The claim on social media Sunday had a familiar ring: The man who stabbed nine people in a St. Cloud mall on Saturday was “a soldier of the Islamic State.”
His attack, the message continued, was an “operation in response to calls to target the citizens of the crusader coalition.”
The Amaq News Agency, media wing of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has used nearly identical language in taking credit for at least a half-dozen other attacks in Western countries in recent months, analysts say. If confirmed, the episode also marks a new chapter in ISIL’s link to Minnesota.
ISIL’s claim, a little more than 12 hours after Dahir A. Adan, 22, carried out his attack, mirrors the group’s response to killings in San Bernardino late last year and a more recent spate of terrorism in Europe, according to counterterrorism analyst Thomas Joscelyn.
“When they claim responsibility for an attack in the West there’s usually something more to it,” said Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A firm link to the terror organization — such as a prerecorded pledge to ISIL’s leader sent to the group or posted online — is still being sought by authorities. FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard Thornton told reporters Sunday that while the stabbings were being investigated as a “potential act of terrorism,” the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force still needs to comb evidence such as Adan’s social media history and his contacts. Authorities have not publicly identified Adan.
“We’re trying to peel back the onion to figure out what motivated this individual to do what he did last night,” Thornton said.
What that might be is still unknown: The San Bernardino shooters pledged allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a Facebook post. Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, made his pledge over the phone to police while holed up in the nightclub.
Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest ongoing terrorism recruitment investigation, with 11 Somali-Minnesotans charged since late 2014 in an alleged plot to travel to Syria and join ISIL. Two were charged in absentia after they left the country — among at least five young Minnesotans federal officials say successfully joined the group. Six others pleaded guilty and three were convicted in a high-profile May trial.
The cases, which followed the departures of several dozen men and women to join the terror group Al-Shabab in Somalia years prior, led the U.S. Department of Justice to select Minneapolis as one of three federal pilot cities for a project to counter radical recruitment.
Before Saturday, the focus has been on Minnesotans trying to leave the country, not attack civilians here. In a secretly recorded conversation that was played during his May trial, Guled Omar told an FBI informant that he resisted a call from a co-defendant who made it to Syria urging him to attack military personnel in Minnesota. The U.S., Omar told him, was not a battlefield.
But losses of territory abroad have led the group in recent months to call for supporters to stay at home and carry out attacks there. Before his August death, ISIL’s longtime spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on supporters to carry out attacks in countries targeting the group’s territory in Iraq and Syria. Joscelyn said Adnani actually complained to followers in the West that they were not going out of their way to kill civilians.
“They’ve also lowered the bar for what they consider a successful attack,” Joscelyn said. “They’ve been advocating people lashing out whatever way they can: Pick up a knife, a machete or drive a car into them. Do whatever they can to cause havoc. As long as it creates terror and generates headlines it’s a success for them.”
Federal officials in Minnesota still say they are targeting so-called traveler cases because of terror groups’ history of success convincing Minnesotan to go abroad. In an interview with the Star Tribune late last month, Thornton called such cases “still a possible-to-probable outcome of someone becoming radicalized [by] ISIL,” though no longer an exclusive possibility.
“I think at one time there was a focus on the caliphate to the exception of almost everything else, and as we have seen many places around the world there is obviously becoming an emphasis on attacks either where you are or somewhere outside of Syria, Iraq, the territory that they hold,” Thornton said.
FBI Director James Comey, in a June visit to Minneapolis, said the number of Americans seeking to travel to join ISIL dropped from roughly 10 per month in summer 2015 to about two this year. However, the FBI has not seen a drop in the number of ISIL-related investigations it’s opening, Comey said, with roughly 1,000 open in all 50 states.
“A more disturbing possibility is people are starting to stay home because they know we might catch them if they travel and they’re looking to do things on behalf of the Islamic State at home,” Comey said.
Analysts and investigators will now be looking for any follow-up reports from Amaq to see if ISIL will produce evidence that Adan pledged allegiance to ISIL, confirmation that he was persuaded by what Joscelyn calls a “big marketing push” by the group.
“This is sort of a new test case for us,” Joscelyn said.