As a retired FBI counterterrorism agent looking back on the events of Sunday morning in Orlando, I am struck by how little America has learned about terrorism since September 11, 2001. Almost 15 years have passed since those tragic events, and yet we fail to recognize the growing threat homegrown domestic terrorism represents to us as a community and as a nation.
Despite the tens of thousands of men and women who have served in the armed forces since 9/11, the majority of Americans continue to live their lives in isolation from terror, as if the possibility of becoming a mass shooting victim belongs to someone else. Some might even pretend that the tragedy in Orlando doesn't impact them as individuals. They will view this act of mass murder as a social media aberration that only darkens their social media timelines for a short while, rather than as evidence of a wakeup call in the form of the single deadliest mass shooting in US history.
For 35 years, I carried a gun, on and off duty, both as a Los Angeles police officer and as an FBI agent. Now I voluntarily carry one because of what I perceive as the continuing threat to my family from international and domestic terrorists. That's not appropriate for every kind of citizen, though—mine is both a burden and a responsibility, because of the new nature of terrorism in the United States.
There are many Americans who might prefer to think the war on terror exists only in Iraq or Afghanistan, in Somalia and Libya, Paris or Brussels, or at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and in the Bataclan nightclub. That terrorism belongs to someone else, somewhere else. But that is no longer true, if it ever really was. The potential to become a victim of terrorism belongs to all of us, everywhere and all the time. It's time to wake up and recognize that the fight against terrorism has become a domestic shooting war, one in which almost everyone you know is a potential target.
Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.
All across the nation, federal counterterrorism agencies, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) sprang into action when word of the shootings in Orlando first reached Washington, DC. They will continue to work 24/7 until all evidence surrounding this current threat has been collected and analyzed. Based on my prior experience, I can safely say FBI field offices across the country are furiously reviewing cases, both open and closed, for any clues about a potential next Omar Mateen in their area of operations.
Director James Comey summed up the challenge facing agents Monday when he said, "We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack, but we're also called upon to figure out which pieces of hay might someday become needles."
Political terrorism has always been about hatred and intolerance. But this weekend's shooting was a particularly nasty representation of the genre because of who the targeted victims were: LGBT people at a seemingly safe space. Meanwhile, based on what we know so far, the subject in the Orlando shootings lived on the periphery of mainstream terrorist society—which is to say Mateen was clearly vocal in his support for ISIS at the time of the attack, and was at least briefly in contact with other known supporters of the group, like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria. He was investigated by the FBI, not once, but twice. At that time, Mateen had not yet crossed the line into active terrorism and sworn allegiance to ISIS or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The one thing he failed to do previously was take action on his belief system.
Mateen has been described by his ex-wife as unstable, violent, abusive, and exhibiting mental health issues. He is also described by his father, an active supporter of the Afghan Taliban, as having been "enraged after recently seeing a same-sex couple kissing in front of his family. And he was investigated when, according to former co-workers, he expressed support via inflammatory comments for radical Islamic propaganda.
With this latest terror attack, scholars will once again write about the typology of the lone wolf terrorist, but I fear they will get it wrong. As a former counterterrorism executive, I investigated so-called lone wolves for 28 years. They are all the same criminal type—the hateful type. When we allow hatred to go unopposed—all hatred, not just terror hatred, but even that coming from demagogic politicians—we allow the lone wolves of the world to nurture and grow. And then the parent of the lone wolf becomes us.
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