Experts say ISIS is unlikely to ditch Omar Marteen over reports about his sexual orientation, and that anti-LGBTQ sentiment is getting new emphasis in propaganda.
Sipa via AP Images
Within hours of the horrific massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on Sunday, media outlets associated with the Islamic State moved to claim "lone wolf" Omar Mateen as one of their own. Initial reports detailing the terrorist's searches for jihadist content leading up to the attack, along with confirmation that he pledged his allegiance to ISIS while inside the club, served to bolster the legitimacy of the self-described caliphate's declaration of solidarity. But rumors have since trickled out suggesting Mateen may have acted in no small part based on his own confused sexual orientation and attendant self-loathing. The narrative of a troubled gay man has led some observers to suggest that ISIS, a viciously anti-gay group, claimed Mateen too soon—and that the terrorist outfit might suffer from the irony of hastily inducting him into its bigoted ranks.
According to a number of terrorism analysts tracking the ISIS response to Orlando, however, the group's propagandists may be able to play Mateen's identity to their advantage. Even if they can't, experts suggest ISIS simply cannot back away from the attack, which arrived at a fortuitous time as it weathers a multi-front assault in the Middle East. Indeed, the tragedy may be used as fuel for a potentially powerful new ISIS propaganda blitz more explicitly targeting the LGBTQ community than ever before.
That ISIS would go all-in on Mateen is a bit surprising given the tentative nature of the group's initial claim to the attack. On Sunday, Amaq—the Islamic State's official news agency-slash-propaganda division—issued a statement that seemed more restrained than usual, almost like it was testing the waters, according to Veryan Khan of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC). The group followed up with further statements and basic images and videos, but even those materials paled in comparison to those released after the Brussels or Paris attacks.
"Nothing splashy, nothing in high-def," Khan tells VICE. "That's all just recycled material."
The Islamic State may have felt pushed to make a rapid claim, Khan suggests, because in the hours following the attack almost every major Islamic extremist group on Earth seemed eager to take credit as well. According to RAND Corporation political scientist and terrorism watcher Colin Clarke, once US outlets began linking the attacks to ISIS, it was almost natural for its propagandists to try and capitalize.
"We've seen people be guilted that way before and pushed toward the jihadist movement." —Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Now ISIS seems to be escalating coverage of the attack, creating higher-quality posters and distributing them via Telegram channels named after the shooter. Khan suspects these posters are the prelude to a new round of Orlando-focused propaganda videos, while Clarke posits that ISIS may eventually profile Mateen in Dabiq, its glossy apocalyptic magazine.
According to Clarke, ISIS propagandists are doubling down in part because they've never really backed away from a claim of responsibility before. They can also easily brush off emerging details on Mateen and his sexual orientation as Western fabrications. "It just proves that infidels lie more than anyone [to them]," says Khan, "because [we] can produce this kind of evidence at will." And according to Patrick Skinner, director of special projects and a jihadi expert at the intelligence consultancy Soufan Group, some ISIS fans may not be paying too much attention anyway. "They live in a fact-free bubble resistant to counter narratives," he says. "The hypocrisy of a secretly gay man acting for the world's most violently homophobic terrorist group will be lost on them."
Even if evidence of Mateen's sexual orientation grows too strong for ISIS to deny, the group might be able to spin it as a positive, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. ISIS often markets martyrdom not as a good death for unblemished men, but as a path to heaven for those who've led sinful lives in the group's eyes.
"We've seen people be guilted that way before and pushed towards the jihadist movement," Gartenstein-Ross explains. And as Khan notes, they could just come out and say, "Look how [Mateen] was struggling with his demons and overcame them. He just washed his sins clean with [his victims'] blood. Anything he has possibly thought or done, he has now atoned for."
Regardless of how ISIS handles reports about Mateen's sexuality, the experts VICE spoke to agree that the group was in dire straits before the attack. As its forces continue to suffer escalating losses in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and a crunch on their pipelines of supplies and foreign fighters, morale has to be low. And according to Khan and Skinner, the volume of supporters' Twitter chatter and of propaganda flowing out of its central command had slowed significantly prior to Orlando.
This attack gives ISIS something new to talk about, boosting its profile and, some argue, validating the strategy of encouraging attacks by supporters in their home countries if they can no longer make it to the front lines. This hit on the Untied States, which has mostly escaped the damage suffered by countries like Belgium and France, came soon after a major speech by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani inciting violence at home during the holy month of Ramadan. This message was helped along when Orlando was almost immediately followed by another ISIS-claimed attack in France.
Orlando also offers ISIS propagandists a new target of emphasis: LGBTQ people around the world. The group has always been open about its hatred of gays, posting videos of members throwing suspected LGBTQ people off of roofs in the Middle East. But until now, this hasn't been on the top of its agenda for international propaganda, according to Khan. Over the past few days, new posters have started to shift from a general incitement to kill non-believers toward targeting gays and specific gay pride events. Khan deems this especially important, as ISIS has endured tough press within the jihadi community for killing civilians and Muslims, which many radicals find distasteful. (That dispute was at the center of ISIS's rift with al Qaeda.)
"But this is something everyone can get on the bandwagon with," Khan says. "Everyone hates homosexuals worldwide in the jihadi mentality, and this will [lend them] more public support... It's manna from heaven [to them]. Like: 'Oh shit, why didn't we think about this? We already hate them!'"
An Orlando-focused media blitz by ISIS operatives will do little to help the group weather attacks on its territories. But regardless of what we learn about Mateen, experts concur the group will use this attack to breathe new life into its propaganda machine, milking it for everything it's worth. And they're apparently willing do so with a new international focus on and vitriol toward LGBTQ communities. One can only pray they do not succeed.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.