Hours after images of bloodied Orlando, Florida nightclub patrons flashed across screens around the world, so-called Islamic State (IS) “fanboys” seemed energized, claiming and then trumpeting the terror group’s success on social media.
Yet while the pain and suffering caused by 29-year-old shooter Omar Saddiqui Mateen will linger, there is some doubt among those in the counterterrorism business that the group’s declared victory early Sunday morning by someone they likely never even heard of will be anything more than fleeting for the self-declared caliphate.
The problem for IS, they say, is that such high-profile violence, a hallmark of the group’s rapid rise, was never really the driving factor.
“During its rapid expansion in 2014, ISIL was able to parlay battlefield success into public relations momentum and establish itself as a magnet for new recruits,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA using an acronym for the terror group.
Runners pass under the the flags flying at half-staff around the Washington Monument at daybreak in Washington, Monday, June 13, 2016. The flags were ordered to half-staff by President Barack Obama to honor the victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings.
With losses mounting in Iraq, Syria and even Libya, IS has become increasing desperate “to grab headlines and stoke fear,” the official said, all in an attempt to mask its inability to hold on to territory as a variety of forces with U.S. and coalition backing close in.
“ISIL is unable to respond,” the official added. “So it is instead lashing out.”
The tactic does not seem to be playing well with would-be recruits, who at one point were flocking to IS at the rate of 1,000 a month.
U.S. intelligence and military officials say in recent months the flow has slowed to a trickle, with no signs of speeding up.
“If the goal of Islamic State is to reverse its losses in Iraq, in Syria, to really change any of the main organization dynamics which really seem to be going south for this group, then attacks like these will be completely insignificant,” said Max Abrahms, a terrorism theorist at Northeastern University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Foreign fighters were attracted to the group because they wanted to side with a stronger force,” he said. “Had [the Orlando terror attack] happened two years ago, when Islamic State was making territorial gains, I think more foreign fighters would be inclined to join up with the group.”
“ISIL’s outlook is in fact cloudy,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I don’t think they can reverse their losses in Iraq, Syria or in Libya.”
But Gartenstein-Ross said that does not mean the terror group is any less lethal, a warning repeated constantly by intelligence officials.
“The key thing to look for, in this case particularly, is North America and whether you get other copycats acting in ISIS’s name,” he said. “If that happens you can see, perhaps, an energizing of their North American network in the United States and in Canada.”