In the wake of the worst mass shooting in US history, the search for ISIS’s role in the carnage has focused on whether the group directed or merely inspired the attack, but the terror in Orlando shows that we’re missing the point.
The truth is that ISIS is creating a new role for themselves, not as the director who maps out the plans, or even the actors who carry it out, but rather as the producers of terror who ensure that operations are a success by attracting the right cast, providing a rough draft of the script, and ensuring publicity after the fact.
Reports released by law enforcement officials and posts on ISIS-affiliated media sites make clear that the shooter, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to ISIS during the attack and that the terrorist group praised and claimed credit for his actions after the fact.
While we still don’t know if Mateen had direct contact with ISIS operatives, we must address a much more fundamental truth: An American citizen, who had not traveled to Syria or Iraq to receive training, was able to kill 49 people and wound dozens more in the name of ISIS.
Mateen had twice been investigated by the FBI, once for links to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who died in Syria as a suicide bomber for the radical group Jabhat al-Nusra, but little came from these investigations. Even if no more evidence surfaces of Mateen’s links to terror groups, that he was able to gather the necessary tactical knowledge to carry out this planned and complicated act of terror shows that inspired attacks can now be as deadly as directed ones, and that the online reach of ISIS is a true game changer.
Previous ISIS-inspired assaults, like the Boston bombers, who Mateen allegedly mentioned in his call to 911 during the Orlando attack, were able to gain the technical know-how to build their explosive device online, but failed to achieve the level of mass casualties that they were aiming for.
ISIS has found a way to change that by sharing lessons learned from its campaign of terror in Syria, Iraq, and the capitals of Europe: Pick soft targets, like nightclubs, and use materials that are legal and easy to hand. In Mateen’s case, and due to our lax gun laws, that meant an AR-15 style assault rifle that allowed him to mow down dozens in minutes.
Working within the system with easy-to-obtain materials is a key tactic that Al Qaeda advocated in its online magazine Inspire. ISIS has taken this a step further by using its own publications, including the magazine Dabiq, as not just how-to guides, but as glossy publicity broadsheets, a sort of jihadi People magazine, glorifying those who carry out terror in the name of ISIS.
Appearing on the pages of Dabiq means you have made it in the world of ISIS operatives, and these jihadi “celebrities” have often garnered top billing for carrying out high-profile operations, despite little previous contact with the group.
One month after the December 2015 San Bernardino attacks that murdered 14, killers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik appeared in the pages of Dabiq. It is almost certain that Mateen will appear in the next issue.
It may also emerge that Mateen watched ISIS videos that seek to recruit Westerners, an area in which their propagandists have excelled. If so, he was a perfect fit for the profile of previous ISIS recruits.
A male in his late 20s, with a connection to the Middle East, but who is not necessarily a traditionally devout Muslim, Mateen ticked many of the boxes that ISIS looks for. Reports from former co-workers and family members paint the picture of an individual who became increasingly withdrawn and radicalized, but maintained an outsized ego and liked to snap selfies. In other words, prime recruitment material.
ISIS offered Mateen a step-by-step blueprint for terror, from target selection to tactics, and told him that if he followed their instructions he would be a hero.
This guidance has been laid out by ISIS in online communications. “Hit everyone and everything,” wrote ISIS in a March 2015 magazine article, a commandment that the group’s operatives have followed in choosing soft targets like nightclubs, sports stadiums, and airplane terminals in Paris, Brussels, and now Orlando.
This timing as well may be no accident. ISIS posted an audio clip in late May asking its followers to schedule attacks for the holy month of Ramadan, which started on the evening of June 5. The content of the message is especially relevant in the case of Orlando.
In one chilling passage, the speaker states, “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us. If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night.”
Orlando brings up a new specter of fear for Americans. Instead of trained ISIS operatives slipping into our country to form sleeper cells, we must now confront the reality that “lone wolf” attackers are far from alone when we consider the world of training and online inspiration at their fingertips.
ISIS has found a way to bring the fight to us, and it is more crucial than ever that we find a way to effectively counter their online propaganda before they recruit others.
Robert Pape is the director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. His most recent book is “Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How To Stop It.’’