We know what the recent terrorist attack in Orlando was not.
Forty-nine people were killed and fifty-three wounded not due to the violent outburst of a right-wing zealot. The shooter, Omar Mateen, was a second-generation Afghan-American, a registered Democrat, and a fierce critic of American politics and culture.
Nor were the killings caused by easy access to “assault weapons.” The vast majority of American terrorist casualties have not involved firearms. Box-cutters and planes, not rifles, led to the 9/11 attacks and some 3,000 deaths. The two Tsarnaev brothers used explosives to kill and maim during the Boston Marathon, a tactic that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab also tried in his attempt to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight. The Oklahoma beheader and the UC Merced attacker Faisal Mohammad preferred knives to guns, as did the recent Paris terrorist who knifed to death a French law enforcement couple.
Certainly, Europe’s strict firearms laws have no more discouraged lethal terrorism than has Chicago’s draconian gun control policy reduced the epidemic of lethal inner-city shootings. Omar Mateen purchased his weapons legally—although one gun shop owner refused to sell him firearms and body armor, and contacted authorities afterward, but they did not follow up.
Nor was the shooter nursed on endemic, homegrown homophobia. Mateen was himself reportedly a periodic guest at the gay club where his attack occurred, The Pulse. After two failed marriages, he allegedly explored gay social media sites. It was far more likely that Mateen could not square the circle of standard Koranic taboos about overt homosexual behavior and the tolerant and enlightened attitude toward gays that characterizes American society. That disconnect may have enraged Mateen, as it has other homophobic Islamist killers, such as those in the 2014 Fort Bolivar, Texas and Seattle, Washington killings. Bigotry indeed may have played a role, but it was largely derived from Mateen imbuing anti-gay Islamic doctrine, angst over his own sexual proclivities, or general repugnance at the tolerance of American society as expressed at The Pulse.
Indeed, pace President Obama, the Orlando massacre was hardly representative of any particular strain of homegrown American pathology. In his three-hour shooting rampage, Mateen instead invoked Islam in a variety of ways—shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he mowed down the innocent, calling 911 to go on record about how his rampage reflected the ISIS agenda, and phoning various friends and acquaintances in mediis rebus to brag about his sick martyrdom. ISIS logically claimed Mateen as a heroic terrorist disciple.
What then were the highways that led to Orlando?
The killer was a self-declared radical Islamist. Terrorists who are not directly dispatched from the Middle East (as were the 9/11 killers) are “lone wolves” who emerge from the shadows, channel Islamist extremism, and are almost impossible to preempt. But that is only a half truth.
In the twenty-first century, radical Islamists like Mateen can turn to technology to come into contact with fellow adherents, like members of ISIS, who can advise them on how to conduct killing sprees almost as easily as if they were trained in the Middle East. A more accurate term might be “dispersed wolves,” given that the Hasans, Tsarnaevs, Farooks, and Mateens of the world are hardly alone, but often are in daily contact with radical Islamic affiliates. Their extremism is by design shielded by the constitutional protections of American and European residence and citizenship.
Yet for largely ideological and political reasons, such Islamist affiliations to terrorism have been often ignored since 2009. A number of Obama administration officials, past and present—including John Brennan (current CIA Director), James Clapper (former Director of National Intelligence), Hillary Clinton (former Secretary of State), and Janet Napolitano (former Secretary of Homeland Security)—as well as Barack Obama, have refused to focus on the Islamist roots of radical terrorism. Yet there is little evidence that their use of vacuous euphemisms—that the Muslim Brotherhood was “largely secular,” terrorism is “violent extremism,” jihad a “legitimate tenet” of Islam, terrorism a “man-caused disaster,” and counter-terrorism a mere “overseas contingency operation”—has mitigated Islamic terrorism or won America newfound respect for its deference. In the most recent Orlando attack, the administration, in 1984 style, edited out from the released transcripts of Mateen’s calls to 911 all his references to his self-declared affiliations with radical Islam and ISIS—at least until popular outrage prompted the government’s belated full disclosure.
To what end? The terrorists have grown emboldened, in the way the Mafia might have been had previous administrations in the 1960s and 1970s dubbed their violent killings mere “violent extremism,” fearing to utter “Mafia” out of deference to the Italian-American community.
