A few of the guns Stephen Paddock used in Las Vegas shooting. Guns in the Mandalay Bay hotel room of mass shooter Stephen Paddock. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police photo)

Why ISIS is Giving Vegas Shooting the Dezinformatsiya Treatment

America has recently gotten a crash course in dezinformatsiya as the Kremlin’s active measures from social media bots to fake news tipsters have included distribution of disinformation as a critical cog in ops intended to sow chaos.

After months of repeatedly, deliberately attaching their brand to America’s worst mass shooting, it’s apparent that ISIS is dabbling in deza, too.

The morning after the Oct. 1, 2017, attack on the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, ISIS claimed through their Amaq news agency that the “Las Vegas attacker is a soldier of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting coalition countries.” A later statement on ISIS’ official Nashir channel bestowed a kunya on shooter Stephen Paddock: “Abu Abdul Barr al-Amriki.” The only photo that surfaced of Paddock showed him lifting a drink in a bar, but authorities said early on in the investigation that there was no evidence he lifted up Allah or had any other belief system.

The “soldier of the caliphate,” said the Nashir communique, “equipped with machine guns and ammunition” fired on the concert with “600 between killed and wounded until the soldier’s ammunition was finished and he became a martyr.” The ISIS-supporting al-Battar Media Foundation also claimed the Vegas shooting was all Islamic State.

A few days after the massacre, ISIS released the 100th issue of their weekly al-Naba newsletter with an infographic on a blood-soaked rendering of the Mandalay Bay hotel and a claim that Paddock had converted to Islam six months before the shooting.

“The brother Abu Abdul Barr stationed himself for the invasion on the 32nd floor of a hotel overlooking a concert, and opened fire continuously on the crowds using 23 guns and more than 2,000 rounds, and died, may Allah accept him, after exhausting his ammunition,” al-Naba stated, not paying attention to U.S. news reports that week revealing there was a lot more ammo discovered in Paddock’s hotel room. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Preliminary Investigative Report released Jan. 18 said officers found “several loaded magazines” in Paddock’s room, and the evidence report said that along with 1,050 casings littering the floor they found some 5,280 rounds of live ammunition.

In mid-October, the ISIS-supporting Ashhad Media Foundation, which earlier distributed an infographic on the Vegas attack, put out a call for social media jihadists to deluge Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. “Oh supporter, If you didn’t do anything or obligated not to fulfill the call of ‘Jihad’ against the coalition of the infidels in the battlefield, why not fulfilling the call of ‘Jihad’ in the Media field?!” stated the poster, a reboot of a summer message from the group.

Al-Naba followed up their original feature on the shooting with an update that focused on Paddock’s advantageous elevated firing position from the 32nd floor, quoting law enforcement about their inability to stop the sniper from street level. “This highlights the difficulties faced by U.S. cities to protect their own Crusader citizens from attacks that can take unpredictable forms,” the newsletter said.

When eight people were murdered in a Halloween vehicle attack on a Manhattan bike path, ISIS claimed the attack in al-Naba but didn’t mention suspect Sayfullo Saipov by name – likely an indicator of their disdain that he was arrested, considering they tell jihadists to get martyred or flee to fight another day (less than two weeks later, an al-Naba infographic told terrorists to “withdraw from the site by safe means,” and if that’s not possible “continue killing until you are killed”) – even as they did name-drop Paddock. “This is one of the most prominent attacks targeting the crusaders in the region America, the last of which was the attack of the martyr Abu Abd,” the article stated.

ISIS has included news footage from Vegas in videos, including November’s “Flames of War II: Until the Final Hour” and a December “Indie the Khilafah” film that featured an American-accented one-legged jihadist telling Western would-be terrorists to “spray the kuffar with bullets so that their fear of the Muslim rises and that they continue to reveal their hatred toward Islam.” Vegas images were included in a January video from ISIS’ official Al-Hayat Media Center using a nasheed to call on Westerners to “go answer the call, don’t spare none, kill them all, it is now time to rise, slit their throats, watch them die.”

A January propaganda image released by the ISIS-supporting Wafa’ Media Foundation warned “Las Vegas’ massacre is not far from you,” and showed crosshairs and flames positioned over the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Basically, ISIS can’t quit Vegas – even though the LVMP investigation report noted “there was no evidence of radicalization or ideology to support any theory that Paddock supported or followed any hate groups or any domestic or foreign terrorist organizations,” and “despite numerous interviews with Paddock’s family, acquaintances and gambling contacts, investigators could not link Paddock to any specific ideology.”

Why they wanted to claim Vegas as their own is no mystery: ISIS had dibs on the worst mass shooting in America’s history with the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, and the death toll in Vegas surpassed the number of lives taken by Omar Mateen. They also have undoubtedly hoped that by continually highlighting the killer’s actions and lifting him up as a jihadist martyr, some would-be terrorists would be inspired to plan an attack of similar magnitude.

They’ve produced no last testament from the shooter, such as the bridge video from Berlin Christmas market attacker Anis Amri, pledging fealty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They’ve offered zero proof that Paddock even so much as cracked the pages of a Quran or even had a passing interest in the caliphate.  But once ISIS saw the legs on the conspiracy theories surrounding Vegas – and the Americans pushing the message online that Paddock must have been a secret Muslim and a terrorist alongside theorists so tinfoiled they believe the shooting was a mass hoax and have penned death threats to survivors – they knew this was a claim they could run with indefinitely. Thus, ISIS’ greatest dezinformatsiya campaign was born.

Ben Nimmo, the information defense fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, defines dezinformatsiya as “dismiss, distort, distract and dismay.” ISIS would have Americans dismiss the official investigative findings into the Vegas shooting. ISIS’ continued inclusion of the shooting in their propaganda is distorting the crime to their benefit. ISIS stokes distraction by playing off distrust in law enforcement built up online from the early details of the massacre through a motive still being elusive. ISIS wants Americans to feel dismay at believing there can be secret Islamist terrorists playing video poker one minute and slaying concertgoers the next, and authorities will never tell the public.

What does deza do for the terror group? They build out their cyber caliphate with not just hackers but an army of social media influencers. With scraps of the physical caliphate left, ISIS sees a prime opportunity to dip their toes into the chaos-sowing operations that can yield a high return with minimal cost – the attack-less terror attack, if you will. They know fear is their greatest commodity as their operational structure and strategy evolve. They know enough people will pass around an article such as this accompanied by frustrated comments on how fellow Americans refuse to accept that Vegas was perpetrated by a high-stakes gambling secret Islamist extremist because ISIS said so over and over and over again.

After Las Vegas police released their preliminary report last month, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Va.) told Fox News he was among those who believed “nothing’s adding up” and “potential terrorist infiltration through the southern border” was connected to the mass shooting.

“Let’s face it, ISIS, twice before the attack, ISIS warned the United States that they would attack Las Vegas by, I think, in June and August, and then after the attack claimed responsibility four times,” the congressman said. “Meanwhile, the local law enforcement investigative services are telling us there is no terrorist connection, lone gunman. Again, something’s not adding up.”

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo retorted that he’d “like to see the evidence” Perry has. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R), while applauding the sheriff, tweeted, “Rep. Scott Perry’s recent comments on the Oct. 1st shooting in Las Vegas are inexcusable.” ISIS must have been impressed with their reach.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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