Is­lamic State group quick to claim global at­tacks as it fights to sur­vive

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NATION & WORLD -

BEIRUT— 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 Is­lamic State 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, the Is­lamic State 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 Is­lamic State 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 alAm­riki,” had con­verted to Is­lam three years ago.

The group has a his­tory of ex­ag­ger­ated, un­sub- stan­ti­ated 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 re­cently that killed two women in Mar­seille, France, but French author­i­ties say they have found no link be­tween the at­tacker and the Is­lamic State.

From Or­lando, Fla., to Manch­ester and Lon­don in Bri­tain, 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 the ex­trem­ist group.

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, Is­lamic State leader Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi re­leased an au­dio mes­sage re­cently, 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.

2014, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants, seen on a com­man­deered Iraqi mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle in Fal­lu­jah, Iraq, have seen their self­pro­claimed caliphate wither in three years.

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