The reticence with which ISIS responded to the massacre, and the absence of any further details on its central media outlet, Nashir, also suggest that this was not an operation that had been planned from above. If it was, it would probably be apparent by now. Even though ISIS media outlets have already issued photo essays depicting children celebrating the massacre, as well as an article on the attack in the weekly caliphate newspaper al-Naba, the way ISIS responded to Mateen’s actions has been palpably different from its responses in the wake of atrocities in Paris and Brussels. After Orlando, ISIS’s official media arms provided minimal information on the attack, or the attacker, and spent little time dwelling on it. In the immediate aftermath of Paris and Brussels, though, there was none of this ambiguity—the caliphate’s media team went to much greater lengths to take credit by releasing long audio and written statements in, among other languages, French, English, Arabic, and Turkish.
Of course, if you are Donald Trump, none of this matters. However, the problem is not just the candidate’s efforts to capitalize on the massacre. In the media’s rush to report on Mateen’s seemingly tenuous ISIS connection, there was little time for reflection on the aggregate effect of this coverage—the possibility that, by jumping on the “it’s ISIS” bandwagon, each actor was, to varying degrees, allowing itself to be weaponized as an instrument of the caliphate’s propaganda of the deed.
This isn’t just a concern because it serves the simplistic “us versus them” clash-of-civilizations rubbish that Trump is peddling. It’s a concern because this kind of response is precisely what ISIS has always been working toward. The immortalization of Mateen as an ISIS operative meant that, without necessarily lifting a finger, the group was once again able to menace the world—with its adversaries all the while doing most of the legwork.
The Orlando attack was not the first time that ISIS benefited in this way. For another example, take the case of Man Haron Monis, who lay siege to a café in Sydney, Australia, in December 2014. When Monis’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came to light, the Australian press joined politicians in playing up the supposed connection. This narrative was reinforced a few weeks later when Monis was heralded as one of the caliphate’s “mujahidin” in ISIS’s English-language magazine, Dabiq. Monis, in this account, was no ordinary man, but an agent of ISIS’s universal threat.
As demonstrated in the inquest that followed the siege, though, he was no such thing. A schizophrenic man wracked by delusions of grandeur, Monis spent his life searching for influence. Prior to becoming an “ISIS terrorist,” he’d variously described himself as an Iranian intelligence officer and an ayatollah, established a clairvoyant business that doubled as a front for sexual abuse, and been rejected in his attempts to join an outlaw motorcycle gang. His ISIS “allegiance,” which was just the latest episode in this quest for attention, was paper-thin—he even brought the wrong flag to his siege.