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Are There Any More ‘Lone Wolves’ in the Age of the Islamic State?

The gunman who slaughtered innocents in Orlando didn’t need any specific orders from Islamic State commanders. The group’s hateful ideology was enough.

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Before he killed 49 people in a bloody rampage at a Florida nightclub, Omar Mateen called 911 to establish his jihadi bona fides. He pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He referred to the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, as his “homeboys.” He expressed solidarity with a Florida man who carried out a suicide attack in Syria for the al Qaeda affiliate there.

Yet in the hours following the attack, as U.S. officials said they had no evidence that the bloodbath was directed from abroad, media reports labeled Mateen with what has become a familiar term for a terrorist operating on American soil: a “lone wolf.”

But he was not operating in a vacuum, and appears not to have seen himself as a lone actor. Briefing reporters Monday, FBI Director Jim Comey said that Mateen appeared to have been inspired by foreign terrorist groups and that he had been radicalized at least in part through the internet.

Though his exact jihadi loyalties remain unclear, Mateen used his 911 call during the early hours of Sunday to affiliate himself with Islamist violence over the past 15 years.

“They are part of an imagined community, and being part of a community gives value to their actions,” said Marc Sageman, a former CIA operations officer and a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “They are part of this nation — the ummah — and it lives online.”

Calling Mateen a “lone wolf” risks obscuring more than it reveals, according to Michael Smith, a counterterrorism expert and consultant, because it fails to accurately describe the threat posed by the Islamic State, and masks the relationship the group is building with its sympathizers abroad.

“The Unabomber is the only ‘lone wolf’ responsible for terrorism in the United States. He developed his own unique ideology that informed a resort to violence,” Smith said, referring to Ted Kaczynski, an American anarchist who killed three people with homemade bombs that were often sent through the mail.

Unlike the Unabomber, the sympathizers of the Islamic State pursue violence after deciding to adopt the ideology promoted by the group, and to spread awareness of the ideology through attacks that cause numerous casualties and garner international media coverage, he said.

In a speech last month, the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, appealed to supporters to conduct attacks abroad during the holy month of Ramadan. “Make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers,” Adnani said. “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us.”

For the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the model provides a plethora of advantages and almost no downside. The group doesn’t have to train and arm recruits at a secret camp, or to evade electronic surveillance to issue confidential orders. The group’s adherents simply watch Islamic State videos and sermons, read tweets and other extremist propaganda, and launch an attack. “Affiliating” with the Islamic State, it seems, can come as late as the middle of an onslaught, as Mateen’s 911 calls seem to show.

“The ‘inspired attack’ is the most dangerous to the American homeland,” said Michael Vickers, a former CIA and special operations officer who served as under secretary of defense for intelligence from 2011 to 2015.

That’s because it doesn’t require any formal links ahead of time with the Islamic State, and yet can produce a stable of would-be killers who will implement the group’s strategy, Vickers told reporters in a teleconference organized by the Atlantic Council.

The model employed by Islamic State represents an evolution in how Islamist extremists have orchestrated terrorism in the West since the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda operated initially in a highly centralized manner from its base in Afghanistan and Pakistan, selecting and training recruits for specific, high-profile assaults that were aimed at the United States and other countries they saw as propping up corrupt regimes in the Middle East. Al Qaeda later expanded — sometimes reluctantly — to a network of “franchises” that operated with its backing and guidance in other countries, and eventually links were formed with more loosely affiliated groups that did not necessarily answer to al Qaeda’s core leadership.

Now, the Islamic State, having seized territory in Iraq and Syria and declared a “caliphate,” has outsourced some of its terrorist activity abroad by appealing to would-be adherents to stage attacks wherever they are.

Twice before, assailants pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before unleashing attacks in the United States. Elton Simpson declared his loyalty to the Islamic State on his Twitter account before he opened fire at a cartoon exhibit featuring images of the Prophet Muhammad in Texas in May 2015. And last December, before killing 14 people San Bernardino, Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, pledged their allegiance to Islamic State on Facebook.

But in the case of the Orlando shootings, Mateen’s exact loyalties remain unclear — and were perhaps confused in the mind of the killer. Comey said that the FBI had first become aware of him in May 2013, when he bragged to his coworkers about supposed family connections to al Qaeda and to Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group currently fighting al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria. The FBI investigated those claims, but concluded there was no basis on which to prosecute him.

Before Sunday’s massacre, Comey said that Mateen not only pledged allegiance to the Islamic State but also expressed “solidarity” with Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, an American who carried out a suicide bombing on behalf of the Nusra Front in Syria.

Abu Salha and Mateen attended the same Florida mosque and the FBI’s investigation into Abu Salha’s travel to Syria to participate in a suicide bombing landed Mateen on the bureau’s radar once more. Abu Salha first traveled to Syria in January 2013, returning to the United States five months later. That November, he flew back to Syria, and in May of the following year he killed himself in a suicide mission.

When the FBI learned of Abu Salha’s actions in Syria, it launched an investigation, and a member of the mosque attended by the two men told the bureau that he had suspected Mateen of embracing a radical interpretation of Islam. But that investigation, too, failed to pin any concrete jihadi activity on Mateen.

By expressing solidarity with Abu Salha, Mateen muddied the waters of his own jihadi allegiance. Abu Salha died fighting on behalf of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and a group that has often fought against the Islamic State. Yet Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader in his 911 call.

But the connection to Abu Salha also points toward the broader online community that exists to propagate jihadi ideology. Shortly after Abu Salha died in 2014, his fellow Nusra fighters posted a video in which he burned his American passport and criticized life in the United States, urging his countrymen to take up arms against the unbelievers, or kuffar.

In a move that has been largely overlooked in the West, the Islamic State has elevated acts of terrorism as a form of “worship” in a bid to incite more violence, according to Smith.

This approach differs from al Qaeda, he said, and “indicates the Islamic State has ascribed a higher priority to both the incitement and execution of attacks in the West than any other Salafi-Jihadist group,” Smith said.

At the same time, the Islamic State has also built up an impressive external operations wing and has in recent months staged a spectacular series of attacks in Europe. Islamic State operatives responsible for planning and logistics traveled between Syria and Europe in the run-up to November’s Paris attacks and March’s bombings in Brussels.

Counterterrorism experts say they face huge obstacles in detecting and stopping Islamic State operatives in the United States. Former NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis said the Orlando shooting resembled in some ways the run-up to the Boston Marathon bombing. In both cases, the FBI investigated the individuals responsible but lacked hard evidence at the time of their inquiry to pursue a prosecution.

“How do you find a person who makes the last-minute decision to use violence?” Inglis said.

Such last-minute decisions are exacerbated by the easy availability of powerful guns in the United States, counterterrorism experts say. Mateen legally purchased guns within the past week, even though he had been investigated by the FBI. And individuals suspected of terrorist links on “no-fly lists” can also legally buy guns.

Last December, the Republican-controlled Senate voted down an amendment that would have prevented suspected terrorists from buying guns and explosives. Senators on Monday vowed to revive the proposal, and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton added her voice to the drive.

President Barack Obama said Monday that “it was not difficult” for the shooter to obtain his weapons, and that the country needed a broader debate about guns.

“We make it very easy for individuals who are troubled or disturbed … to get very powerful weapons,” he said in the Oval Office. “That’s a problem.”

Photo Credit: Orlando Police; New York Police; Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Twitter; UC Merced; FBI (2); Facebook/Foreign Policy illustration

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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