I’ve been thinking about how to characterize the ISIS-related aspects of the horrific massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub that killed fifty innocent people enjoying a night out on the town during the wee hours of June 12, 2016. “ISIS inspired” is one way of describing it. And yet it seems to me that this is a complicated case. It may have been one where the action was not so much inspired by ISIS but branded as ISIS related, both by the killer and by the ISIS press agency.
The term “ISIS inspired” implies an allegiance to the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL). It also implies that the primarily intention of undertaking an act of terrorism is to carry out the broad directive of the movement—in this case attacking unbelievers and enemies of the ISIS cause. An ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, had recently urged followers around the world to make the month of Ramadan in 2016 “a month of calamity everywhere.” Individuals were told that they did not need to check with ISIS headquarters in Raqqa but attack unbelievers in the name of ISIS wherever they were.
The perpetrator of the Orlando attack, Omar Mateen, did exactly this—he declared his allegiance to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by telephone to 911 emergency operators minutes into his rampage. He was said to have been surfing ISIS sites on line in the weeks before the attack. And the ISIS news agency quickly proclaimed him a “fighter for ISIS.”
That sounds like his act was ISIS-inspired. But Mateen also praised the Tsarnaev brothers in their attack on the Boston Marathon, and they were not ISIS fighters, but supporters of Chechen separatism. Mateen in the past had also praised the al Nusra movement in Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon, both of which are in competition with ISIS and have fought against it. So his allegiance seems to be somewhat thin—not so much to a particular organization but to Islamic radicalism in general.
Moreover, there is other evidence that he harbored motives that were more personal, and that he was pursuing a homophobic cause. His ex-wife thought he was violent and mentally unstable, and his father said his motives had nothing to do with religion—he had seen two men kissing in Miami and went into a rage.
The information about the homophobic dimension of Mateen’s motives took an interesting twist several days after the massacre when several people who had frequented the Orlando bar claimed that they had seen Mateen there before, perhaps a dozen times, spending hours alone at the bar, sometimes flying into a drunken outburst. He had made sexual advances towards other men in the club, the witnesses said, though it is not clear whether they were ever accepted. One of his male co-workers in a security firm claimed that he had made advances towards him as well, which were spurned.
So it could be a case of homophobia—or perhaps a self-hatred of the killer’s own homosexual tendencies—that drove him into this act of vicious rage. Or perhaps he was angered over having been turned down in one of his overtures to another man, a case in which the insult of rejection was compounded by the perceived injury of having homosexual tendencies in the first place. A gay bar is not the usual target of Islamic extremists. Though many activists on the Christian right in the United States have attacked gay and Lesbian establishments, the targets of Islamic extremists have been symbols of American economic and military power, or challenges to its security on airplanes and transportation centers. The killer clearly had a vendetta against the gay aspect of this particular venue.
Whether his main inspiration was a jihadi ideology, then, is open to question. What is clear is that he branded his assault as an ISIS attack, and that the ISIS organization also branded it that way. All that we can say with certainty is simply that—that this act was ISIS-branded. It might also have been inspired by the ISIS ideology, though to what degree is uncertain.
If it is, in fact, only an ISIS-branded event, this would not be the only recent case in which a terrorist attack with mixed motives behind it was branded with the name of a jihadi organization and ideology. The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015 is another case in point. At the time of the incident, I had the same problem with terminology in trying to describe the relationship of jihadi ideologies to a situation in which the motives seemed so mixed, both personal and ideological.
In the Charlie Hebdo case, the two brothers who carried out the attacks, Said and Cherif Kouachi, also pledged allegiance to an Islamic extremist movement, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. Leaders of the AQAP took credit for this attack, even though the Kouachi brothers had spoken highly about other groups as well. Moreover, the attack was clearly an effort to appeal to their own community, the Algerian immigrants in France who had felt marginalized and insulted by the stereotypical cartoon displays of the Prophet Mohammad in the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine. It was also an effort for these two young men who had been unsuccessful in life to do something significant in the eyes of others. Like the Orlando attack, there was an ideological component to the incident, but again it seemed to be a matter of branding the attack as an AQAP assault, rather than one that was primarily ideologically inspired by the organization.
It is clear why the Kouachi brothers in the Paris attack, and Omar Mateen in the Orlando massacre, would want to give an ideological spin to their actions. It dignified their other, more personal motives, with something more political and religious. But why would AQAP or ISIS take credit for an attack that their organizations did not directly control or support? In both cases, these are organizations that are under siege and need symbolic displays of their strength and their geographic reach. Even though the connection to them might be something of a stretch, their leaders seemed willing to take credit for these symbolic acts of power.
