In Orlando Massacre, a New Target for Islamist Lone Wolves: LGBT
The Florida attack could mark a dangerous new tactic for Islamic State-inspired extremists — singling out the LGBT community in the West.
A massacre that left 50 dead and 53 wounded Sunday at a packed gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, is now the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. But the rampage may also have set another disturbing precedent, marking the first large-scale attack inspired by Islamist extremism that successfully targeted the LGBT community in a Western country.
The shooter who stormed the Pulse nightclub, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, declared his allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call shortly before he cut down dozens of people and set off a scene of unspeakable carnage that ended with his own death Sunday morning. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack through its Amaq “news agency,” but authorities said it was unclear if Mateen had clear links to the group, or if he was merely a lone wolf inspired by its propaganda.
Over the past year, the Islamic State has orchestrated major attacks in Paris and Brussels at concert halls, cafes, subway stations, and airports that aimed at killing as many people as possible in an arbitrary fashion. But the group has not previously singled out the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in its deadly assaults in the West.
In Syria and Iraq, however, the group has brutally executed gay men in towns under its control, posting grisly videos of blindfolded victims being thrown off the roofs of buildings. At least 36 men have been killed by militants on the basis of draconian sodomy charges enforced by the Islamic State, according to OutRight Action International. In Bangladesh, Islamist militants have for years targeted gay bloggers, among others, for assassination; on Sunday, authorities there detained thousands of suspected militants in a pre-emptive raid.
President Barack Obama called the shooting “an act of terror and an act of hate” and noted that it occurred during Pride festivities across the country, an annual celebration of the LGBT community.
“The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing and to live,” Obama said Sunday at the White House. “So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation — is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.”
Obama said that authorities have “no definitive judgment on the precise motivations of the killer,” or “what — if any — inspiration or association this killer may have had with terrorist groups.”
The Islamic State claimed the gunman as one of its own: “The armed attack that targeted a gay nightclub in the city of Orlando in the American state of Florida which left over 100 people dead or injured was carried out by an Islamic State fighter,” the group’s Amaq agency said.
But Mateen’s father said his son never demonstrated much of an interest in radical Islamist doctrine or religion, though he had expressed anger recently over seeing two men kissing in Miami. And his ex-wife said Mateen had beat her and was mentally ill and unstable.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that a number of signs — including the Islamic State’s calls for attacks during Ramadan, the gunman’s declaration in his 911 call, and his targeting of a gay nightclub during Pride — indicated that the attack was “an ISIS-inspired act of terrorism.” He added: “Whether this attack was also ISIS-directed remains to be determined.”
Mateen was hardly unknown to federal authorities: The FBI investigated him on two separate occasions. In 2013, he came under suspicion for making inflammatory comments alleging he had ties to terrorists, but authorities could not find sufficient evidence to pin charges on him. Then, in 2014, the FBI looked at Mateen’s possible ties to a notorious figure, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria.
The FBI concluded that the contact between the two men — who both lived in Fort Pierce, Florida — had been “minimal” and that Mateen “did not constitute a substantive threat at that time,” Ronald Hopper, assistant agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa division, told reporters in Orlando.
Western governments have struggled to contain the fallout from hate-filled propaganda touting Islamist violence, even as the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate continues to shrink on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, experts said.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “knows if he calls for terror it will come,” said author Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He doesn’t need any direct human connection or even a web connection. His message is so pervasive in the media and so simple it is certain to inspire the angry.”
There’s plenty of anger to stoke. Hate crimes based on sexual orientation are commonplace in the United States, but those attacks have not been on a large-scale or linked directly to foreign terrorist groups or their propaganda. A 1990 bombing of a gay bar in Greenwich Village in New York that injured three people was eventually blamed on a suspected Islamist terrorist.
According to the FBI’s most recent statistics, in 2014, hate crimes against gay Americans accounted for more than 18 percent of the 1,017 such incidents across the country, with about 2 percent occurring in gay bars or nightclubs.
Orlando’s tragedy threw the 2016 election into stark relief Sunday, drawing markedly different responses from the two presumptive presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state emphasized it was both terrorism and a hate crime, while Trump initially made no mention of the LGBT community and accepted “congratulations” from his Twitter followers for having foreseen an attack.
“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance,” the Republican tweeted. “We must be smart!” Later Sunday, he piled on, calling for the president’s resignation and for Clinton to drop out of the presidential race. In a final statement Sunday evening, he said, “Radical Islam advocates hate for women, gays, Jews, Christians and all Americans,” concluding, “We are going to make America safe again and great again for everyone.”
Trump’s campaign said he’ll give a speech Monday on the attack, immigration, and national security.
Clinton, a Democrat who has made national security central to her campaign, vowed to continue the Obama administration’s fight against the Islamic State and its ilk, stressing the role of multinational coalitions and the need to upend terrorist recruitment networks. “It also means refusing to be intimidated and staying true to our values,” she said, promising as well to fight for the rights of the LGBT community.
“Hate has absolutely no place in America,” Clinton said. “To the LGBT community: Please know that you have millions of allies across our country. I am one of them.”
Beyond the politics of the presidential race, in Orlando, the attack has left a sense of disbelief, pain, and outrage.
“There’s a lot of anger,” Florida State Sen. Darren Soto, who represents Orlando, told Foreign Policy on Sunday. “Many of us woke up shocked to find our happy little town was the site of the largest mass shooting in American history.”
“We have a large and proud gay community here that’s a fundamental part of our culture, and for them to be targeted in a potentially international terrorist attack is just upsetting and mind-boggling.”
Photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/Stringer
Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole