By Patrick Bahzad
Who would have thought? Who could have imagined something of this magnitude happening in the US, six months only after the terrible Paris attacks? Back then, in November 2015, events in the French capital looked like the distant reflection of a nightmare scenario that the US would most definitely escape, thanks in part to the many differences in the countries’ social fabric, but also because of the vastly superior security and intelligence apparatus the US had managed to string together after the disaster – of a totally different dimension – that was 9/11.
Let’s be honest though: reality is a bitch. You may be in denial but there is no escaping it. And yesterday, reality came home to Orlando: terrorism in its Islamist 2.0 version showed its ugly mug, that of a US born citizen of foreign descent, who murdered 49 compatriots for no other reason than his twisted ideological and religious hatred. Watching major news channels and TV networks felt like a very bizarre experience yesterday. It was almost like being confronted with the much talked about European terror scenarios unfolding on the US homeland.
Disbelief at the scale of the carnage seemed to be the prevailing feeling. When the mayor of Orlando announced the death toll having reached 50, instead of the initial 20, everyone – from the reporters at the Press Conference to the millions of viewers in their homes – realized that this was no ordinary mass casualty shooting, not even for a "domestic terrorism" case. This was something maybe not on the same level as Paris in November, but definitely somewhere up there.
And suddenly, that false sense of safety that had prompted so many people in the US into dismissing the actual threat vanished into thin air. The homeland looked distinctly more vulnerable than many so-called "experts" had stated. True, from a cynical point of view, one more mass shooting, in a country where such incidents are an almost daily occurrence, doesn't make much of a difference. But this one was off the scales in many regards, and the mood in the country surely was an indicator of its unique character. The feeling that this attack was an almost "perfect" replica to the Paris concert hall massacre of November 13th 2015 did not escape the collective mind and public opinion, even though very few observers openly noticed the striking similarities.
But what mostly explains the sense of disbelief millions of Americans must have felt, is that nobody among the larger public considered such an attack to be a realistic possibility, not three months after Brussels, or six months after Paris. Home grown Islamists killing their fellow countrymen were a feature of Old Europe, with its disgruntled and disenfranchised Muslim minorities sending their sons and daughters by the thousands to the Middle-East, to fight Jihad in the name of the "Islamic State", or sometimes Al-Qaeda. The situation in the US, especially that of its well integrated Muslim community, was totally different. Nothing the likes of Paris or Brussels would be possible, surely, back home.
And yet, a single man, Omar Siddique Mateen, born in the US in 1986 to Afghan parents, drove to “Pulse Club” in Orlando on the night of June 11th 2016, actually June 12th considering he opened fire on the crowd inside the club at around 2 a.m., and murdered scores of people before being shot by local SWAT in a final standoff, some three hours later. I wrote extensively about the "mistaken sense of security" prevailing in the US when it comes to the Jihadi threat potential in this country. For those with an interest for that kind of bleak warnings, you're welcome to (re-)read the most relevant pieces in this regard: "The Many Faces of Jihad" (July 2015), "Writing on the Wall" (August 2015) or "Read it and Weep" (December 2015). These pieces give an overview of past and present trends, as well as a description of the factors explaining the lack of awareness and the disconnect with actual reality, as compared to sometimes hyped-up reports about the devastatingly grim situation of Europe. In short, there are five identified areas which make up for the often misunderstood situation on both sides of the Atlantic, namely:
- The threat differential in North America and Europe in general,
- The mistaken sense of relative safety in the US,
- The specifics of domestic Jihadism,
- The number of nationals joining IS as a misleading benchmark and
- Conversion and converts, as an upcoming trend in America.
As surprising as it may be, the United States were targeted four times by Islamic radicals in the last year or so, as opposed to one attack only over the same period in France (admittedly with a higher death toll), and one in Belgium as well. Four attacks, how many of you realized it was that many? The figure is correct though: there was Garland (Texas) in May 2015, an attack fully endorsed by the "Islamic State" (fortunately foiled by law enforcement), Chattanooga (Tennessee) in July 2015, when Muhammad Youssuf Abdulazeez went on a killing spree against armed forces recruitment centres (6 fatalities), San Bernardino of course, in December 2015 with 14 people shot dead, and now Orlando, with its 50 fatalities (and counting). Taken together that's already 70 casualties, as opposed to the 129 in France and 34 in Belgium.
