How can counterterrorism officials prepare for and prevent the wave of Islamic State-inspired carnage?
- By Clint WattsClint Watts is the Robert A. Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. He has previously served as a U.S. Army officer, a FBI special agent, and the executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center. Follow him on Twitter at @selectedwisdom.
Paris twice, Brussels, San Bernardino, and now Orlando; mass casualty terrorist attacks in the West, sadly, have become routine. Sunday’s Islamic State-inspired carnage proves exceptional in only one respect: It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Beyond the sickening body count, the ingredients of this violent act appear all too familiar. Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on a 911 call during the attack. His actions provide yet another example of the dangerous new breed of terrorists traumatizing the world today and the challenges counterterrorism officials face trying to detect and disrupt a sea of aggressive, inspired radicals with little to no previous detectable connections to the Islamic State.
Americans watched in horror over the past year as the Islamic State brought violence to the streets of European cities. European jihadists returning from Syria blended with inspired hometown recruits. Experience combined with zeal brought unprecedented multi-target attacks to both Paris and Brussels. Then came the San Bernardino attacks in December, in which an extremist husband and wife inspired by both al Qaeda and the Islamic State (and likely encouraged by the success of their fellow attackers in Paris) launched an assault. Now Mateen has brought this carnage to Orlando, continuing a string of Islamic State-claimed violence where one successful attack inspires yet another.
The Islamic State’s recent Western attacks, whether directed or inspired, point to a new generation of terrorists and plots presenting law enforcement and the intelligence community with a unique challenge. The assumptions about terrorism formed in the 2000s — when the threat of al Qaeda informed and occupied the minds of counterterrorism professionals — no longer hold.
In the coming days, the most interesting question of the Orlando investigation will be the degree to which the Islamic State and Mateen were connected and whether the terror group directed the attack in some fashion. It turns out the direct connection to the Islamic State may not matter. Historically, attacks directed by a terrorist group were better planned, resourced, and coordinated — thus their violence created the most casualties. With each new “lone wolf” attack, this maxim proves less true. The Paris and Brussels attacks, two highly successful terrorist plots, were funded and directed at a strategic level by the Islamic State. At a local operational level though, these European Islamic State cells planned, plotted, and executed against targets largely of their choosing, striking targets they knew well.
In the United States, Mateen and the San Bernardino shooters show little or no direct connection to Islamic State planning, resourcing, and plotting. While al Qaeda’s inspired supporters were known for bungled, half-baked failures, the Islamic State’s acolytes have perpetrated two massacres on U.S. soil in a little over six months. Rather than designing and designating an attack for terrorists in the West to execute, we’ve entered a new era of operative-generated target selection absent overt command and control from Islamic State headquarters. Attackers pick the time and place where they can best maximize violence, reducing the time to plan, minimizing communications back to terrorist groups, and selecting targets with which they are more familiar. Of course, easy access to weapons and an infinite number of soft targets make even the simplest inspired attack achievable.
Terrorism’s inspired new breed spells big problems for the United States. Many have no criminal records or history of terrorist sympathies. But even when they do, it’s very difficult for law enforcement to stop them. Mateen, like Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, sprung up on the FBI’s radar at least two times: first in 2013, when he allegedly demonstrated terrorist sympathies at work and later, in 2014, in connection with America’s first suicide bomber to Syria — Florida resident Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a supporter of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front. But much like Tsarnaev, the FBI faced similar challenges.
Two to three years ago before the Islamic State even broke from al Qaeda, Mateen was likely closer to the beginning of his radicalization. With no criminal record, he may not have resolved to commit violence or shown any tendency to act at that time. The FBI has only a brief snapshot to assess suspects among a sea of Islamic State-inspired terrorism leads and cases. As FBI Director James Comey noted, the FBI’s caseload has been overwhelmed with Islamic State inquiries. Deciding which cases to focus on, absent strong connections back to jihadist groups, becomes nothing more than guesswork.
Until recently, the United States has been lucky to avoid this recent wave of Islamic State terrorism. But today, the number of inspired supporters willing to undertake violence for the group is staggering. Attacks on the homeland were bound to happen; it was never a matter of if, but when. Ultimately, looking backward will prove futile.
Moving forward, Orlando and San Bernardino do beg the question of how the United States must improve counterterrorism to effectively confront a new social media-connected, globally inspired breed of terrorists.
The United States has invested heavily to harden symbolic targets and transportation hubs. But inspired terrorists’ greatest successes have come by attacking soft targets anywhere, using weapons almost anyone can buy or build.
This points to a second challenge. Aggressive law enforcement investigations, until recently, have consistently picked off emerging plots by employing undercover agents and informants. But today’s inspired attacks have shown few conspirators. Attackers have operated largely independently and set off few precursors that would have tipped off law enforcement or the community. Even when they do surface briefly during investigations, today’s actors are too many in number to effectively track and provide too little probable cause to justify or legally warrant an extensive investigation.
The third challenge comes in the form of countering violent extremism (CVE) — staving off the causes of anger, hatred, and radicalization before a terrorist gets to the decision-making moment or planning cycle of an attack on innocent Americans. Washington and the law enforcement community have talked for years about the need for extensive CVE programming to deter homegrown terror. Community policing in vulnerable neighborhoods and connecting with parents and peers have been pushed as pre-emptive measures for identifying and demobilizing extremists. When all was said and done, however, more has been said than done in the CVE arena. Programs are discussed but few are executed.
Even where inspired Islamic State extremists have emerged, their recruitment often demonstrates no particular community from which they emerge. Donald Trump says that Muslims “must cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad — and they do know where they are.” But how would the community have detected the San Bernardino attackers — whose mother lived with them and even cared for their child while they were killing co-workers? Likewise, Mateen’s father claims he knew nothing of his son’s plans to attack the nightclub. If those closest to the emerging terrorists can’t even see their radicalization, how can we expect to detect them before they undertake violence?
Unfortunately, the United States won’t have much time to answer these questions on how to stop this new breed of terrorism. The Islamic State’s network of global supporters has shown before that successful terrorist attacks beget further attempts. Any Islamic State sympathizer debating whether to launch his or her own violent operation will be inspired and mobilized by Mateen’s success. In the immediate future, the United States, along with the rest of the West, will need to push aggressively on any available lead in hopes of preventing any newly mobilized sympathizer from trying to duplicate the Orlando success. The question is not how many are out there trying. There are many. The challenge is identifying who is next, and finding them before shots are fired.
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