Less than 12 hours after a man identified by police as Stephen Paddock opened fire on an outdoor country music concert, killing at least 59 and perpetrating the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) issued a statement that puzzled terror experts.
The group took credit for the attack on its semi-official news agency, Amaq.
So far, there is no evidence that ISIS was involved beyond the group’s own assurance that Paddock was “a soldier of the Caliphate.” The group later doubled down on its claim, saying Paddock converted to Islam months ago.
The FBI has said it does not believe the attack was connected to an international terrorist group. And Paddock, at 64, does not fit the profile of a young ISIS recruit.
“This is, to say the least, very strange,” tweeted Amarnath Amarasingam, a research fellow at George Washington University’s extremism program.
Historically, ISIS has not been arbitrary in the attacks it claims have been carried out by its supporters. Experts who track the group closely say that when it comes to attacks in the West, if ISIS is claiming responsibility, there typically was some kind of connection between the perpetrator and the group.
The group does often claim responsibility for attacks that may have been merely inspired by the group’s ideology — not directed or funded by ISIS leadership. In either case, the group will credit “a soldier of the Caliphate.”
The two attackers who killed 16 in the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015 were claimed by ISIS, even though they appeared to have had no direct contact with the group.
ISIS also sometimes declines to take ownership for attacks that turn out to be linked to it. For example, the group hasn’t claimed responsibility for the suspect in Canada who rammed his car into a police barricade Saturday night and then stabbed an officer, even though he had an ISIS flag on his vehicle's dashboard.
But until recently, claims of responsibility put out through official channels were seen as reliable. Establishing a reputation for making easily disprovable claims could undercut its credibility with its own supporters, so ISIS has carefully safeguarded its authority.
That might be changing. The group has now made at least two false claims in the past few months.
In June, ISIS took credit for a deadly attack on a casino in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, claiming that the shooter converted to Islam months before. But the attack later appeared to be a botched robbery by a gambling addict. Police have consistently maintained there was no tie to terror.
Then, last month, the group claimed it had placed bombs at Charles de Gaulle Airport, sparking an evacuation. There were no bombs and the evacuation was unrelated to terrorism.
The sudden spike in spurious claims has led some terror experts to speculate that it has gotten sloppier as its territory has dwindled and the group’s focus has turned to launching attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.
Close trackers of the group are dubious of the impact that the string of apparently false claims will have on ISIS’s sway with its followers.
“ISIS will benefit from its claim, regardless of how truthful/untruthful it is,” tweeted Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, which closely tracks the group.
“If ISIS verified as telling the truth, it will have pulled off what supporters & global jihadi movement will see as monumental achievement,” she said.
But, she continued, “If #ISIS is lying, it will only lose cred by those who already distrust it. To brainwashed supporters, it won't even crack the bubble.”