Much has been made of Daesh’s growing desperation as swathes of its so-called caliphate fall in Iraq and Syria. After losing control of the Iraqi city of Mosul in July, the jihadi group now looks set to be pushed out of its de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria over the coming days and weeks. Extremists who once pledged to die as martyrs for Daesh are reported to be surrendering en masse to US-backed security forces liberating towns and cities across the two countries, including Hawija, which was the group’s last remaining stronghold in northern Iraq before it was retaken by the Iraqi army last week.
Some analysts suggest that Daesh’s dwindling fortunes on the battlefield have prompted its propaganda unit, the Amaq news agency, to claim any global incident that resembles a terrorist attack as the extremists’ own, regardless of whether or not there is evidence that links the perpetrators to the group itself or Islamist ideology more generally. Over recent weeks, Daesh has said it was responsible for a series of incidents that local law enforcement agencies said could not be linked back to the group, including a bombing on a tube train at Parsons Green Underground station in London, and a knife attack that left two young women dead in the French city of Marseille. In both instances, police investigating the attacks said they could find no evidence to substantiate the jihadi group’s claims of responsibility. In the recent past, Daesh has also claimed a number of other attacks without offering any evidence to support its assertions, such as March’s van and knife assault on Westminster Bridge in London, and a lorry attack that left 12 people dead at a Berlin Christmas market in December last year.
More bizarrely, the jihadi group last week said it was behind this month’s Las Vegas mass shooting, during which gunman Stephen Paddock killed 58 country music fans and injured hundreds more while they attended a music festival in the centre of the city. In a string of communications, including an infographic on the atrocity in its weekly Al-Naba online magazine, Daesh claimed that Paddock had converted to Islam several months before the attack, and had acted in response to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call for Muslims to launch lone wolf assaults on western targets. In contrast to past attacks Daesh has claimed without providing evidence, Paddock did not fit the profile of the typical jihadi terrorist, being white, middle aged and a multi-millionaire. This prompted numerous security experts to immediately urge caution over the group’s claim of responsibility for the attack, particularly after the FBI said it had found nothing to link Paddock with Islamist extremism.
In the immediate aftermath of Daesh’s claim of responsibility, TIME quoted Charlie Winter, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London, as saying the group’s suggestion that Paddock had converted to Islam some months earlier was “particularly fishy”, noting that this would likely have come to light as the investigation into his background unfolded had it been genuine. Writing for the Guardian, Jason Burke told readers that Daesh had recently repeatedly claimed attacks that subsequent police probes had failed to link to the group, including a shooting in a Philippines casino in June that turned out to have been carried out by a gambler with large debts and a drinking problem. In analysis for BBC Monitoring, Mina al-Lami noted that Paddock’s reported suicide would be deemed entirely “un-Islamic”, on account of his failure to take others with him when he killed himself.
However, not all experts on Islamist terrorism were so quick to dismiss Daesh’s claim for the shooting. Taking to Twitter some days after the attack, Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter who has covered the jihadi group extensively, said its recent statements on the atrocity carried weight. Observing that Daesh has rarely claimed responsibility for attacks that were not either committed by its members or sympathisers, Callimachi told her followers that she did not buy the argument that the group is now opportunistically claiming attacks to deflect from its mounting losses on the battlefield. Separately, the SITE Intel Group said Daesh has “a lot to lose” if it is caught lying about the Las Vegas massacre. SITE Director Rita Katz wrote: “ISIS knows that respected journalists, analysts, and government officials – with necessary degrees of scepticism and caution – take its attack claims seriously. However, any definitive proof that Paddock had no connection to ISIS would be a severe fracture to how seriously the group’s statements are taken in future.”
While some of the other attacks mentioned above may not have been proven to be directly linked to Daesh, the jury is still very much out with regard to whether or not their perpetrators may have been inspired by the group. It has been suggested that Westminster attacker Khalid Masood may have been radicalised while spending time in UK jails, many of which have become fertile recruiting grounds for Islamists. He was also widely reported to have been using encrypted messaging service WhatsApp, which is popular among Daesh members, moments before launching his attack. Separately, it was reported this morning that the brother of the man who carried out the knife attack outside Marseille train station last week was probably a foreign fighter in Syria and Iraq, and may have radicalised his sibling, who has been identified as Ahmed Hannachi from Tunisia. While it may be the case that Daesh has failed to produce solid evidence that it was behind some of the recent attacks it has claimed, the law enforcement agencies investigating these atrocities have proved equally as poor at proving the jihadi group’s assertions to be false.