If ISIS Was Behind Las Vegas Shooting, There’s a Terrifying Reason It Won’t Prove It Yet

Authorities continue to doubt that the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was behind last week’s massacre in Las Vegas, despite the jihadis’ persistent claims the shooter acted on their behalf. According to one leading expert’s analysis, however, the conflicting narratives might be playing straight into ISIS’s hands.

Despite digging deep into Stephen Paddock’s background, investigators have struggled to understand what drove the 64-year-old man, who described himself as a “professional gambler,” to slaughter 58 people and injure hundreds more when he opened fire from his 32nd-floor hotel room on crowds attending a country music concert in Las Vegas. Nothing so far has reportedly led them to believe ISIS’s claim that Paddock converted to Islam and acted as “a soldier” of the group’s self-styled caliphate, leaving observers wondering why the global militant group would risk making such an outlandish, intentionally false allegation.

Related: ISIS: Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock became Muslim six months before massacre

The answer could lie in a larger plot to exploit the U.S.’s already eroding trust in its leadership.

“If Islamic State did indeed cultivate Paddock, as it has claimed was the case, the group surely has some evidence of its engagements with him. If it does, it may be the case the group is waiting on FBI and other agencies to dismiss its claim of responsibility for the Las Vegas attack before posting contradictory evidence online for the world to see,” terrorism analyst Michael S. Smith II tells Newsweek.

“Islamic State has been very focused on undermining confidence among civilians in the West that their technologically superior governments are competent managers of our collective security,” he adds.

RTS1EQSQ People run outside the Mandalay Bay Hotel after a gunman opened fire on attendees of the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, on October 1. Assailant Stephen Paddock shot himself before police stormed his hotel room, leaving authorities to question why he committed the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. TWITTER/@MORGANDBAMBI via REUTERS

Smith, who co-founded Kronos Advisory and regularly counsels federal lawmakers on security issues, said not only would this be a blow to the intelligence community’s efforts to prevent the jihadis from launching deadly attacks in the West, but it would also bolster the embattled group’s appeal at a time when it’s quickly losing ground in Iraq and Syria.

Despite its territorial losses, ISIS has managed to maintain its public image through a sophisticated network of supporters spreading information on various outlets affiliated with the group. One of its most prominent news agencies, Amaq, shocked experts by taking credit for Paddock’s rampage last week, despite no clear indications that the gunman was affiliated with the group nor that he was even remotely religious, much less an ultraconservative Muslim.

Shortly after the attack, the only image available of Paddock featured him beside a woman and holding what appeared to be shot of liquor, something forbidden in Islam. An alternative image of Paddock shows him with his brother, who said he was “completely dumbfounded” by the bloodshed.

ISIS, which went so far as to dub Paddock “Abu Abdul Barr al-Amriki,” doubled down on its claims on Thursday by dedicating an infographic in its weekly digital magazine al-Naba to the killings. The image mostly repeated details of the attack already published by the media, but specified that Paddock had “converted to Islam six months ago.

While Las Vegas’ Sheriff Joe Lombardo told reporters Monday that police “have no intelligence or evidence the suspect was linked to any terrorist groups or radical ideologies,” Smith warns that ISIS’s proven ability to avoid detection helps it send potential recruits a clear message: “Intelligence agencies in the West are not actually omniscient.”

RTS1EZEB Stephen Paddock, 64, the gunman who attacked the Route 91 Harvest music festival in a mass shooting in Las Vegas, is seen in an undated social media photo obtained by Reuters on October 3, 2017. Investigations into Paddock’s background have revealed he was a frequent gambler whose father was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, but no apparent connections to any radical ideology. Social media/Handout via REUTERS

The reality of this message has been demonstrated more than once before, with deadly consequences. Months prior to the series of ISIS-orchestrated gun and bomb attacks that killed 130 people in November 2015 in Paris, the 27-year-old “mastermind,” Abdelhamid Abaaoud, bragged about evading arrest, despite traveling as a known affiliate of the group, during an interview with ISIS magazine Dabiq.

Before August’s dual van-ramming and stabbing attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, Spain, that killed 16, the CIA had reportedly warned Spanish authorities of an ISIS-related threat specifically on Barcelona’s popular Las Ramblas, where 15 people were killed. Elsewhere in Europe, Moroccan-born Youssef Zaghba, one of the men behind June’s deadly vehicular ramming and stabbing attacks that killed 8 people in London, told authorities, “I’m going to be a terrorist” after being stopped in an Italian airport.

Failures such as these, coupled with a “near historic low” level of trust in government among U.S. citizens, have been at least partially responsible for the climate of fear and mistrust that have caused anti-government, often far-right-leaning conspiracies to dwell. One such theory, advanced by radio show host Alex Jones of pizzagate” shooting fame, claims Paddock was driven to kill by the left-wing movement Antifa. Despite authorities’ assertion that there was no ISIS element involved in the attacks, President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday he had “no idea” if ISIS played a role.

RTX3HC42 A map shows areas of control in Syria between August 30 and September 14. The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) once claimed nearly half of Iraq and Syria at its height in 2014, but it has been mostly defeated in Iraq and is currently struggling against separate campaigns by the Russia and Iran-backed Syrian military and the U.S.-backed, mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria. Institute for the Study of War/Reuters

While a number of analysts have tied ISIS attacks in the West to the group’s recent setbacks in the Middle East, Smith argues that striking targets in the West has always been a core tenet of the group, which evolved from a merger of jihadi groups that included Al-Qaeda in Iraq. In fact, Smith says ISIS claims to be the heir of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who long championed attacks in the West, despite not claiming responsibility for the September 11 attacks until more than three years later.

Smith says that, in order to compete with the existing Al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadi groups not aligned to ISIS, the group will likely continue to devote its resources to planning attacks around the world. The group’s decision to release what is alleged to be a recent recording of its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is further evidence that the jihadis plan to remain on the offensive for as long as they can.

“Whether the work of an Islamic State member trained in Syria, or an aspirant jihadi who has never visited the ‘caliphate’ and pledges his or her loyalty to Baghdadi via tweet, attacks in the West make the group look far more competent and dedicated to the cause of punishing so-called disbelievers in the West than Al-Qaeda under its current leadership,” Smith tells Newsweek.

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