NEEDED: Better terrorism terminology

Omar Mateen’s driver’s license photo (Wikimedia)

The New York Times‘ generally excellent ISIS reporter, Rukmini Callimachi, has been arguing that the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, doesn’t look like a strictly “lone wolf” style attacker:

While the extent of Islamic State involvement remains an open question, what is known is that Mr. Mateen followed the established ISIS protocol for carrying out an attack in the group’s name — namely, he publicly declared his allegiance to the group, just before or during the shooting, by calling 911 and stating his affiliation.

This followed instructions issued by the Islamic State to its adherents abroad, which called for sympathizers to carry out acts of violence against so-called infidels in any manner they could, following a declaration of the oath of allegiance. The San Bernardino couple — Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik —  posted their oath of allegiance, known as bay’ah, on Facebook before they set off to commit mass murder.

Callimachi also notes, on Twitter, that the terminology ISIS’s “official” statements are using to describe Mateen are indicative of somebody with ties to the organization that run deeper than “just a fan.”

via Twitter, start here

I kind of hinted at this yesterday, though I stress that nothing I or Rukmini Callimachi or anybody else is writing about the nature of Mateen’s ties to ISIS is, at this point, anything more than informed speculation:

What we know is that this was a jihadi terrorist attack. Mateen reportedly called 911 before the shooting and pledged allegiance to ISIS, which in turn has claimed credit for the attack and referred to Mateen as “an Islamic State fighter.” Their statement regarding this attack came out more quickly than their statement about the San Bernardino shooting in December, and it differed in that it called Mateen a “fighter” but only referred to the San Bernardino shooters as “supporters.” That might not mean anything, or it might suggest that Mateen was in contact with ISIS directly in a way that Syed Farook and Tashfin Malik were not. Mateen does seem to have followed the ISIS playbook for carrying out such attacks, for whatever that’s worth. There is no evidence at this point, which is not to say something won’t be revealed later on, that ISIS directly planned this attack or provided any material aid to Mateen, though ISIS really makes no distinction between attacks it directs and attacks it merely inspires. And, really, when you can walk into a store, buy a couple of guns and some ammo, and shoot up the target of your choosing, what material aid is needed?

On the other hand, Brookings’ Daniel Byman says Mateen was in fact a lone wolf:

Initial reports indicate that Mateen is a lone wolf, inspired by a terrorist group’s ideology but not under its operational control. Recognizing the difference between “ISIS inspired” and “ISIS directed” attacks is vital. ISIS-inspired attacks are more likely to be amateurish, and indeed the jihadist record of attacks in the United States since 9/11 but prior to Orlando is thankfully poor. The horrific nightclub attack shows what a loner with the right weaponry can do, but when ISIS directs an attack, as it did in Paris in 2015, the results are likely to be even bloodier.

I think Callimachi and Byman are both right, and the reason they can both be right is that our vocabulary about terror attacks is really inadequate to describe what this attack probably was. In everyday parlance we really only talk about attacks that are “directed” and “inspired” by a particular organization and/or nation (though state-sponsored terrorism seems like a quaint relic of the 1990s these days), and while a “directed” attack–one that the organization plans, supplies, and carries out itself–is clear enough, the “inspired” category is overly broad. An “ISIS-inspired” attack could be anything from an attacker who reads ISIS propaganda online and goes out and commits an attack in the group’s name, which is something close to what most people would imagine when they hear the term “lone wolf,” to an attacker who has contact with ISIS higher ups at some level but nevertheless plans and carries out the attack on his (substitute pronouns as appropriate) own initiative.

This distinction matters in terms of law enforcement. With a true lone-wolf attacker, who may not communicate his feelings or intentions to anybody, let alone to anybody overseas, there’s almost nothing you can imagine authorities doing to stop that person before he/she at least attempts an attack barring somebody approaching them with a suspicion and/or some information. With an attacker who has more direct contact with the organization, there are possibilities in terms of intercepting those communications and maybe stopping the attack that way, though you’re still talking about finding a needle in a haystack. The distinction between “directed” and the various kinds of “inspired” attacks also may suggest something about the motives of the attackers–some are radicalized and made violent by exposure to the propaganda of radical jihadi groups, while others already tend toward violence and simply adopt that propaganda in an effort to justify their tendencies. Again, that could matter in terms of law enforcement and prevention, and it’s certainly an important consideration when envisioning a post-ISIS future; of the sorts of people who carry out attacks in ISIS’s name now, some portion of them will just find other excuses to carry out attacks if/when ISIS is gone.

So maybe, to summarize this stream of consciousness, we need at least one more category, “ISIS-guided” or something, to distinguish between true lone wolves and whatever Mateen looks to have been.

It’s important to note, though, that these distinctions don’t particularly matter to ISIS, which takes credit for any attack made in its name and has, for several months now, been instructing its sympathizers around the world to stay home and carry out attacks there rather than, as it used to, calling upon them to get to Syria/Iraq and join the fight there. They do, however, matter in terms of how you deal with ISIS, because even as the group’s core organization is depleted militarily, which should eventually make it harder for ISIS to direct attacks itself, true lone wolf attacks and attacks that are guided by ISIS officials are likely to continue, and maybe become more frequent, for some time to come.



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