Just hours after Stephen Paddock unleashed a hail of bullets on a country music festival in Las Vegas, the Islamic State terrorist group issued a flurry of statements claiming the 64-year-old gunman as one of its own. The quick responsibility claim - discounted by FBI officials - is the latest in a series of dubious or seemingly fake IS claims, reflecting the extremists’ eagerness to latch onto global attacks it can tout as its own as it fights for survival in its Mideast base.
Three years after it declared its so-called Islamic caliphate across huge swaths of Syria and Iraq, IS has lost most of the territory and is on the run in its few remaining bastions. Far from the confident propaganda it pumped out when it controlled a pseudo state, the group now justifies its losses to its supporters and urges them not to give up the fight.
“It really reflects the existential crisis facing ISIS,” said London-based Mideast analyst Fawaz Gerges, using an alternate acronym for the group.
Unlike previous attacks claimed by IS, there is no indication Paddock had religious or political inclinations, nor did he leave a video message of himself pledging allegiance as some attackers have. Paddock killed himself as police closed in, making it easier for IS to make the claim.
The group has a history of exaggerated, unsubstantiated or false claims, but these have picked up in frequency as its position at home became more tenuous.
In June, the group claimed an attack by a gunman who ignited a casino fire that left 36 people dead in the Philippine. It turned out to be a botched robbery by a heavily indebted Filipino gambling addict. The group also claimed a knife attack on Sunday that killed two women in Marseille but French authorities say they have found no link between the attacker and IS.
The recent claims are a far cry from the carnage in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people, or the 2016 suicide bombings that ripped through Brussels airport and subway, killing 32 and injuring 320.
Desperation to project strength
Experts say the recent false claims are a reflection of the group’s desperation to project strength and remain in the news as something other than a terrorist group on the wane.
The militants lost Mosul, their biggest prize and last major stronghold in Iraq, in July after a gruelling months-long battle, and are currently holed up in a few remaining neighbourhoods in Raqqa, where US-backed Syrian forces are bearing down on them.
In an apparent attempt to raise morale, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio message last week, the first since November, vowing to continue fighting and lavishing praise on his jihadis for their valour in the battlefield. He also urged followers to step up attacks and “burn” their enemies everywhere.
Gerges said the Las Vegas attack claim illustrates the extremely difficult position IS faces at home and its lack of strategic coordination.
“To take responsibility for a deranged, criminal American, tells you exactly that this is about media narrative. This is about trying to remain in the news cycle, trying to say we are still here,” he said.
Experts say the group, which has called for lone wolf attacks in the Las Vegas strip among other landmark Western targets, has nothing to lose by making such claims.
“More likely, IS’s supporters will believe what the group says and not what is proven beyond a doubt by the Western media,” Clarke added.