Omar Mateen opened fire on a crowded LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida during the early-morning hours of Sunday, June 12. He killed 49 individuals and wounded 53 more—many of whom were and are members of the LGBTQ and Latin communities. The result was the worst, most lethal mass shooting in United States history. The death toll and conscientious targeting of gay patrons of Pulse nightclub make this mass shooting unique in and of itself.
However, its perpetrator, based on research conducted by New America’s International Security program, fits the “mold” for what we know about many who commit acts of terror inspired by ISIS. He was, at least on the outside, a 29 year old average American citizen. He had a wife, a young child, employment, and some college-level education. But he also had deep reservoirs of anger, resentment, and insecurity. He was abusive toward his first wife. He had expressed extremist sentiments to coworkers. His father spoke of comments his son made to him that reflected homophobic sentiments. He was twice investigated (though the investigations did not proceed past preliminary stages) by the FBI based on potential connections to al-Qaeda and his association with Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who at one time shared a Fort Pierce, Florida mosque with Mateen before traveling to Syria to join the Nusra Front – al Qaeda’s country affiliate – and killed himself as suicide bomber. On a call with a 911 operator, Mateen pledged allegiance to so-called leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (in addition to proclaiming solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombers and Abusalha). The man was troubled. He sought to resolve his troubles by inflicting unimaginable pain and suffering on innocent individuals celebrating in a space that was meant to be safe from hate and violence, much less terror. But it was not, and a community and country alike were left to ask the question that has no answer: why?.
New America’s Peter Bergen, David Sterman and Alyssa Sims recently held a discussion to provide background on homegrown extremism in the United States, offer clarity on how to define what kind of attack this really was, and delve deeper into what the future will look like both at home and abroad with or without ISIS.
New America’s International Security program has studied the cases of more than 300 Americans who can be classified as homegrown extremists and found that there are essentially four pillars under which their actions can be explained or understood: radicalized interpretations of the Muslim faith; general objection to American foreign policy (especially in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East); a desire to belong or submit to something bigger than one’s self; and the need to fulfill a deeply distorted sense of personal glory. As Peter Bergen recently wrote in The New York Times, Major Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009, and David Coleman Headley, a key conspirator in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed over 160 people, committed their acts in lockstep—Nidal Hasan’s strong objection of American foreign policy and Headley’s perverted pursuit of fame—with these pillars.
But the Orlando attack cannot be studied through one lens. This was an act of terror, and Mateen’s pledged allegiance to the ISIS leader forces the U.S. government and counterterrorism officials to figure out how to better arrest ISIS’s influence in the United States and prevent future ISIS-inspired “lone-wolf” attacks. But so, too, do the killer’s use of a semiautomatic weapon (the same type of gun used in attacks in San Bernardino, and Aurora, and Newtown) and his ability to legally purchase one (and a handgun) after being investigated by the FBI for terror-related reasons raises questions about gun control and access to powerful firearms often used in war. And the killer’s targeting of the LGBTQ community should force every American and policy maker to ask ourselves and one another if we’re doing all we can to protect members of our country and our communities who, for large parts of our history, have been discriminated against and targeted with violence (one that, as Sims pointed out at the event, might be hesitant to increased surveillance in the name of the fight against terrorism). It is also, given that the current electoral climate, a political issue. Bergen and Sterman both pointed out that, contrary to the claims of some, this is not an issue that can be solved as an immigration ban, given that the perpetrator was an American citizen, while Sims shifted the paradigm by noting that many of the victims could have easily been immigrants. And to study and work on one of these issues and disregard or over-emphasize one over another will lead to unsatisfactory and hollow answers. There is no single answer or explanation to this attack. Future preparations and preventative measures will only be effective if this attack is investigated and looked at from all possible viewpoints. As Sims pointed out, the attack was indeed an act of terror, but to only investigate it as such and not also treat it as a hate crime would ignore the killer’s malicious intent to target gays.
There are no easy answers. There are only the right questions.