June 13, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Terror in Orlando
In the early hours of June 12, Omar Mateen walked into an Orlando, Florida nightclub and shot and killed at least 50 people and wounded at least 53 more. At some point during what would become the worst domestic terror attack since 9/11, he reportedly called 9-1-1 and announced his allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.
The timing and location of the attack were unexpected, but the baseline terror threat for the West has been at heightened levels since the Islamic State’s annual call for attacks during Ramadan. While in the past security officials worried primarily about sophisticated attacks involving international communications, complex logistics, and explosives, unsophisticated attacks are now a dominant concern. A lone wolf (or in this case, a 'known wolf') intent on attacking soft targets with the goal of killing as many people as possible can find access to high-capacity firearms. The symbolism of the targets for the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and now Orlando, matter less to the attackers than the casualty count.
Initial reports indicate that Mateen had been interviewed by the FBI at least twice, in 2013 and 2014, but was determined not to be of sufficient threat to warrant additional investigation. In counterterrorism, hindsight obscures the real-time difficulty officials face when prioritizing threats in an overloaded threat matrix. Absent any current or imminent criminal activity, the FBI cannot monitor the thousands of suspects who, for reasons both founded and unfounded, come across its radar.
Like last June's attack on a Charleston Church, the Orlando attack constitutes terrorism, regardless of its nebulous affiliation with the Islamic State. Pulse nightclub was a predominately gay establishment, and the attack occurred during a month dedicated to pride among a community long subjected to violence and persecution. The alleged perpetrator was reportedly known to make homophobic and racist statements, though the exact motive for the attack remains uncertain.
The nature and the timing of the attack are enormously damaging, beyond the immense tragedy for a hundred families, countless friends, and the larger gay community. The rush by law enforcement and intelligence officials to mitigate and investigate the attack is more than matched by the race to affix the cultural narrative, and therefore the meaning, of the attack. The attack touches on numerous societal fault lines such as gay rights, gun control, the 2016 presidential election, violent extremism, Islamophobia, and the uncomfortable limits of law enforcement in a democracy.
The attack also demonstrates the evolving nature of terrorist attacks in the United States. Calls by the Islamic State for its U.S. supporters to attack have been answered in Garland, Texas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; San Bernardino, California; and now Orlando, Florida. The availability of high-capacity firearms is a political issue that currently defies constructive discussion, yet the threat of inspired terrorist attacks is one that authorities will face for years to come.
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