Following the most lethal terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, I will set law and policy aside for this post.
Omar Mateen of Fort Pierce, Fla., known to the FBI as an Islamic State sympathizer and twice the subject of previous investigations, entered Orlando gay nightclub Pulse around 2 a.m. Sunday morning heavily armed and killed 50 persons after taking hostages. Authorities called his attack “well organized and well prepared”; Mateen had firearms training and according to reports had been scoping out gay clubs in the area before the attack.
As in two earlier attacks on American soil — those against a cartoon exhibition in Garland, Texas, and in San Bernardino, California — Mateen used contemporaneous public media (in this case, a 911 call) to pledge his allegiance to the leadership of Islamic State. As Rukmini Callimachi notes in today’s New York Times, this follows a protocol announced by Islamic State for independent fighters acting in sympathy with IS. A few hours later an Islamic State news agency hailed Mateen as an IS fighter, effectively accepting his pledge of allegiance.
The group’s head has urged followers in the West to act without prompting or coordination, selecting targets and employing attack methods in line with instructions published by IS. For example, IS has recommended capturing hostages and holding them in a sealed off space, which makes it likely that a prolonged siege situation will develop for maximum media interest, and that the attacker will die in an eventual police operation, reducing the likelihood of intelligence debriefing following a capture. As at the Bataclan in Paris, the passage of a long period before police rescue arrives tends to augur poorly for victims’ chances of survival.
The instructions-for-lone-wolves model is intended precisely to obviate the need for IS to know of or direct its supporters’ actions in advance. “The fact that there is no link back to the core is *by design* and is intended to protect the organization in an age of surveillance,” writes Callimachi on Twitter.
If you weren’t thinking of Gay Pride Month in a major American tourism city as a likely target for murderous jihadist attack, you should be. As Karol Markowicz writes on Twitter, “Just like it wasn’t a random ‘bunch of folks in a deli in Paris’, let’s not pretend it was a random bunch of folks in a club in Orlando.” If you’re gay, Islamic State’s ideology wants to kill you, even more than it wants to kill unbelieving Westerners in general. For us in America after today, that’s no longer the stuff of distant headlines.