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Four Questions to Consider on Orlando Massacre

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"The last year has shown that extremist jihad ideology, hateful personal agendas and access to automatic weapons can combine to create a terror threat much closer to home," writes Aaron David Miller.


A comprehensive accounting of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history and the worst terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 will take time. But here are four questions worth posing now.

Why not describe the attacks as extremist jihadi terrorism?

President Barack Obama and other administration officials have refrained from describing the Orlando shooter or any previous terror attacks as the result of extremist or radical Islam. The president’s statement yesterday described the attack as an “act of terror and an act of hate.”

And Hillary Clinton told the Today show this morning, “I’m not going to demonize and demagogue and declare war on an entire religion.

That logic is apparently driven by the desire not to offend Muslims in the region and here at home whose cooperation will be vital to preempt and prevent attacks. But to deny the challenge America confronts, particularly the power of radical jihadi ideology, isn’t wise either. The motivation for these attacks are indeed tied up with Islam and to categorize them as generic terror trivializes the threat we face.

It’s no coincidence that seven out of the top 10 terror groups in the world are Muslim or that the top seven out of 10 countries in which most terrorism occurs are majority Muslim. The world has 1.6 billion Muslims and the vast majority do not adhere to or practice this kind of extremist terror and violence. But that is no reason not to call out the tiny fraction that do. The Europeans and Arab states themselves seem to have no problem in doing so. That doesn’t mean adopting Donald Trump‘s racist generalizations. But it is important to honestly describe and define the threat we are facing.

Is Orlando a hate crime or a terror attack?

Most likely both under U.S. law. Common sense might argue that in the case of ISIS-inspired attacks, the motivations to kill stem from deep hatred of foreigners: Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims, among others. In this case it remains to be determined whether Omar Mateen killed primarily out of some misplaced commitment to ISIS’s extremist ideology. But it is increasingly clear from comments he reportedly made to his father and former wife that he had a deep personal hatred and rage against gays and lesbians. And the Pulse club was no random target. The FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

Is Orlando Paris?

There are similarities between Orlando and the November 2015 shootings in Paris which claimed the lives of 128 people. Both were launched against soft targets and venues (the Bataclan theater and the Pulse Club); and caused mass casualties. But there are more differences. Paris was the work of a coordinated team of operatives trained in Europe but with guidance from ISIS leaders in Syria. Orlando appears to be the work of a single individual who pledged loyalty to ISIS but who seems to have acted on his own without coordination or direction from any foreign terror organization. Moreover the shooter clearly had a specific personal motivation – a hatred of gays and lesbians.

But does it matter?  

Clearly neither al-Qaeda affiliates nor ISIS have yet developed the operational capacity  to carry out  mass attacks in the U.S. But the question right now is whether that’s a distinction without a difference. The worst terror attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 – the Tsarnaev brothers’ bombing of the Boston Marathon; Hassan Nidal’s attack at Fort Hood; and the couple responsible for the San Bernardino killings – were carried out by individuals who were neither directed nor controlled by ISIS or al-Qaeda but inspired by various jihadi groups and narratives.

We don’t yet know how deep gunman Mateen’s ISIS connections went. But ISIS seems to be having success in inspiring American jihadis. Indeed, a key Isis leader Abu Muhammed al-Adnani last month called on ISIS supporters to carry out attacks on Americans during Ramadan, which began this month.Indeed in many respects the inspired lone wolf phenomenon can be harder to detect and just as effective. Why waste effort and detection, particularly when you are being pressed in Syria and Iraq, when you can inspire more spontaneous attacks by American citizens.

Can these homegrown attacks be stopped?

It’s hard to see how to hermetically seal the U.S. against them, particularly in an open society that prides itself on maintaining its freedoms and protecting the individual rights of its citizens, and where access to automatic weapons give extremists, mentally ill and unbalanced individuals the capacity to kill large numbers of people quickly. The FBI interviewed the Orlando shooter twice; but the Bureau neither had enough information or cause to arrest him nor apparently to predict his future behavior. The FBI has over 1,000 open cases linked to ISIS sympathizers; but is overstretched and can’t possibly maintain active coverage of them all. Since 2007, the shooter worked for a large security company with federal contacts that had apparently no indication of his radical sympathies; and he was able to purchase weapons without drawing the attention of law enforcement as recently as last week. 

“I don’t see anything, in reviewing our work, that our agents should have done differently,” FBI Director James Comey said on Monday. “But we’ll look at it in an open and honest way, and be transparent about it.”

America faces a long war against ISIS and a variety of al-Qaeda derivatives. Two oceans and a better integrated American-Muslim community give the U.S. distinct advantages over Europe in that war, but not immunity. Indeed, the last year has shown that extremist jihad ideology, hateful personal agendas and access to automatic weapons can combine to create a terror threat much closer to home.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journals' Think Tank blog.

About the Author

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more