cost way to inject themselves into the conversation and raise doubts about [the attacker’s] motive,” he said.