Why Did the Islamic State Claim the Las Vegas Shooting?

Assessing the group’s puzzling statement

Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun via Reuters

This morning, the Islamic State’s semi-official news agency, Amaq, took credit for the Las Vegas massacre, which killed 58 and wounded another 515. The likely killer, identified by police as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada, was not known to be a supporter of the Islamic State, or indeed a Muslim of any type. For now, the only evidence that the Islamic State was involved is its own assurance—first a press release announcing that a “soldier of the Islamic State” executed the concertgoers, and a follow-up for the baffled, explaining that he converted to Islam months ago. The FBI has stated that it doesn’t believe the attack was related to international terrorism.

The sun has barely risen on Las Vegas, and there may be blood still slick on the Strip. Speculation about mass shootings in the hours after they occur is not just a fool’s game but an impatient fool’s. Evidence will be forthcoming, and these assertions by the Islamic State will be tested against reality. But already I hear a familiar chorus of doubt: The Islamic State will “take credit for anything,” it says, “even hurricanes.”

The doubters do not have a preponderance of prior examples on their side. The Islamic State does not claim natural disasters. Its supporters rejoice in them, but they reserve their official media for intentional acts. Of course, insurance agents and Christians, too, sometimes consider the weather “an act of God.”

The vast majority of the Islamic State’s claimed attacks were undertaken by men acting in its name, often after leaving short video statements confirming their intentions. The Amaq news agency is the preferred venue for the initial claim, usually within a day. (Sloppy reporters sometimes mistake the rejoicing of online supporters, meteorological or not, for an official claim.) If they were really so promiscuous with their claims, we would long since have ignored them, as we do claims from other yahoos who have tried to take credit for atrocities authored by others. The idea that the Islamic State simply scans the news in search of mass killings, then sends out press releases in hope of stealing glory, is false. Amaq may learn details of the attacks from mainstream media—and often gets those details wrong, also like mainstream media—but its claim of credit typically flows from an Amaq-specific source.

This Las Vegas claim may yet turn out to be false as well. They have offered no evidence—no cell-phone video from the killer, pledging allegiance in broken Arabic; no selfies of him, raising a finger of monotheism. Another absent sign of Islamic State involvement is videos from Paddock’s rifle-scope. At attacks like the Holey Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the killers have uploaded real-time images, exclusive and corroborating imagery for Amaq. As with many subsequently verified attacks, we have not yet, in these early hours, seen any such evidence.

If their claim is a rare false one, it will not even be the first false claim to feature a casino. In June, a gambling addict shot up and torched the Resorts World casino in Manila, Philippines. The Islamic State claimed credit, with a dubious follow-up alleging that Jessie Javier Carlos, 42, converted to Islam some months before, without telling anyone. That explanation appears to be a total lie. A false claim of credit in Las Vegas will effectively shred the Islamic State’s news agency’s credibility. It will become a news agency that was once reliable, and now associates itself indiscriminately with heavily armed crazy people in casinos.

I see little advantage in such a shift. When Amaq claims an attack, it makes itself hostage to the facts that are revealed in the follow-up investigation. Its supporters are cautiously cheering Paddock, but even they will be chagrined if (for example) a manifesto comes out revealing that Paddock was not a jihadist but a psychopathic Christian, or if it is revealed that his sniper’s nest was littered with titty mags and the rum bottles from the minibar. According to reports, Paddock had recently gambled heavily. Gambling ranks with drinking among Islamic vices. He also appears to have killed himself, rather than waiting to be gunned down in typical Islamic State style.

The on-camera pledges of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that have accompanied other ISIS claims of responsibility have the effect of wiping clean the history of the attackers—and preserving the credibility and reputation of the Islamic State. Porn and drinking can then be excused as habits of the past, even if the past was just last week. Having a clean perp, reborn as a soldier of the caliphate, makes the Amaq claim of credit safe, and unlikely to require regret later. As the facts emerge, we’ll see whether this killing spree ends up reminding us to take Amaq seriously, or demonstrating that its standards have slipped beyond recovery.