Influencing distant attackers to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State group and then carry out mass murder has become a core part of the group’s propaganda over the past two years.
PARIS — The revelation that the man who opened fire Sunday in a gay nightclub had dedicated the killing to the Islamic State group has prompted a now all-too-familiar question: Was the killer truly acting under orders from the Islamic State group, or just seeking publicity and the group’s approval for a personal act of hate?
For the terror planners of the Islamic State group, the difference is mostly irrelevant.
Influencing distant attackers to pledge allegiance to the group and then carry out mass murder has become a core part of its propaganda over the past two years. It is a purposeful blurring of the line between operations that are planned and carried out by the group’s core fighters and those carried out by its sympathizers.
The attacker, Omar Mateen, told a 911 operator he was pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group. In the group’s nomenclature, that is called pledging “bay’ah,” and it is a central part of the group’s protocol. The Orlando killing was the third time the loyalty pledge was known to be invoked in the United States.
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In December, when a couple bound for San Bernardino, Calif., left their home armed with assault rifles, they made sure to post their oath of allegiance on Facebook, where law-enforcement agents later found it.
And just minutes before Elton Simpson opened fire at a Texas cartoon exhibit featuring images of the Prophet Muhammad in May 2015, he sent out Twitter messages making clear where his allegiances lay.
This public oath is about the only requirement the Islamic State group imposes on followers who wish to carry out acts of terror in its name. Last month, the terror group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, issued his annual, pre-Ramadan speech in which he incited the group’s supporters to carry out killings abroad during the holy month.
No attack is too small, he advised, specifically naming the United States as a target. “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us,” he said, “and more effective and more damaging to them.”
As early as September 2014, Adnani made clear that anyone and everyone could, and should, carry out acts of terror in the group’s name. “Do not ask for anyone’s permission,” he said, and suggested that sympathizers who cannot buy weapons should instead use rocks, knives or even cars to kill infidels.
Since then, the group has worked hard to create a mechanism for inciting terror in situ. They flood the internet with gory propaganda and employ an army of keyboard jihadis whose job it is to push the deadly message on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media platforms.
In this case, there was a stark resonance between the group’s propaganda and the killer’s choice of target. The jihadi group has publicized its hatred of homosexuals, including releasing images of fighters killing people just suspected of being gay by throwing them off tall buildings.
Once the recruit is caught, or killed, law-enforcement officials struggle to put the pieces back together. Yet the fact that there is often no direct link back to the core is by design and is intended to protect the organization in an age of surveillance.
“I think what the Islamic State has done is very clever, and that is create a situation where someone can carry out an attack without any direct link to the organization,” said Charlie Winter, senior research associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative. “They can pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before or during, and that catapults them from being a self-starter jihadist guy or girl to someone who can be lionized as a soldier of the Islamic State and regarded as a warrior.”
For the terror group, it is a win-win situation, and it publicly revels when it happens.
On Sunday, after it was known that Mateen had invoked the group, the group’s official news agency issued a bulletin quoting “a source” confirming that Mateen was acting on the Islamic State group’s behalf.
Jihadis erupted in celebration on the internet. They shared screenshots of Adnani’s speech calling for lone-wolf attacks during Ramadan. And in an act of tribute, several changed their profile pictures on Twitter to a photograph of the Orlando attacker.