Has ISIS Learned to Weaponize America's Homegrown Spree Killers?
Or was Omar Mateen just a very scary, successful murderer? Or both?
Image via Mateen's Myspace page
Since the second the breathless rumors emerged that a horrific shooting was taking place at an Orlando nightclub this past Sunday—what would become the worst spree killing in US history—the public has been trying to figure out what would motivate someone to do it. The shooter, Omar Mateen, voiced homophobic and jihadist loyalties, making his ideology harder to pin down than the usual ISIS terrorist or American spree killer.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump almost immediately blamed immigration for enabling the carnage, but Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University School of Law, begs to differ. Chishti pointed out that Mateen's militancy appears tied to the very things that have motivated many American mass shooters over the years: "He had mental illness, easy access to weapons, and easy access to rabid ideology on the internet," Chishti told VICE.
Like San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, Mateen was born and raised in the US, where mass shootings are a deep-seated part of the culture. Whether intentionally or not, no fewer than two of America's homegrown, gun-toting spree killers have turned out be a useful weapon for ISIS, and ISIS has embraced the shooters as heroes (although the gay rumors about Mateen could change that).
ISIS has already called for this Ramadan to be a "month of hurt" in the West—a time in which ISIS supporters worldwide should feel free to kill pretty much anyone for the glory of the caliphate. "This is a strategy that the Islamic State and groups like al Qaeda have been promoting for quite some time now," said Fred Burton, vice president for intelligence at the Austin-based military intelligence firm Stratfor.
Like the San Bernardino shooting in December, the horror in Orlando lacked any direct involvement from ISIS. Yet employing America's widely available firearms to rain indiscriminate death on soft targets is the same exact strategy employed by non-ISIS affiliated American mass shooters like James Holmes and Dylann Roof.
ISIS has many enemies, but to some extent prioritizes Americans as victims, and favors guns and explosives as weapons. Monday's horrific stabbing murder of two people by an ISIS-sympathizer is a good reminder that France is high on ISIS's enemies list as well. But attacks where guns are available are preferable, according to ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who wrote in 2014, "If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him."
According to Mubin Shaikh, a former undercover operative for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, convincing brand new ISIS members to hop on a plane and go fight for the caliphate is "the ideal end result" for ISIS proselytizers, Shaikh told VICE. But recruitment messages also come with a second option, in case something's holding a new jihadi back. According to Shaikh, that second option is, "find a target and act in place."
Adnani has explained what it means to "act in place," according to a translation of one of his speeches by Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times. "We have heard from some of you that you are unable to do your work," al-Adnani said, adding that "in the heartland of the Crusaders, there's no protection for that blood, and there is no presence of what we call innocents."
"It's brilliant in its simplicity," said Burton. Burton explained that from ISIS's perspective, through propaganda alone, you can activate a killer like Mateen to "kill a lot of people in a short time," without leaving a physical or digital paper trail. "If you and I are plotting an attack," Burton said, "we'd be talking on cellphones, and we might make in person meetings." That would leave us vulnerable to infiltration and wiretapping, he explained, and that's what makes the plan-it-yourself attack method so powerful.
Having worked undercover to infiltrate the ISIS recruitment process, Shaikh contrasted the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks with what he calls "specific recruiting." Specific recruiting is a much more dangerous process for the recruiter, in which select individuals are groomed—either in person or online—for a particular terrorist action—including blowing something up, hacking something, or just running off to Iraq or Syria. "A number of those plots have been interdicted, and a lot of the guys who were trying to do that are dead by drones," Shaikh said.
The alternative strategy at work here, Shaikh said, is simply "casting your net wide—inundating the public space with as much propaganda as possible." And it seems to be working.
But according to researcher Charlie Winter of Georgia State University's Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, egging on violent individuals is far from the newest move in the terrorist playbook. In fact, al Qaeda has its own English language magazine called Inspire for just that reason. Inspire has praised spree killers like Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan, even if Hassan's possible terrorist loyalties are not exactly as clear-cut as those of Mateen.
But according to Winter, "the Islamic State is more successful in its attempts to inspire people" than al Qaeda. That's because, he explained, ISIS has gone out of its way to make itself the single most recognizable brand in the terrorism world. Mass shooters want to be associated with the Islamic State, exactly because the association will amplify the shockwaves set off by their killings. "They know they're joining a bigger, badder, team of terrorists," Winter said.
ISIS propaganda isn't created solely for American viewers like Mateen, but it is designed "specifically to engender a physical reaction," according to Shaikh. Viewers in countries like Syria can react to an ISIS video by joining the nearest sectarian group, he said, since he or she probably knows a place in town where people can sign up. In the US, however, that immediate reaction can mean venturing to the nearest gun store. "If you're full of testosterone, and pissed off at the world, and you want to do something about it, that will hype you up," Shaikh said.
"Once they see the response," Shaikh said, "[one of] panic, hate, and division, recruiters and the people they're recruiting know that their particular act will achieve similar objectives."
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