Some of the recent incidents of terrorism, then, are ones that are only branded with an ideological label, and are not directly tied to an activist group. But others are, and there are varying degrees of connection between what may appear to be lone wolf attacks and the organizations to which they have been linked, even tenuously. Adding the category of “branded” to the list, we can identify at least four degrees of relationship between a terrorist incident and an organization such as ISIS:
Most of the acts of terrorism related to ISIS in Syria and Iraq appear to be carried out directly by the central command of ISIS in Raqqa and the movement’s regional leaders and are part of a continuing struggle to maintain territory and political power in the region. I say “appear to be” since the ISIS organizational structure is quite decentralized, and bombings in Baghdad and Damascus, for instance, could be carried out by individual cells within the movement that are not in close communication with the central leadership. In that case they were supported by ISIS leadership but not commanded or directed by them.
These are cases where the leaders of the movement have approved of the attacks and have been aware in advance that they would be carried out, but were not directly involved in the planning or conduct of the operations. In the case of the multiple attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and the assault on the Brussels airport and subway some months later, these attacks appear to have been independent operations coordinated in some way with ISIS leadership. Key members in the attacks had visited Syria in the months before the events. Again, however, the internal communications of the movement are not publically available, so it is possible that these attacks were independent operations that were not directly supported by ISIS leaders but inspired by them and their ideology.
These are classic “lone wolf” operations that are conducted by individuals or a group in the spirit of the ideology of the organization without the advanced knowledge, direction, or support of the leaders of the movements with which the lone wolves claim affiliation. The ideology of the movement is the primary motivation and the organization associated with the ideology is eager to accept these acts as extensions of their own operations. The San Bernardino attack in California by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik is a case in point. The recently married couple carried out a mass shooting at a county public health agency event, killing 14, on December 2, 2015. Though there is some indication that the husband was a disgruntled employee, it is also clear that the couple had a long history of connection with jihadi ideology online and in visits to Saudi Arabia, and that they maintained a stockpile of weapons. Though their radical interests pre-dated the existence of ISIS and they made no direct pledge of support to it, soon after the attack the ISIS radio station described them as “soldiers of the caliphate,” a phrase that within the movement usually designates those who are a part of the ISIS network. The couple might have been responding to the encouragement of ISIS leaders to attack unbelievers wherever they were, throughout the world, and in that sense were inspired by ISIS.
Branding can be of two types—either organizational or ideological. In the first case organizations that share similar ideologies can claim to be associated with one another even though the connection is tenuous. This was the case of the professed allegiance of Boko Haram with ISIS. In March, 2015, leaders of Boko Haram declared their association with the ISIS organization and days later leaders of ISIS through their news agency accepted this profession of loyalty. Nothing had changed, however, regarding the organizational structure of the two groups. By branding themselves as ISIS, Boko Haram gained the status of being part of an international movement and not just a Nigerian rebel group. At the same time, ISIS leaders were happy to accept what they touted as the international expansion of their movement.
The connection between Libyan Islamic extremists and ISIS is also largely a matter of branding, though there has been some connection between the North African movement and the activists in Syria and Iraq. A previously-existing jihadi movement, Ansar al-Libya, had declared itself loyal to al Qaeda, and in 2014 leaders of the movement decided to switch their affiliation to ISIS, presumably because by that time ISIS was receiving greater international prominence than al Qaeda as the world’s leading jihadi organization. This shift was not accepted by all members of the movement, however, and the pro-al Qaeda members dominated the movement in the city of Derna, while the pro-ISIS members were strongest in the town of Sirte, the former hometown of Muammar Qaddafi. In both cases the connection between the Libyan movements and the international organizations to which they claimed affiliation is largely a matter of branding.
The other kind of branding is ideological—when a group or individual shares some ideological sentiments with an organization but otherwise has little or no connection to it. In the case of the San Bernardino shooting, for instance, if it was clear that the husband who was involved in the attack was a disgruntled employee who was primarily trying to even the score with his co-workers, then associations with jihadi groups and their rhetoric would be a complicating factor. It might be, as in the case of the Orlando and Charlie Hebdo shootings, an incident that was branded with the label of an ISIS or AQAP association, even though it was not directly controlled, supported, or even primarily inspired by one of those organizations.
But even though ideology might not have been the main motive, a terrorist act that is branded with the ideas and organization of a jihadi movement still might have been influenced by them, perhaps in a major way. Branding does not mean that ideology has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks with which they are associated, nor does it mean that the jihadi elements can be ignored. Radical ideologies can play a potent role in the complicated mix of motivations of those conducting terrorist attacks. After all, these acts might not have taken place without the extra incentive of the legitimization given by ideological rhetoric and organizational associations. Government authorities are right to be vigilant about the spread of ideas that can become a part of a lethal cocktail of motivations. But it is also inappropriate to focus solely on religious or political ideologies in cases of branding, where these ideologies are not the sole or primary motivating factor.