The attack on the Pulse nightclub in the city of Orlando by Omar Mateen, is just one of a long line of mass shootings in the US. Because he was a Muslim and had declared allegiance to Islamic State (IS) during the course of the attack, there was a rush to judgement that this was an IS attack. But was it?
Both al Qaeda and IS have actively encouraged individuals in the west who cannot make their way overseas to fight jihad, to do whatever they can to attack the west at home. Both groups have also posted lists of potential targets online, which have included, among other things, nightclubs. The attack therefore fits with what IS wants to achieve. But questions remain about what actually drove Mateen.
Research conducted by the Tactical Decision Making Research Group, which has underpinned the development of a tool for helping to identify people who are vulnerable to being drawn into violent extremism (see: http://www.tacticaldecisionmaking.org/research/ivp/), has identified a range of key risk factors. Based on the information that is available to date, Mateen would score against these risk factors, as follows:
|CULTURAL ISOLATION||RISK TAKING BEHAVIOURS||VIOLENT RHETORIC||FAMILY CONFLICT||RELIGIOUS PRACTICE||NEGATIVE PEER INFLUENCES|
|ISOLATED PEER GROUP||HATE RHETORIC||POLITICAL ACTIVISM||COMBAT SIMULATION||TRAVEL ABROAD|
|DEATH RHETORIC||EXTREMIST GROUP MEMBERSHIP||CONTACT OR RELATIONSHIP WITH INDIVIDUALS KNOWN TO BE RECRUITERS OR EXTREMISTS||PARAMILITARY TRAINING||OVERSEAS COMBAT|
Based on this analysis, Mateen scores highly as being vulnerable to being drawn into violent extremism. However, there is very little in is background to suggest any sort of active involvement in jihadism. There was no evidence of political activism and his links to other extremists are relatively weak. There are some reports that he watched online speeches given by the radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki, but no reports that he actively collected jihadi literature. This is supported by images from his apartment, which do not show any apparent IS or jihadi paraphernalia.
In fact, the available evidence indicates that he was fairly ignorant in respect of jihadism. During a telephone call made during the course of the attack, he claimed allegiance to IS and pledged loyalty to its leader, abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But he also cited the Boston bombers and the first US suicide bomber in Syria as inspirations. Yet they were not inspired by IS, and the suicide bomber was actually a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an avowed enemy of IS.
The themes which actually feature most prominently in reports of his background are suggestions of undiagnosed (and untreated) mental health issues, a propensity towards violence and confrontation with those around him, and expressions of hatred towards Jews, blacks and homosexuals. These are both common and prominent traits among workplace and school shooters, and other non-political spree killers, in the US.
So whilst there are some indications that Mateen was interested in jihadism, the more information that has come out about him, the more it looks like his actions were those of a non-political spree killer. His declaration of allegiance to IS can potentially be explained as an attempt to give his actions some sort of wider meaning, and disguise the real reasons.
As with so many other spree killers and jihadis, Mateen’s case shows that these people can be identified before they commit their acts. The FBI actually investigated and cleared Mateen of involvement in terrorism, and correctly identified that he was not actively engaged in violent extremism, at that time. Yet he does not seem to have been treated as someone who was vulnerable to being drawn into violent extremism, and as a result no attempt seems to have been made to intervene with him to try and draw him away from violent extremism. This illustrates the broader need to enhance measures to identify and prevent people being drawn into violent extremism, rather than simply focus on identifying and arresting people who are already involved in extremism.