US President Barack Obama is calling the slaughter at a gay nightclub in Orlando an “act of terror and hate”. According to a militant-affiliated news agency, Islamic State claims the attack was carried out by “one of its fighters”.
Much remains unclear about the attack, the deadliest on US soil since 9/11. But the threat is different to that of 15 years ago, and talk of labels misses the point.
In the short term, the attention of the media and of law enforcement will be on the perpetrator, 29-year-old Omar Mateen. An FBI spokesperson said Mateen had “leanings” towards radical Islam, although it is unclear what that means.
Recent militant attacks within the US have been homegrown, sometimes inspired by groups and events overseas, but with little direct connection to them. That contrasts with the recent attacks in Europe. While most of the attackers in Paris and Brussels were from Europe, some of the leaders travelled from areas controlled by Islamic State.
The Orlando shooting is sparking calls from some Republicans — including presidential candidate, Donald Trump — for the United States to step up its military campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria. Stopping such outrages on US soil, however, may be as much about gun control, policing, and mental health services.
Mateen was killed, making it more difficult to determine his motives. Investigators will want to know whether or not he was directly in touch with militant groups — most likely IS, potentially al-Qaeda — and whether he is part of a wider network that may strike again.
Los Angeles police say their arrest of a heavily armed man, on his way to a gay pride parade in West Hollywood, appears unrelated to the Orlando attack. A possible scenario may be that Mateen was inspired by other militant groups, but not directly link ed to them. That seems to have been true of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who killed 15 in an attack on a local government health office, in California’s San Bernardino, in December last year.
Islamic State encourages supporters around the world to launch their own actions — and then is happy to claim credit afterward. That appears to have been the case in San Bernardino; the group used similar language in relation to Orlando on Sunday.
Partly because today’s technology has made possible a much greater level of surveillance, it has become harder to coordinate complex militant actions across borders.
Instead, law enforcement agencies have become more concerned about the risk of so-called lone-wolf attackers, who are less likely to come to the attention of intelligence agencies. When more than one person is involved — as in San Bernardino or the 2013 Boston Marathon attack — the attackers are often so close to each other that they do not need to plot by using electronic or telephonic channels. (The Boston attackers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were brothers.)
A more direct connection to militancy is possible, but is frequently tangential. US Army Major Nidam Hasan, who killed 13 people and injured 30 others in a 2009 attack at the Fort Hood military base, was found to have been in direct communication with Yemeni-based imam, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Awlaki was also linked to other attempted jihadist attacks on the West, such as the 2009 attempt by Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to blow up a transatlantic airline on Christmas Day. He had explosives in his underwear. The Boston bombers had watched online videos of Awlaki’s sermons.
The Obama administration killed Awlaki in a drone strike in 2011. His correspondence with Fort Hood shooter Hasan, however, was general and not related directly to the attack, which has never been officially classified as ‘terrorist’, despite calls by some of the families of the victims.
Both San Bernardino and Orlando fit within a much broader series of outrages: the string of mass shootings that have become tragically commonplace in the US.
Before Orlando, the bloodiest shooting in US history was the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech university, when 32 people died. But according to the website, Mass Shooting Tracker, in 2015 there were 372 mass shootings in the US, which killed 475 people and wounding 1,870 ( a ‘mass shooting’ is any incident that kills or injures four or more people.)
Disconnecting San Bernardino and Florida from this epidemic of gun violence seems a mistake. Whatever Mateen’s motivation, the death toll probably would have been lower had he not had access to an automatic weapon.
At the beginning of this month, Obama talked of White House meetings that discussed potential Islamic State supporters within the US. Such individuals could be prohibited from flying on commercial aviation, he said, but not from legally purchasing firearms.
The tide of argument may turn, but, equally, this weekend’s deaths may just drive more Americans to want guns for self-protection. Orlando will further increase pressure on the US to commit itself more deeply to fighting Islamic State, an entirely different struggle.
For now, the signs are not good that these kinds of attacks can be stopped in the future.