Al Qaeda Versus ISIS
The Jihadi Power Struggle in the Taliban’s Afghanistan
Since declaring its so-called caliphate in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has claimed responsibility for more than a dozen attacks in the West. Seven of them have occurred in the United States—most recently in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old American whose religious interests remain a mystery, converted a luxury hotel room into a sniper’s perch and took aim at concert-goers gathered beneath his window, killing nearly 60 people and wounding hundreds more. Shortly after, via its Amaq “news service,” ISIS asserted that Paddock was a “soldier of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting coalition countries.” In a separate Amaq report, ISIS explained, Paddock “converted to Islam months before the attack.” Soon after, the group issued an official statement, in which it claimed that the shooting was in response to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call for attacks “targeting the crusader alliance” and that “after careful monitoring of the Crusader gatherings in the city of Las Vegas,” Paddock, whom ISIS identified using the kunya (or honorific title) “Abu Abd El Bar,” killed and wounded 600 people before becoming a “martyr.”
There has been some doubt, however, as to the veracity of the group’s claim, given that Paddock did not provide evidence demonstrating his connection to ISIS. ISIS’ propaganda instructs those who carry out attacks in the West to explicitly link themselves to the group. “Otherwise,” as propagandists wrote in the October 2014 issue of ISIS’ flagship publication, Dabiq, “crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings.” Such pledges have come in various forms. Omar Mateen, who carried out the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016, claimed responsibility and pledged allegiance to ISIS via a 911 call. Attackers in Europe produced video declarations of loyalty to Baghdadi, which were eventually published by Amaq. The two gunmen who opened fire in 2015 outside a Prophet Mohammed cartoon drawing contest in Garland, Texas sent a tweet containing a pledge to al-Baghdadi. Surely, if Paddock were an ISIS recruit, he would have been aware of the imperative to clearly associate his actions with ISIS. But so far, the group has not furnished any evidence that concretely ties the Las Vegas shooter to itself.
Another factor that casts doubt on ISIS’ claim is the group’s routine spread of misinformation. In June 2016, ISIS announced through Amaq that members from one of its “covert unit[s]” had assassinated an American military officer working at the Incirlik Airbase in Turkey. Months later, in October 2016, ISIS said that it had downed an American A-10 fighter plane in northeastern Syria. Earlier this year, in a clear attempt to encourage retributive attacks in the United States, ISIS reported that U.S. forces had destroyed Iraq’s al-Nuri mosque. (The Pentagon and other reputable sources have firmly denied these claims.) In another incident this year, ISIS published in its weekly newspaper, al-Naba, that its Paris-based members had placed explosives at Charles de Gaulle Airport, which French authorities determined was untrue.
That said, there is quite a difference between spreading fear over attacks that never happened and claiming responsibility for ones that have. The former is strategic, as it serves ISIS’ aim of spreading terror and chaos and compelling Western security forces to expend resources on hoaxes. As the group’s late spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, put it in his 2016 Ramadan address, the “smallest act” that terrorizes “disbelievers” in the United States and Europe is “more beloved” to the group than its terrorism campaigns in the Muslim world.
That is why a false claim regarding the massacre in Las Vegas seems at odds with ISIS’ strategy. First, if its claim is indeed untrue, it would be a first for the group, at least for an attack that actually did materialize in the West. (Some argue that ISIS falsely claimed the June 2017 attack in the Philippines, as the Filipino government denies the group’s involvement. But that is not surprising, given the country relies heavily on tourism and was making a serious effort to assure the world it did not have a problem with ISIS. Several European officials who work with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, an international alliance formed to fight the terrorist group, have told me they doubt the government’s story about this attack in Manila.) Second, such a misrepresentation, especially for a high-profile event in a country ISIS has listed as a priority target, is risky. The perception of credibility helps ISIS recruit followers remotely over the Internet and convince them to execute attacks in the West. Indeed, through Amaq, ISIS claimed responsibility for more than 1,100 “martyrdom” operations in Iraq and Syria alone last year, bolstering the perception that it is also more dedicated to the cause of punishing its enemies than al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
It is certainly difficult to assess whether ISIS’ misreporting on events like the downing of the A-10 in northeastern Syria has negatively affected the group’s ability to build support in the West. Still, for any group claiming to be a steward of the “pure” faith, appearing less credible than your enemies is a problem. Indeed, the costs arising from a false claim for the Las Vegas massacre—the deadliest mass-casualty event in the United States since Mateen’s attack in Orlando—could thus be too high. It is always possible that Paddock sent some personal manifesto to the FBI via snail mail that will debunk ISIS’ claim, giving competing groups like al Qaeda yet more ammunition to weaken ISIS.
