Before killing at least 49 people in a homophobic terror attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, shooter Omar Mateen called 911 to pledge his allegiance to the self-described Islamic State.
Despite this, there's no clear evidence that ISIS had any direct link in planning the killings or ordering Mateen to carry them out. The pledge, however, was enough for ISIS' news agency Amaq to say Mateen was a fighter for the terror group and claim credit for the attack.
ISIS' rapid, opportunistic response highlights how the group seeks to capitalize on self-planned attacks for propaganda victories. For years, the terror group has promoted lone-wolf terrorist acts and established a framework for accepting and later lionizing anyone who makes a public vow of allegiance before carrying out acts of violence. In a number of recent high-profile cases, ISIS' first means of communication after these attacks has been through Amaq.
The ISIS News Agency
Amaq's reports became a prominent part of ISIS communications in late 2014, during the group's fight against Kurdish forces in the Syrian city of Kobani. The outlet now functions much like a state-news agency for ISIS, the director of terrorist-tracking organization SITE Intelligence group, Rita Katz, told The WorldPost. Amaq differs itself from the group's other media wings like al Hayat or al Furqan -- which put out high production value propaganda like execution videos or the group's Dabiq magazine. Amaq instead releases brief news bulletins that sometimes provide no more information than is already publicly available.
In attacks where the militant group has no direct involvement, such as the San Bernardino shootings that killed 14 people in December, Amaq has followed a set method of issuing statements to claim ISIS responsibility. Once the agency finds that the assailant in an attack has vowed support for ISIS, Amaq typically publishes a report that pro-ISIS accounts then disseminate across social media. In turn, international media will report that ISIS has claimed responsibility even while it's still unclear if the group is directly involved in the plot.
A similar progression of ISIS taking credit for an attack happened on Monday night in the Paris suburb of Magnanville, when a man killed a police officer and his wife and then pronounced his allegiance to the terror group on a Facebook Live stream. Soon after the killing, Amaq sent out a message citing a source to the news agency that the attacker was an ISIS fighter.
Observers point out that this kind of news aggregation can suggest that ISIS isn't directing these attacks, but relying on radicalized individuals that it inspires to commit violence. This is unlike other cases such as the Paris attacks in November, when the group prepared an elaborate propaganda package of statements and videos before the killings took place.
“A directed attack would have a prepared dissemination,” Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The World Post. “They wouldn’t be trying to echo what other news sources are reporting.”
ISIS Uses Lone Wolves For Propaganda
Analysts also argue that Amaq's quick claims of responsibility allow ISIS to dominate the narrative following attacks and gain the publicity it craves. These statements can obscure the differences between attacks ISIS directs and plots as part of its external operations branch, such as in Paris, and attacks from self-radicalized individuals such as Omar Mateen.
In the case of Mateen, as with many so-called lone wolf terrorists, it appears that multiple factors contributed to his decision to commit violence, rather than a single-minded focus on ISIS ideology. He had previously voiced support for two Islamist militant groups that are at odds with ISIS -- Hezbollah and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. And the FBI is investigating claims that Mateen frequented the nightclub and was active on gay dating apps. His ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy said he was abusive and mentally unstable, while a former coworker described him as a bigot and misogynist.
In recent months, ISIS has advocated for lone wolf attacks more fervently, experts say partly because it has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria following the international military effort to degrade and destroy the group. Lacking the ability to maintain a narrative of state building and success in its self-described caliphate, the group has ramped up calls for individuals to carry out attacks in their home countries to bolster its propaganda value.
“They have to do it by default, if they’re not getting victories on the battlefield any more,” Watts says. “They don’t have a lot of other options right now.”
ISIS subsumes these self-planned attacks into its larger brand as a global terror organization and celebrates attackers in its propaganda messaging. This can make it more difficult to understand the nuances between directly planned ISIS attacks and those planned and carried out by individual actors.
Following the Orlando shooting, both presumptive presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump discussed a more aggressive air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
“It’s hard to communicate to the American public in an election year, when you’ve got this 'let's bully the other side on how they’re weak on terrorism'” Watts says.
“The whole idea that a guy shoots up a nightclub in Orlando and we're talking about increasing airstrikes in Syria is just nonsensical.”