After Orlando: Lone Attackers and ISIS Propaganda
17 Jun 2016
ISIS was quick to claim responsibility for the 49 people massacred in an LGBT nightclub. But reports about the gunman show how lone attackers can undermine ISIS' propaganda efforts.
After the mass shooting attack at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, ended last Sunday, law enforcement officials said that the shooter, Omar Mateen, had called the police once the attacks began and stated his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Mateen had also posted his pledge of allegiance on his own Facebook page, stating "I pledge my alliance to [Islamic State leader] abu bakr al Baghdadi .. may Allah accept me." While Mateen acted on his own, his pledge immediately connected the mass shooting, which killed 49 people, to ISIS. The group, in turn, was quick to claim responsibility for the attack.
The Orlando shooting is the latest attack perpetrated by individuals acting alone, who are inspired by the ISIS brand but are not part of its formal network. In Mateen's case, his actions follow a statement in May by ISIS' spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who called on ISIS supporters to make Ramadan "a month of suffering for the kuffar [unbelievers] everywhere; and we specifically direct this to soldiers and supports of the Khilafah [caliphate] in Europe and America."
Al-Adnani placed strategic value on lone attacks in the West, stating that "the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here; it is more effective for us and more harmful to them." Adnani's call underscores ISIS' strategy of inspiring attacks around the world by supporters of the organisation, and afterwards claiming responsibility for them.
Such individual attacks in the West, committed by ISIS supporters rather than trained fighters, are usually a low-cost and high-gain strategy for the group. Requiring no lengthy planning, logistics or training on its part (unlike the much more deadly Paris and Brussels attacks, which were directed by ISIS leadership in Syria and Iraq and were executed by a Belgian ISIS network), each attack in the United States or Europe immediately brings ISIS back to the headlines and draws global attention to its cause. Following this logic, shortly after the Orlando shooting ISIS claimed responsibility. It stated via its official news agency that the attack "was carried out by an Islamic State fighter." Later an ISIS radio broadcast claimed Mateen was "one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America."
Although ISIS was all too happy to claim responsibility for the attack, Mateen's background highlights the fact that unaffiliated lone attackers do not always align with the group's aims. ISIS fighters, often described in its propaganda as "knights of the caliphate," are supposed to be the embodiment of Salafi-jihadi values. Fighters are described as those who strive to implement tawhid (pure monotheism) and engage in "jihad to raise high the word of Allah." ISIS is virulently homophobic, violently repressing homosexuals in the territories it controls. However, according to acquaintances, Omar Mateen was homosexual, using gay dating apps and frequenting LGBT bars. If he had been living in ISIS-controlled Iraq or Syria, he would likely have been brutally persecuted.
The Orlando shooting illustrates the advantage and the danger to ISIS of its strategy of inspiring lone terror attacks. While its propaganda machine continues to inspire individuals across the globe to carry out attacks in its name, such individuals are often dramatically different from the way in which they are portrayed in ISIS' propaganda. For a group that bases its religious legitimacy on its own version of Islamic purity and a total war against "unbelief" and deviant behavior, such cases can undermine, rather than strengthen, its propaganda efforts.