A second road to Orlando was politically correct laxity on the part of local, state, and federal authorities. Mateen on at least two occasions had been under FBI surveillance. His employer was notified by a fellow worker that Mateen was both violent and driven by Islamic-inspired hatred. A Florida gun store notified a local FBI office that Mateen was a suspicious potential buyer of firearms and body armor—information that led to nothing.
In all of these instances, either institutionalized politically correct restrictions on preemptive investigations of radical Islamists or ad hoc private concerns that vigilance could earn the informants odium, probably precluded full inquiries. Federal authorities were tipped off by Russian intelligence agencies to watch carefully over the entire Tsarnaev family. Major Hasan, who shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he slaughtered unarmed soldiers, was previously known to have expressed radical Islamic sympathies. And his terrorist killing was post factum dubbed by the Pentagon as “workplace violence.” The San Bernardino terrorists were seen as suspicious by neighbors, who nonetheless confessed a fear of informing authorities lest they be accused of “racial profiling.” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s own father had warned the U.S. government of his son’s radicalism—to no avail. The father of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, the Tennessee shooter, was for a time on the government’s terrorist watch list.
A third pathway is our abjectly bankrupt immigration policy. During the Obama administration, a million people have entered the U.S. from the war-torn Middle East, most without vetting—such as the Somali jihadists in Minnesota or Tashfeen Malik, the co-terrorist responsible for San Bernardino. Only one-percent of foreign nationals who overstay their visas is ever charged by federal authorities. Even more worrisome are the multiculturalism and the grievance industry that seem to encourage anti-Americanism at home and abroad. The Tsarnaevs, Major Hasan, Syed Farook, Omar Mateen, Faisal Mohammad, the UC Merced stabber, and Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez were second-generation American citizens, who expressed no sense of gratitude to the United States for offering sanctuary to their parents who fled the violence or poverty of their Islamic homelands. Instead, they steadily nursed their resentments.
Yet another road to Orlando was the post factum inability of federal authorities to hold responsible family members, spouses, partners, and neighbors for not coming forward immediately with warnings about what was going on before their eyes. The wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev with relative impunity all but bragged about her husband’s jihadist murdering. Only belatedly were the friends and family of the San Bernardino terrorist charged. The certainty that those who have prior knowledge of planned terrorist killings will be quickly charged with conspiracy would be a powerful deterrent in preventing terrorist attacks.
A final major thoroughfare to Orlando was the foreign policy of the Obama administration. From the record of the last seven years, and the explicit testimonies of presidential advisor Ben Rhodes in the New York Times and Obama himself in The Atlantic, the absence of any strategic plan to neuter radical Islam is clear. The ostracism of the Israeli government, the destruction and subsequent neglect of Libya leading to the Benghazi disasters, the faux-redlines in Syria, the unnecessary complete withdrawal from a “stable” Iraq, the shunning of the Iranian green revolutionaries, the support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the dismissal of ISIS as a “jayvee” organization, the mythography of the Cairo Speech, the serial declarations that ISIS is “not Islamic” coupled with gratuitous critiques of Christianity, the constant demonization of the prior president and the Guantanamo detention facility, the abject neglect of systematic ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Middle East, and various apology tours—these all form indelible impressions abroad, among both friends and enemies.
The United States, they have come to believe, has a soft spot for revolutionary societies over stable and traditional allies. And the other message they have gotten is that America does not really belong in the Middle East, where, prior to Obama, it supposedly played a neo-imperialist and counter-productive role. No administration official seems to grasp that destroying ISIS in the Middle East tarnishes the romantic appeal of radical Islam to Western wannabe Islamic terrorists.
There will be more ISIS-inspired attacks. The terrorists will likely conclude that the last six months of the Obama administration offer them opportunities not seen in the past and perhaps not likely to reoccur in either a Clinton or Trump administration. More disturbing, radical Islamists have studied the reactions of Westerners to particular strains of their terror. Targeting sports events, rock concerts or gay nightclubs, especially with firearms, might ensure that Western internecine blame-gaming, rather than a unified and unequivocal outrage against Islamic radicalism, is the most likely reaction. Meanwhile, conservative opponents of Obama’s efforts to radically restrict the use of firearms or to airbrush away Islamism as the chief terrorist catalyst inspire more presidential furor than do the ISIS perpetrators—a fault line known to our enemies and likely to encourage further radical Islamic aggression.
We are seeing the second wind, not the decline, of ISIS terror.