BEIRUT (AP) — Just hours after Stephen Paddock unleashed a hail of bullets on a country music festival in Las Vegas, the Islamic State 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.
Investigators are still looking for clues to explain what drove Paddock, a high-stakes gambler and retired accountant, to gun down 58 people from his high-rise hotel room in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The IS statement did not provide a shred of evidence to support its claim that he was a “soldier” from its ranks, saying only that the man, who it identified by the alleged pseudonym “Abu el-Bar al-Amriki,” had converted to Islam three years ago. The Associated Press reported the IS claim, but noted the group provided no evidence of a link.
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 capital, Manila. 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, France, but French authorities say they have found no link between the attacker and IS.
From Orlando, Florida, to Manchester and London in the U.K, to the Champs Elysee in Paris to Bangladesh, Libya, Syria and Yemen — almost every day, the group claims responsibility for an attack somewhere in the world. Many have been at least inspired by the group. Some claims have simply been false.
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. Both were said to have been planned and directed by IS.
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 grueling months-long battle, and are currently holed up in a few remaining neighborhoods in Raqqa, where U.S.-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 valor 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 American, a 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.
“ISIS is essentially trying to piggyback on the atrocity in Las Vegas,” said Colin P. Clarke, an expert at the RAND Corporation. “This is merely a way to garner more attention … even though the claim is patently … false.”
“More likely, ISIS’s supporters will believe what the group says and not what is proven beyond a doubt by the Western media,” Clarke added. •
By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the death toll is 58, not including the gunman, based on revised information from the Clark County coroner.