President Barack Obama is calling the slaughter at a gay nightclub in Orlando an “act of terror and hate.” According to a militant-affiliated news agency, Islamic State claims the attack was carried out by “one of its fighters.”
Much remains unclear about the attack – the deadliest on American soil since 9/11. But the threat now, it seems, is very different to that faced 15 years ago – and getting caught up in the labels misses the point.
In the short term, a huge chunk of the media and law enforcement attention will be on the motivation and background of the apparent perpetrator, 29-year-old Omar Mateen. An FBI spokesperson said it appeared Mateen had “leanings” toward radical Islam, although it is unclear what that might actually mean.
Most recent militant attacks within the United States have appeared to be largely homegrown, sometimes inspired by groups and events overseas but with little direct connection to them. That contrasts with some of the recent attacks in Europe. While most of the attackers in Paris and Brussels were from Europe, some of its leaders traveled directly from areas controlled by Islamic State.
Already, the Orlando shooting is sparking calls from some Republicans – including the Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump – for the United States to step up its military campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Stopping such outrages on U.S. soil, however, may come down just as much to issues of gun control, policing and even mental health services.
Mateen himself was killed in the closing stages of the attack, making it more difficult to determine his motives. What investigators will want to know is whether or not he was directly in touch with militant groups – most likely Islamic State, also potentially al Qaeda – and most important of all, whether he might be part of a wider network that might strike again.
It may be too early to say. Los Angeles police say their arrest of a heavily armed man on his way to a gay pride parade in West Hollywood appears unrelated to the Orlando attack.
A possible scenario may well be that Mateen was – up to a point, at least – inspired by other militant groups, but had no direct link with them, That seems to have been true of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who killed 15 in an attack on a local government health office in San Bernardino, California, in December.
Islamic State has made it clear it encourages supporters around the world to launch their own actions unilaterally – and then is happy to claim credit afterward. That appears to have been the case in San Bernardino; the group used similar language in relation to Orlando on Sunday.
Partly because today’s technology has made possible a much greater level of surveillance, it has become much harder to coordinate complex militant actions across borders. Instead, law enforcement agencies have become more concerned about the risk of so-called lone wolf attackers who are less likely to come to the attention of intelligence agencies. When more than one person is involved – as in San Bernardino or the 2013 Boston Marathon attack – the attackers are often so close to each other they do not need to plot using electronic or telephonic channels. (The Boston attackers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were brothers.)
A more direct connection to militancy is always possible – but also frequently tangential. U.S. Army Major Nidam Hasan, who killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others in a 2009 attack at the Fort Hood military base, was found to have been in direct communication with Yemeni-based imam Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was also linked to several other attempted jihadist attacks on the West, particularly the 2009 attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a transatlantic airline on Christmas Day with explosives in his underwear. The Boston bombers were also found to have watched online videos of Awlaki’s sermons.
The Obama administration killed Awlaki in a drone strike in 2011. His correspondence with Fort Hood shooter Hasan, however, was relatively general and not related directly to the attack, which has never been officially classified as a “terrorist” action despite calls by some of the families of the victims.
Both San Bernardino and Sunday’s Orlando attack, however, also fit within a much broader series of outrages: the string of mass shootings that have become tragically commonplace in the United States.
Before Orlando, the bloodiest shooting in U.S. history was the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech university, when 32 people died. But according to the website Mass Shooting Tracker, 2015 saw 372 mass shootings in the United States, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870 (using the definition that a “mass shooting” is any incident that kills or injures four or more people.)
Disconnecting both events in San Bernardino and Orlando from the epidemic of gun violence in the United States seems a mistake. Whatever eventually comes to light about what motivated the Orlando shooter, the fact remains that the death toll probably would have been lower had he not had access to an automatic weapon.
At a town hall-style session organized by PBS at the beginning of this month, Obama talked of being in White House meetings that discussed potential Islamic State supporters within the United States. Such individuals could be prohibited from flying on commercial aviation, he said – but usually not from legally purchasing firearms.
The tide of argument may turn. What seem likely, however, is that this weekend’s deaths may just drive more Americans to want guns for self protection. At the same time, it will further increase pressure for the United States to commit itself more deeply to fighting Islamic State, an almost entirely different struggle.
All these elements will need to be addressed and managed if this kind of attack is to be stopped in future. For now, the signs are not good.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been an officer in the British Army Reserve.