Update – 10/03/2017: On the evening of October 1st, Stephen Paddock opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas from the 32nd floor of his Mandalay Bay hotel room, killing at least 59, and wounding more than 500. ISIS’ media outlet, Amaq, claimed Paddock was a “soldier of the Islamic State,” and that he had “converted to Islam months ago.” While such wording is reminiscent of claims for attacks inspired by the group, the FBI has found no links between Paddock and ISIS. According to a Bureau spokesperson, “As this event unfolds, we have determined to this point no connection with an international terrorist group.”
This is not the first time ISIS has claimed responsibility for an attack on U.S. soil without any corroborating evidence.
ISIS claims of responsibility for plots and attacks in the U.S. have varied from stating the attackers were “soldiers of the Islamic State,” to “supporters of the Caliphate,” to followers that heard the call of Sheikh Adnani, each claim suggesting a different level of affiliation with the organization. However, in most cases in which ISIS stated that one of its “soldiers” executed the attack, no operational links were to be found.
There is a significant difference between an unverified claim and an actual operational link between ISIS and attackers in the U.S. The former could actually damage ISIS’s credibility among potential recruits by raising questions about its global reach and authenticity. An actual connection would be of much greater concern to U.S. law enforcement, signaling ISIS’s ability to direct attacks on U.S. soil. While ISIS propaganda and recruitment efforts online include practical tips for carrying out attacks, direct and personal guidance often leads to better execution.
To date, there’s been only one attack in the U.S. which ISIS not only claimed responsibility for, but that law enforcement also identified a possible link; the May 2015 shooting at a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas. Elton Simpson, one of the Garland shooters, appears to have been in contact with Junaid Hussein, a well-known ISIS operative who was believed to be communicating with a number of U.S. contacts. Hussein was killed in Syria in a U.S. airstrike in August 2015.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for a number of other attacks in the U.S., saying they were executed by “soldiers of the Caliphate,” but in those cases, U.S. law enforcement agencies have not found concrete evidence that the attackers were actually in contact with ISIS operatives abroad. For example:
- On November 28, 2016, Abdul Razak Ali Artan injured 11 individuals when he drove a car into group of pedestrians at Ohio State University and attacked the group with a knife. ISIS claimed the attack on November 29 with a message on social media stating that Artan was a “soldier of the Islamic State.” Although Artan wrote a Facebook message referencing ISIS in advance of the attack, law enforcement found no direct connection between the terror group and Artan. It was deemed a lone wolf attack, and on June 1st 2017, investigators revealed that Artan had left a note for his parents pledging allegiance to ISIS.
- Dahir A. Adan, a 20-year-old who was born in Kenya and raised in the U.S., stabbed nine people at a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, on September 17, 2016. Just as security officials announced that they would investigate the attack as an act of terrorism, the ISIS news agency “Amaq” reported that the attacker was a “soldier of the Islamic State.”
- After Omar Mateen’s June 2016 attack on an Orlando nightclub, ISIS claimed that Mateen was a “soldier of the Caliphate,” but the CIA later stated that it has not found any link between the attacker and ISIS.
- Following the San Bernardino shootings, ISIS claimed responsibility through its news bulletin “Al-Bayan,” but stated the attackers were “supporters of the Islamic State,” suggesting that there may not have been any direct operational links.
In other attacks in the U.S., ISIS attempted to draw a connection between their propaganda and the violence. For example:
- In the fifth edition of Dabiq, ISIS online magazine, which was published in November 2014, ISIS claimed that Zale Thompson’s attack in New York in which he attacked four policemen using a hatchet in October 2014, was a “direct result of the Sheikh Adnani’s call to action.”
- In September, 2014, when Alton Nolen beheaded his former work colleague and attacked another in Oklahoma, ISIS claimed credit and boasted that ISIS propaganda had moved Nolen to action.
ISIS also referred to some lone attackers in the U.S. in their online publications as “Islamic State Knights” or carriers of the (Islamic State) banner:
- Ussama Rahim planned with other accomplices to behead Boston-area police officers in June 2015. Rahim was referred by ISIS as an “Islamic State Knight” in issue 13 of Dabiq which was published in January 2016.
- Faisal Mohammad, a university student, stabbed four people at the University of California, Merced, in November 2015. In issue 12 of Dabiq, which was published in November 2015, ISIS wrote that Mohammad “carried the banner and his dagger to spear the crusaders of America.”
Given ISIS’s mixed record in claiming direct responsibility for attacks in the U.S., the fact that ISIS referred to the Las Vegas attacker as one of its “soldiers” may indicate some operational connection. But it is equally possible that no actual links exist between ISIS, and Stephen Paddock, as no evidence has been revealed thus far indicating a direct link.