It is also useful to consider that ISIS’ territorial losses in the Middle East have already been undermining the group’s efforts to assure current and prospective supporters, especially here in the West, of the group’s durability. Indeed, gone are the days when media coverage bolstered the group’s ability to convince prospective recruits in the United States that its caravans of fighters laying siege to one town after another in Iraq and Syria were not only “remaining” but also “expanding,” as its chief slogan had suggested. Ramping up the quotient of fake reports in its torrent of online propaganda will only increase the perception that ISIS is untrustworthy. This would, in turn, threaten the group’s ability to direct and inspire more attacks against the United States and its allies.
Another reason why it remains possible that ISIS' claim is true is that the Las Vegas shooting shares some patterns with previous attacks, many of which followed a call to arms by Baghdadi or another top leader within ISIS. The shooting in Las Vegas happened only days after Baghdadi released a message encouraging his followers to incite more violence in the United States. Mateen’s rampage in Orlando took place shortly after Adnani called for attacks in the United States and Europe during his Ramadan address. In October 2015, shortly after Adnani called on ISIS’ members and supporters to “rush forth to jihad against the Russians and the Americans,” a faction of the group in Egypt detonated a “soda can bomb” on a Russian civilian airliner as it flew over the Sinai Peninsula, killing more than 200 people. Months earlier, on the day Adnani called for attacks targeting disbelievers in his 2015 Ramadan address, ISIS attacked a Shiite mosque in Kuwait and a resort in Tunisia frequented by Europeans. (On that same day, Yassin Salhi, who has links to ISIS, decapitated his boss at the American-owned chemical plant in France where he worked. He also attempted to blow up the facility as emergency personnel arrived. Investigators determined that Salhi had sent photographs of himself posing with his victim’s severed head to a French member of the Islamic State in Syria.)
Of further note is the chatter and celebrations on key Telegram channels, such as Asawirti Media and Adem News, that emerged prior to the claims from Amaq, suggesting ISIS had played a role in the Las Vegas massacre. I have tracked ISIS members’ and supporters’ activities on Telegram since the group began to migrate to the encrypted messenger in 2015 from platforms like Twitter, and it appears that the managers of these channels have ties to ISIS’ external operations division, which oversees recruitment and coordinates attacks in the West. As with similar chatter on these channels that followed ISIS-linked attacks in the West, the discussion over Las Vegas indicated that there was a high level of confidence that the shooting was connected to ISIS. It is possible that the activity was carefully engineered to mimic a years-old pattern of postings on these channels, which have usually foreshadowed eventual releases of claims for ISIS’ attacks in the West. But skeptics who assume that this is all just a ruse should keep in mind that the group’s external operations division is capable of remotely mobilizing an attack like this. The sad reality is that ISIS has incited far more violence in the West than al Qaeda, a truth that ISIS promoted in an issue of Dabiq by dedicating several pages to the coverage of a Time op-ed, written by former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell, that noted this very reality.
Then there is the fact that Paddock did not fit the usual profile of a typical ISIS recruit, given his age and background. But this would actually make him a prime trophy for an ISIS attack. ISIS does have white, formerly non-Muslim members, like Sally Jones, the widow of Junaid Hussain, a British hacker-turned-terrorist who coordinated the aforementioned attack in Texas and whose hand was evident in several other crimes in the United States that ISIS has not claimed (ostensibly due to concerns that the responsible parties could eventually disavow the group while incarcerated). What’s more, Jones is classified as a specially designated terrorist by the United States because of her online recruiting efforts. In 2015, for example, before Hussain was killed by a U.S. drone strike, the couple appeared interested in establishing relationships with non-Muslims who expressed grievances with the United States government and whose online posts indicated that they may have been suffering from mental illnesses. The bottom line is that ISIS has cast a wide net and overseen the most aggressive and effective global recruitment and incitement campaign of any terrorist group in history, and it remains possible that ISIS’ claim over the Las Vegas attack is true.