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ISIS is losing the propaganda war

Too many dubious claims mean we no longer take them seriously.

It didn’t take long for the FBI to confirm what many of us suspected — that there was no evidence the Las Vegas shooter was connected to any international terrorist group.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The self-proclaimed Islamic State was quick to claim responsibility for the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history.

densley photo
James Densley

When a gunman opened fire on concertgoers below his 32nd floor hotel room in Las Vegas, killing at least 58 and injuring almost 500, we all wanted answers. A motive for the shooting does not appear forthcoming, but an early declaration that the shooter was “a soldier of the Islamic State” was met almost immediately with contempt and disbelief.

How could a 64-year-old white guy be in cahoots with the terrorists, we asked? For a start, he’s white.

True, our initial response to the Las Vegas massacre said more about our own biases than they did the facts of the case. Some have rightly pointed out that the shooter’s designation as a “lone wolf” was symptomatic of a clear disparity between how white suspects (lone wolves) and people of color (terrorists) are described.

But there was something beyond racial stereotypes that emboldened us to push back against the Islamic State’s proclamation. The fact is, we now expect the Islamic State to take credit for the violence. We even are surprised when they don’t — as in the case of recent knife attacks in Hamburg and in Finland. And this suggests we are either numb to the routine of mass violence (entirely plausible given there is so much of it) or that the Islamic State’s PR campaign no longer relates to the public. 

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It didn’t take long for the FBI to confirm what many of us suspected — that there was no evidence the shooter was connected to any international terrorist group. At that moment, the game changed. Our suspicions about the legitimacy of the Islamic State were confirmed. 

The Islamic State is the boy who cried (lone) wolf. Too many dubious claims mean we no longer take them seriously.

In recent months, the group has taken credit for attacks in Barcelona, London, and elsewhere that they very clearly had no prior knowledge about. Even the idea that such attacks were “carried out in its name” was a stretch — an ex post facto explanation, not unlike when your boss takes credit for all your hard work.

Of course, it makes sense that the Islamic State claims responsibility for anything and everything, regardless if they do it or not. Each endorsement enhances the group’s reputation for violence.

At least that’s the theory. Violence has a property that other commodities lack. A reputation for effective violence allows the producers to save on the production of the good itself. As Thomas Hobbs said, “Reputation of power is power.” The idea that a ubiquitous Islamic State can and will attack anyone and everyone at any time should paralyze us with fear. And even if some claims are debunked, disinformation should be another win for the terrorists because it facilitates widespread panic.

Except when it doesn’t. 

Our response this month was to file the claim under fake news. Worse still for the Islamic State, we started to question whether the 46-minute speech released last week, purporting to be from leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was also false.

False claims and all too convenient timing reek of desperation. Is this a last-ditch attempt to divert attention away from the fact that ISIS was losing manpower and territory in its  self-declared “caliphate”? Much like how toddlers always act up the most before they go to sleep (“I’m not tired!”). Is this the last act up before the sleep?

Lead us not into complacency. A healthy skepticism should never compromise our safety. We must still imagine a world with ISIS to realize a world without it. But the fact remains that even for those who live outside of conventional morality, a single lie can destroy an entire career. The Islamic State is losing the propaganda war, which once was its biggest strength.

James Densley is an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and co-founder of The Violence Project, LLC. He holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford.

Densley will take part in a discussion at Hamline University at 7 p.m. tonight titled “Making Sense of the Violence in Las Vegas.” It is free and open to the public.


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