- REUTERS/Steve Nesius
ISIS has claimed responsibility for another massacre: an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed at least 50 people early Sunday morning.
The shooting was the deadliest in US history. The suspected gunman, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS, the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh, in a 911 call.
After news outlets reported this, the ISIS-affiliated Amaq news agency released a statement on its online propaganda channels claiming responsibility for the attack.
But the statement differed from those released after recent ISIS-claimed attacks in Paris and Brussels. In the Amaq statement released Sunday, the ISIS link to the Orlando attack was attributed to a “source.” The brief statement also did not describe or provide any details about the attack.
While the Paris and Brussels attackers had direct ties to ISIS leaders, it’s unclear how closely Mateen is connected to the group.
Michael Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst at the Levantine Group, a Middle East-based risk consultancy, told Business Insider that there had yet to be anything “that even remotely proves the attacker was in contact with ISIS.”
Horowitz said in an email:
The Amaq statement provides very little details regarding the attack, and even uses a relatively cautious phrasing by saying ‘source to al-Amaq,’ suggesting the group had no prior knowledge of the attack. The statement also refrains from directly saying that ISIS is responsible for the attack but rather indicates that ‘an Islamic State fighter’ carried out the attack. Both these elements suggest the attack was ISIS-inspired rather than directed or financed by the group.
Rita Katz, an expert on ISIS propaganda and cofounder of the SITE Intelligence Group, made a similar assessment.
“There is no doubt that this message from Amaq is different than the claim after the Brussels attack,” she told Business Insider in an email. “ISIS’ Amaq message claim that shooter, Omar Mateen, is an ISIS fighter, seems to be based on the media reports that he pledged to ISIS.”
- REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
The method in which the statement was released is also unusual. For past attacks, ISIS has released official statements that are directly from the group rather than from the ISIS-linked Amaq, which acts as a news service for ISIS but is not officially part of the terrorist group’s media wing.
“A direct statement from ISIS would have had more weight,” Horowitz said.
“It is not uncommon for ISIS to release its first – and sometimes only – claim via al-Amaq, yet major ‘operations’ such as the Paris attack or the downing of the Russian plane [in Egypt] have been claimed through official ISIS statements first, and later an al-Amaq communique.”
The social-media response from ISIS supporters has also been muted compared with past attacks.
After the Paris and Brussels attacks, ISIS’ online channels encouraged supporters to blast out canned messages on their social-media accounts. Channels on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which ISIS uses to send out information to supporters, asked followers to post canned messages celebrating the attacks and threatening more violence.
With the Orlando attack, there was no similar campaign.
“ISIS supporters praised the attack on social media, however, there is no overwhelming output from pro-ISIS media groups” as there was after the Paris and Brussels massacres, Katz said.
This further indicates that the Orlando shooting is likely to be a “lone wolf attack and was not coordinated with ISIS leadership as an ISIS operation,” she noted.
- REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
The lone-wolf strategy
ISIS’ leadership has showed it does not need to have had a direct role in planning an attack to claim the attack as its own. Such was the case in the shooting in San Bernardino, California, last year, which was carried out by ISIS supporters.
“With the ISIS accepting all who pledge to it, the Amaq report on the shooter being an IS fighter doesn’t necessarily mean he coordinated with the IS prior to the attack, but acted in their name and they accept it as their own,” Katz said.
ISIS has been encouraging so-called lone-wolf attacks as it loses ground in the Middle East. Much of the group’s recruitment efforts are based on the message that ISIS is “remaining and expanding” – thousands of foreign fighters flocked to ISIS’ de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, when the group looked like an unstoppable force.
But that message has been damaged recently as ground forces backed by a US-led coalition have succeeded in taking back territory from the group. Thus, to maintain its powerful image, ISIS has started relying more on external attacks.
The group has gone from calling all Muslims to come to its self-declared caliphate in the Middle East to encouraging its supporters to remain in their home countries and commit attacks there.
Last month, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani released an audio message calling on ISIS supporters to mount attacks in Western countries.
“The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us,” Adnani said in the statement. “If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night.”
Adnani also noted that some supporters were reluctant to kill civilians. He then provided justification.
“Know that inside the lands of the belligerent crusaders, there is no sanctity of blood and no existence of those called ‘innocents,'” Adnani said. “Know that your targeting those who are called ‘civilians’ is more beloved to us and more effective, as it is more harmful, painful, and a greater deterrent to them.”
Horowitz noted that these messages could be effective as calls to action for radicalized people.
“These messages by ISIS’s leadership are meant to maximize the psychological impact of these attacks among the Western public,” he said.
“They create the perception that ISIS does control these attacks from within the ‘safety’ of its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In general, however, ISIS has little control over these radicalized individuals, other than pushing them to act within a specific timeframe.”
And ISIS might have seen this latest attack as an opportunity to claim a success story on US soil.
“For the first time, the group seems to be ‘taking a risk’ by claiming an attack without being fully aware of the surroundings of the alleged ‘pledge of allegiance,'” Horowitz said. “This may stem from the group’s situation, as it faces multiple offensives in Iraq and Syria, and would also explain the phrasing ‘source to al-Amaq’ before the statement.”
Horowitz said on Twitter that ISIS haste in claiming the attack showed “just how much the group was waiting for it to boost its morale as it faces multiple offensives” in the Middle East.
Mateen was known to US law enforcement. He was on an FBI list of suspected ISIS sympathizers, and federal authorities had looked into him in 2013 and 2014, officials said Sunday.