Since the mass shooting suspect who killed 59 people and injured 500 more in Las Vegas was identified as Stephen Paddock, one question has remained stubbornly unanswered: What was Paddock’s motive? He left no note or manifesto. His visibly confounded brother described him as religiously and politically unaffiliated. His girlfriend said she, too, was caught by surprise. After days of investigation, police seem no closer to explaining why Paddock planned mass murder.
It is in that information vacuum we find the Islamic State and its befuddling claim of responsibility for the attack.
Shortly after news of Paddock’s slaughter broke, ISIS issued multiple statements labeling him a “soldier of the Islamic State” who was “targeting the crusader alliance” six months after conversion to a radical sect of Islam. Evidence for this scenario is at present nonexistent. Paddock did take a cruise to the Mideast, but he also took 11 other cruises elsewhere—and anyway, Raqqa isn’t exactly on the cruise circuit. Paddock doesn’t fit the profile of a typical ISIS recruit; ISIS hasn’t offered any hard evidence to support its claim; and thus far, U.S. law enforcement have said they do not believe this to be an incident of international terrorism.
So if ISIS is lying—and, to be clear, that has not been definitively demonstrated as of this writing—it’s worth asking why, as well as what such a lie would mean for U.S. foreign policy.
Consider first what ISIS stands to lose should it be caught falsely claiming an attack of this scale. “ISIS is extremely invested [in] projecting legitimacy as well-funded government agencies and organizations constantly work to discredit it,” writes Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group. This means, she adds, that “any definitive proof that Paddock had no connection to ISIS would be a severe fracture to how seriously the group’s statements are taken” going forward.
Those high stakes would make a verified lie all the more revealing. It would mean ISIS is, in a word, desperate. And lie or no lie, the cause of ISIS’ desperation isn’t hard to suss out. “They’re losing the caliphate … but they still want to appear strong,” explained security analyst Duncan Gardham to NBC. “They always used attacks in the West as a tactic, but it may now be their only tactic.” Indeed, ISIS has lost all access to the Syrian-Turkish border. Its territory has shrunk by 60 percent and its income by 80 percent. The siege of Mosul is over, and even holdouts in Raqqa can’t last forever. Vegas lies or no, ISIS recognizes which way the winds are blowing.
That ISIS would shift its focus from territorial conquest to more traditional tactics of terror as its power declines has long been anticipated. “It is well known that whenever there is a military victory against [the Islamic State, they] resort to this criminal, cowardly act by using car bombs or suicide bombers to kill innocent people,” Brig. Gen. Saad Maan of Iraq’s Interior Ministry said last year. Still, a lie would mean ISIS is so desperate it has resorted to claiming others’ criminality in a vain attempt to bolster its own credibility as an international threat.
For Washington, proof of such a lie would be a spot of good news in the midst of a heartrending tragedy. It would be further evidence that ISIS is losing and the United States has an opportunity to evaluate our next strategic step, to replace Washington’s flailing, intervention-focused foreign policy of the post-9/11 era with a new course of increased diplomatic engagement that might lead to outcomes beneficial to U.S. security.
Because whether ISIS is lying about Vegas or not, it is increasingly evident this group, for all its evil and brutality, does not and cannot pose an existential threat to the United States. That distinction matters, and it means ISIS’ diminishing existence cannot be permitted to stand in the way of a new direction for American foreign policy. The gravest mistake we could make at this juncture would be to miss this chance for a course correction, to fail to invest American security energies in realistic policies, diplomacy, and defense of U.S. interests, narrowly defined.
That’s true whether ISIS is lying about Paddock to disguise its own impotence or not. It’s true because Washington has spent far too long recklessly applying military solutions to far-flung political problems that are not ours to solve. It’s true because we have spent 16 years sinking U.S. taxpayer resources and sacrificing soldiers’ lives and well-being into a frustrated and often counterproductive “pattern of promiscuous intervention,” to borrow the words of military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich—a pattern that must end no matter what happened in Las Vegas.