Watch out for the terrorism ‘experts’

Whenever an act of violence gets widely described as an act of terrorism, the one thing we can be confident about while facts remain hard to come by is that there will be no shortage of “expert” opinion — a lot of it resting on very dubious foundations.

Consider, for instance, this assessment by Robert Pape, the director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.

One month after the December 2015 San Bernardino attacks that murdered 14, killers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik appeared in the pages of [the ISIS magazine] Dabiq. It is almost certain that [Orlando shooter, Omar] 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 Reports from former co-workers and family members paint the picture of an individual who became increasingly withdrawn and radicalized, but maintained an outsized ego and liked to snap selfies.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.

Mateen’s appearance in the next issue of Dabiq is not “almost certain” — on the contrary, it seems increasingly unlikely.

If Mateen had ever ventured to Raqqa, he would have risked meeting his own grisly end by getting thrown off a rooftop.

As for the features that distinguished this young man as “prime recruitment material” for ISIS, if those include a liking to take selfies, the pool of potential so-called lone wolves ready to kill for ISIS must now span every corner of the globe.

The ISIS directive to “hit everyone and everything,” certainly leaves a lot of latitude when it comes to the choices made by any individual killer. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of ISIS recruits to engage in some elementary strategic thinking.

After Larossi Abballa murdered an off-duty police officer and his female companion in France this week, the killer took to Facebook to present his goals:

Mr. Abballa’s Facebook post from Monday night made clear that he wanted to terrify and destroy those he deemed “unbelievers,” people he had come to hate. He also wanted to encourage other lone wolves to do the same.

“It’s super simple,” he said, looking into the camera. “It’s enough to wait for them in front of their offices; don’t give them any respite. Know this, whether you are a policeman or a journalist, you will never feel calm again. One will wait for you in front of your homes. This is what you have earned.”

Boasting that he had “just killed a policeman and I just killed his wife,” he called on fellow believers to give priority to killing “police, prison guards, journalists.” He specifically named several writers and journalists, adding rappers to the list because, he said, they “are the allies of Satan.”

Although a gay nightclub in Orlando fits the indiscriminate directive of “everyone and everything,” it wasn’t an obvious target for someone wanting to strike fear across a nation.

Abballa clearly wanted an isolated murder to be treated as a threat to the state. Mateen’s motives, however, remain far from clear. Indeed, an attack on the LGBT community would be an ill-conceived way of attacking America, given that there are so many conservative Americans who are homophobic.

It has been reported that the gunman took his wife at least once to the location of the nightclub for “reconnaissance,” and yet regulars there say he had visited the club repeatedly for several years — so why the need for reconnaissance? If he didn’t want his wife to be aware of his prior connection, this may have been an exercise designed to obscure his familiarity with his target and mislead his wife about his motives.

The specter of lone wolf attacks in America is certainly a fear that ISIS wants to promote, but terrorism experts and the media need to avoid amplifying that fear without due cause. The evidence, so far, indicates that those who plot alone are the exception rather than the rule.

[A] Reuters review of the approximately 90 Islamic State court cases brought by the Department of Justice since 2014 found that three-quarters of those charged were alleged to be part of a group of anywhere from two to more than 10 co-conspirators who met in person to discuss their plans.

Even in those cases that did not involve in-person meetings, defendants were almost always in contact with other sympathizers, whether via text message, email or networking websites, according to court documents. Fewer than 10 cases involved someone accused of acting entirely alone.

The extent of Mateen’s radicalization remains unclear, but anyone who professed to have ties to ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah at a time when these groups are at war against each other, seems less like a committed jihadist than someone who was clumsily constructing a fake identity.

Lastly, for those who remain fixated on images of scary Middle Eastern guys, it’s worth being reminded that Omar Mateen was in so many regards an ordinary American — as can be seen in this video clip which apparently shows him when he was working as a G4S security guard around 2012.


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