To be honest, the US are no way near the situation France is in, with hundreds of nationals somewhere between Raqqa and Mosul, fighting for IS, and a few more doing the same within Nusra's ranks in Syria. There are no constituted cells and networks the kind of which we saw in Belgium and France, with dozens of members assigned to a specific task by central IS "Command and control". But the thing is, you don't need that kind of human infrastructure to wreak havoc in the US. There are other elements that need to be factored into the equation to give an accurate account of what the threat really looks like in this country.
Whether you like it or not, military grade weapons are much easier to come by in the US. I'm not going to discuss gun control. This is not my issue here. I just want to point to a significant difference with Europe. The fact that the number of potential "terrorists" in the US is much smaller than France, for example, needs to be correlated with ease of access to firearms. You may argue that the IS terrorists who struck at Paris and Brussels managed to find weapons fairly quickly on the black market. They also produced a certain amount of TATP explosives from raw materials you can buy at your local drugstore. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that these people had to go through complex weapon delivery channels to get those weapons and that – regardless of what the MSM are saying – this is not as easy as it sounds, when you want to avoid detection.
Not so in the US, for better or for worse. In a country where every disgruntled employee can turn up to his former work place and start lighting it up, you can bet your shirt, any wannabe “Soldier of the Caliphate” can do the same. Does this necessarily call for stricter gun laws? Not sure it does, but it definitely changes the terms of the comparison, when you only look at comparative figures regarding radicalized individuals both here and in Europe.
In that regard, yesterday’s tragedy was a sobering reminder of the fact that social and material issues only matter up to a certain degree in matters of radicalization. Omar Siddique Mateen came from a wealthy family. He had a job, wanted to join the NYPD and had basically the same chances any US citizen gets at living the American dream. And yet, he chose a different path.
I know. People are going to bring up the question of his mental health. Of his family and upbringing. Possibly of his difficulties to blend in at some point or another. I’ve heard it all before. Just go and check the reports about the Chattanooga shooter, Muhammad Abdulazeez, switch the name for Omar Mateen, and you’ll realize the excuses are almost identical. That debate is getting us nowhere. From a legal point of view, sure, Mateen’s diminished responsibility may be relevant, but since when is a well balanced mental state a basic requirement for being considered a terrorist? Most violent offenders could boast about similar issues, whether it be childhood abuse, substance issues or else.
Omar Mateen is more significant and relevant in another regard however. He was raised in this country. But he was not just a legal alien, he was a US born citizen. He might have been your next door neighbour actually. That is what is most striking about him. People thought the “home grown” terrorist breed to be a European feature. Turns out he isn't …
To make matters worse, Mateen was on the FBI’s radar for quite a while, was interviewed twice and had his name mentioned in connection with the first ever US citizen to blow himself up in a suicide bombing in Syria. It was the exact same kind of scenario we have heard about so often in Europe before. On law enforcement’s radar, interviewed and/or on watch list, but slipped through.
Even looking at Mateen’s MO, one cannot but wonder at the many similarities with the way things played out at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November 2015. We will look into this in our next piece about Orlando. There is still plenty to discuss in relation with this case, in particular Mateen’s path towards radicalization – which may still hold a few surprises – or the "allegiance" he pledged to IS.
Shortly after the San Bernardino shooting in December of last year, the local police chief stated his bewilderment at the (soft) target chosen by the shooters, i.e. a public health: Chief Burguan stated in no uncertain terms that this was not “terrorism in the traditional sense”. What was true of San Bernardino in that regard is true also of Orlando. Therefore I’ll finish this piece with the exact same words I used back in December 2015:
“What is terrorism 'in the traditional sense' though ? Does it even make sense to talk about terrorism in these terms ? By the same rationale, walking into a concert hall packed with people and shooting indiscriminately into the crowd is not terrorism in the traditional sense either. But it is definitely terrorism.
The simple truth is, terrorism in the traditional sense – if it ever existed – can no longer be used as the benchmark for what might be coming our way. Instead, we need to brace ourselves for the new world of entrepreuneurial terrorism 2.0 …”
(to be continued)